SUNDAY WITH A SAINT: ‘The Finding of the Body of Saint Mark’ by Tintoretto (1562)

 It was a cold moonless night. Below the gloomy sky two figures hurried through the town, making their way to the harbour. They dragged along a cart and boarded it onto a ship. As the sea winds beat against the sails, the men strived harder to get the cargo onboard. Finally they succeeded.  The ship set sail to Venice where the still lagoon silently awaited its crest. The Egyptian town of Alexandria knew not what she lost for beneath the layers of pork and cabbage lay the most precious relic – The body of St. Mark the Evangelist!

The Evangelist Mark never met the historical Christ, yet he was one of the most important figures to preach Christ in the 1st century AD. It is rumoured that Mark was baptized by St. Peter. He was appointed Bishop of Aquileia in north east Italy. He often travelled by boat around the islands that surrounded Aquileia which was soon to become Venice. Legend states that on one such journey an angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘Peace to you, Mark my Evangelist. Here will your body rest’ This prophecy was adopted as an anthem for the Venetian state.

On Peter’s advice Mark is said to have travelled to Egypt. He became the first Bishop of Alexandria. However in 68 AD on Easter day he was arrested and dragged through the streets until death. His followers buried him with great respect in the Church in town.

Centuries later, in 828 AD, two Venetian merchants discovered that the Khalif of Alexandria was planning to destroy the Church. They persuaded the priest to let them take the relics of St. Mark to Venice. They replaced his relics with that of St. Claudia, a less eminent Saint. They placed the body of St. Mark in a chest and covered it with a layer of pork and cabbage. The Muslim officials on inspecting cried out ‘Kanzir, Kanzir’ (Oh horror). Thus the merchants succeeded in conveying to Venice the pristine object that changed its character and status.

The episodes on the life of St. Mark were eventually featured in various works of art. Today’s painting in consideration illustrates one such episode. Executed by the Mannerist artist Tintoretto, the painting was commissioned by Tommaso Rangone, the ‘grand guardian’ of the Scuola di San Marco in Venice. Not surprisingly, Rangone features conspicuously in the center at the foreground. Garbed in rich golden brocade, he gestures down to the trophy i.e. the body of St. Mark.

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