The Lion of St. Mark

Leone di San Marco

In these days we are all outraged by the scarring made to the Lion of St. Mark. The Lion is the symbol of Venice. So even if the damage it seems of slight entity and solvable, for us Venetians it has been an attack to our traditions, to our memories as children and an offense to our flag of the Serenissima.

Hence the strong popular outrage: do not touch us the Lion of St. Mark!

The Lion of St. Mark: legend and symbol of Venice… but why the Lion?

The symbol of the Lion of St. Mark comes from an ancient legend, according to which the Evangelist Mark during his journey from Aquileia to Rome, having been surprised by a storm, had found shelter in a small island of the lagoon. Here an Angel appeared and said to him: “Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus, hic requiescat corpus tuum” (Peace to you Mark, my Evangelist, rest your body here). It was a prophecy! Many years later Venice will in fact be the place of rest after his death. Then St. Mark continued his journey and finally he seems to have died in Alexandria, Egypt.

Since ancient times, the Coptic community of Alexandria claimed to keep the relics of the Saint; this had not left indifferent the Doges, in Venice, who aimed to have in the city even one of the four evangelists, would give much power to the city!… and the prophecy of the Angel came true: in 828 A.D. two merchants from Venice stole the Saint’s remains and transported them to Venice.

On board there were: a Greek monk (Staracius) and two Venetian tribunes (Rustico da Torcello and Bono da Malamocco). They managed to pass the customs control hiding the relics under a load of vegetables and pork, which the Muslims refused to control because they were considered impure.

Once in Venice, the relics were hidden in the Basilica, where they were found only in 1094, on 25 June. St. Mark became the symbol and Patron Saint of the city, and the Basilica assumed great value as the guardian of the remains of one of the four Evangelists.
From about 1260 St. Mark begins to be represented in the form of a winged Lion. Why a winged Lion? Here are several versions:

a) The main reason seems to be the fact that the Gospel of Mark narrates the greatest number of prophecies that Christ made about his own resurrection (Mk 8,31; Mk 9,9; Mk 9,31; Mk 10,34; Mk 14,28) and the Lion would represent, by virtue of its strength, precisely the resurrection;

b) The Lion would be the symbol of Mark because his Gospel begins with the voice of St. John the Baptist who, in the desert, rises like a roar, foretelling to men the coming of Christ with “a loud voice in the desert”… like that of a Lion;

c) It is said that the Angel who appeared to St. Mark was in the form of a winged Lion.

Therefore, the reason for the choice of the Lion symbol is not certain. Perhaps a little all the reasons above. The fact is, that the winged Lion took on a political meaning for Venice in addition to the religious one: the Lion symbolizes the strength of the Saint’s word, the wings the spiritual elevation and the halo indicates his holiness. Not only that, it is a symbol that expresses the heraldic meaning of majesty and power, and the book is a symbol of wisdom and peace (in the open book you can read the words of the prophecy of the Angel to St. Mark), the sword instead, symbolizes justice. All characteristics that the Most Serene Republic felt as its own.

The image of the Lion can be represented in different positions among which the best known are the Andante and the Moléca.

Andante, that is when the body of the Lion is seen in full, in profile, and the right front leg rests on the book and the snout forward. The wings, usually parallel, may have the feathers well distinct or compact, the tail, more frequently at rest but also raised. It was thought that the raised tail indicated a military victory, but it is not historically confirmed. In some paintings two legs rest on the ground and two on the sea, indicating the possessions of the Venetian Republic. This representation was used in the banners and statues, where the space for the representation was abundant.

Molèca, that is when the Lion is represented frontally and squatted, almost assuming the shape of a crab. In Venetian, in fact, the word moèca indicates the crab. According to some, not only did the shape remember it, but also the fact that in some representations the lion came out of the water, just like a crab. The circular shape was ideal to be inserted in coats of arms and round reliefs.

Finally, a curiosity: Lions have always fascinated Venetians and, in addition to filling the city with marble symbols (see Legend of Arsenal Lions), also many living Lons were kept in patrician gardens. It seems that around 1300 a Lioness even gave birth at the Doge’s Palace.

San Marco is celebrated on April 25th, the day of his martyrdom in Alexandria of Egypt… and for us Venetians it is the Feast of the Bòcolo.

See also the beautiful video that follows on the winged Lion in St. Mark’s Square by Daniele Zoico – DANTO Production

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