Winged Lion of Venice


The winged lion, seen everywhere in Venice, represents St. Mark, one of the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). The Biblical Book of Revelation identifies four “living creatures,” all winged, who pull the throne-chariot of God.  (Matthew is traditionally depicted as a winged man, or angel.  Luke is depicted as a winged ox,  and John as an eagle).

St. Mark did not have much to say about becoming the patron saint of Venice.  Little did he know that his winged lion image would eventually be the symbol of the Venice Film Festival, coveted by movie stars from all over the world.  Hollywood awards the Oscar, but Venice awards the Golden Lion.

Golden Lion, photo by Saliko, GNU Free Documentation License

Golden Lion, photo by Saliko, GNU Free Documentation License

How did this happen?  In the year 828, according to tradition, two enterprising Venetian merchants stole Mark’s remains from his burial place in Alexandria, packed them in a basket,  and smuggled them all the way to Venice by boat.  They were placed in the new basilica, which was named San Marco. Over the years, the basilica grew into one of the most spectacular and unusual churches in the world. Perhaps to justify the theft, a story developed that during his lifetime,  Mark had visited the area and had a vision telling him that Venice would be his final resting place.

In the year 828, Venice already had a patron saint: Theodore.  But poor Theodore was relegated to the background once Mark arrived.  After all, St. Mark was one of the four evangelists–a much more powerful patron than an obscure Greek or Turkish soldier-martyr.  (Actually, there were two St. Theodores, and no one was quite sure which of the two was the patron of Venice). Anyway, Mark was an “Italian” saint, having written his Gospel in Rome.  Mark was closely associated with St. Peter, founder of the Church of Rome.  Venetian leaders at the time wanted to separate themselves from Byzantium.  They saw a glorious future for their city in a closer association with Rome.

Photo by PeterJ.StB.Green, GNU Free Documentation License

Photo by PeterJ.StB.Green, GNU Free Documentation License

So the elegant and powerful figure of a winged lion, representing St. Mark, appears in countless forms all over Venice:  in mosaics, paintings, architectural ornaments, flags, and atop a column in the Piazzetta San Marco.  SInce this column was built around 1268, the winged lion has watched over countless events in the turbulent history of Venice.

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