The history of S. Mark’s is this. The first patron saint of Venice was S. Theodore, who stands in stone with his crocodile in the Piazzetta, and to whose history we shall come later. In 828, however, it occurred to the astute Doge Giustiniano Partecipazio that both ecclesiastically and commercially Venice would be greatly benefited if a really first-class holy body could be preserved in her midst. Now S. Mark had died in A.D. 57, after grievous imprisonment, during which Christ appeared to him, speaking those words which are incised in the very heart of Venice, “Pax tibi, Marce, evangelista meus”—“Peace be to thee, Mark my evangelist”; and he was buried in Alexandria, the place of his martyrdom, by his fellow-Christians. Why should not the sacred remains be stolen from the Egyptian city and brought to Venice? Why not? The Doge therefore arranged with two adventurers, Rustico of Torcello and Buono of Malamocco, to make the attempt; and they were successful. When the body was exhumed such sweetness proceeded from it that all Alexandria marvelled, but did not trace the cause.
The saint seems to have approved of the sacrilege. At any rate, when his remains were safely on board the Venetian ship, and a man in another ship scoffed at the idea that they were authentic, the Venetian ship instantly and mysteriously made for the one containing this sceptic, stove its side in, and continued to ram it until he took back his doubts. And later, when, undismayed by this event, one of the sailors on S. Mark’s own ship also denied that the body was genuine, he was possessed of a devil until he too changed his mind.
The mosaics on the cathedral facade all bear upon the life of S. Mark. That over the second door on the left, with a figure in red, oddly like Anatole France, looking down upon the bed, represents S. Mark’s death. In the Royal Palace are pictures by Tintoretto of the finding of the body of S. Mark by the Venetians, and the transportation of it from Alexandria, under a terrific thunderstorm in which the merchants and their camel are alone undismayed.
Arrived in Venice the remains were enclosed in a marble pillar for greater safety, but only two or three persons knew which pillar, and, these dying, the secret perished. In their dismay all the people grieved, but suddenly the stones opened and revealed the corpse. Thereafter many miracles were performed by it; Venice was visited by pilgrims from all parts of the world; its reputation as a centre of religion grew; and the Doge’s foresight and address were justified.
Before, however, S. Mark and his lion could become the protectors of the Republic, S. Theodore had to be deposed. S. Theodore’s church, which stood originally on a part of the Piazza (an inscription in the pavement marks the site) now covered by the Campanile and one or two of the flagstaffs, is supposed to have been built in the sixth century. That it was destroyed by fire in the tenth, we know, and it is known too that certain remains of it were incorporated in the present structure of S. Mark’s, which dates from the eleventh century, having been preceded by earlier ones.