We know now that more than one knight who went to the Holy Lands ostensibly to "rout out the infidel" actually had a more pragmatic agenda: they brought home loot, everything they could physically handle plus anything more they could load on pack animals and/or enlist the aid of a squire or a fellow traveler to help them haul away.
In that context, therefore, it's neither very surprising nor out of the realm of possibility that one particular group of mercenaries saw a chance for a real gold mine to come their way-if not the Holy Grail, then a pretty good second choice!
Thus it was in 829, the story goes, that two merchants smuggled the body of St. Mark from its original burial place in Alexandria, Egypt, to Venice, upon which point the Doge promptly declared the church as the apostle's official burial place and appropriated him as the new patron saint. This in and of itself wasn't a problem; a town could, after all, have more than one patron saint-and no doubt, they reasoned, where better would God want to bestow such an honor than Italy?
However, declaring a saint's "official" burial place to be in one spot, when a substantial number of Egyptian citizens could staunchly disagree and even prove otherwise . . . now, there was a sticky political issue. The people of Venice were, after all, a godly sort who couldn't live a lie for too long . . . and fortunately, they didn't have to.
Where the tale sprung up, history doesn't tell us exactly. But spring up it did, a story entirely plausible to the pious people of the time, and one that honored Venice even more in the bargain. Seems in the fourth century-or so the holy men said-Mark was in fact in northern Italy, visiting the Venetian Lagoon, when he met an angel. The angel greeted him, "Peace to you, Mark, my Evangelist." Since Mark's honored position as an evangelist was thereby approved and officially recognized by God himself, it stood to reason that Venice had been preordained as well as his final resting place, designated so by the angel. Would anyone argue with God at that point? Not likely, especially since the Doge so clearly believed God would have it no other way. And so, Mark became the second official patron saint of Venice.
As for what happened to Theodore-no, the Venetians didn't offer him to Alexandria in a sort of godly "exchange program." What they did was erect two statues, one for Mark and one for Theodore, in the area adjacent to the church. This brought about a unique character to the whole piazza, having on one hand the Doge's residence, on the other the house of God, and in the middle . . . a house of justice. Indeed, prisons were located in the nether regions below the Doge's house, and the Bridge of Sighs was later so named because prisoners believed as they crossed that bridge to the dungeons, they might well never see the beauty of the lagoon and its islands again. But long before that, once Venice had its two patrons on hand to oversee citizens' conduct, the piazza soon became a center of not only man's justice but God's. Convicted criminals were executed between these two saints' images, and soon parents even began to use the words "your fate will be between the saints" to discipline unruly children (www.ertrav.com/pathways/html/sanmarco.asp)!
But did the Venetians themselves, even while bestowing all this honor on both their patrons, feel a lingering guilt? Is this what prompted the "spare no expense" approach to building this house of worship? They may have, if one takes the approach that taking St. Mark's body from Alexandria was little more than another example of "sacred plunder" about which (no matter what the Doge says) one feels a little uneasy.
However, Mark's body may not have been plunder at all; it may, indeed, have been a legitimate relic, and one taken with the most altruistic of intentions.
When the evangelist first died, early Christians had to fight against the Alexandrian custom of cremation to prevent his remains from going up in smoke. No sooner had that battle been won but Muslims took control of the area, and many Crusaders honestly believed those same Muslims were about to desecrate holy ground-so they wanted to get Mark out of there to avoid the unthinkable (http://www.photo.net/italy/venice-san-marco). In order to do so, history recounts, they hid the remains between slices of pork; since pork was not only considered unclean by Jews but forbidden to Muslims, the inspectors wouldn't go near it, and the smuggling mission-holy or otherwise-was a success.
Even after all that travail to secure the evangelist's remains, however, they were still believed lost in the fire of 976 . . . until they "miraculously reappeared" when the new church was consecrated in 1094. Miracle, or political manipulation? Many citizens would never know, and more than likely we won't, either.
In light of the treasure we still have on hand to behold-one that has withstood more than its share of trouble to stand today-perhaps it's not important to know which story is authentic. Perhaps motivations and secret sins are less important than the labor of love that is St. Mark's and all it stands for. Perhaps all that really matters is what we can see before us, a treasure that has lasted hundreds of years-one that uplifts the spirit as well as the senses. Perhaps that, in and of itself, is sufficient proof that indeed "the winged lion" still watches over Venice with a special fondness.
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