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

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.

The donor

The scene is chilling and dark. It is set in a creepy cemetery lit by meandering candle lights. The receding architectural perspective rushes us into the space. At the far end of the tiled graveyard one observes an upturned grave. The Venetian merchants along with their accomplice are seen raiding the tombs. Bathed in ethereal light, they seem oblivious to the call of the characters in the foreground. 

As we move forward observe the body being lowered from the sarcophagi along the right wall. Its limpid muscularity and robustness brings the breathless corpse to life. The technique employed to lower the body with the help of loin cloth is reminiscent of Christ and His descent from the cross.

While the Venetians hastily look around for the body of their beloved saint, Behold among them appears St. Mark himself! He is surrounded by an aura of nobility. Larger than the other figures, his demeanour is dominantly divine. In his right hand he clutches the book of the Gospel while his left hand is raised. He imperiously beseeches the merchants to stop looking out for his body for the body has been miraculously found. It lies at his feet strewn on an oriental rug, clothed in an ‘other-worldly’ light. The image perfectly echoes the spectacular sloppiness of Andrea Mantegna’s ‘Dead Christ.’

The miraculous tone of the episode continues at the right. The power of God that flows through the lifted hands of the Saint cleanses at once the man possessed by a demon. With a loud cry and a plethora of fumes, the black demon grabs hold in refuge the body of the young Venetian woman. Does the demon succeed in subjecting the woman? The answer is most interestingly ‘No’. Notice that while the man and the woman on the right firmly gaze at the Evangelist, the Evangelist seems indifferent to their situation. But observe now the play of hands. Within the framework of our mental vision the lifted hands have already met in prayer and redemption.

The play of hands

The beauty of the painting also lies in the contrast between the two bodies. Observe the body of St. Mark. It radiates freedom and bliss. Now observe the demon clutched between two bodies, overcast by dark shadows and detention. The painting undoubtedly implies the active protection of the Saint experienced in the lives of the Venetians to this very date. The action packed painting also recalls St. Mark’s action packed Gospel that emphasizes time and again on Christ authority, His power to forgive sins, His ability to conquer darkness and His promise of new life !

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557


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