Miraculous Mosaics

The Mosaics of San Marco in Venice Vol. I, The Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries Vol. II, The Thirteenth Century plates (plates in two volumes)

by Otto Demus, with contributions from Rudolf M. Kloos and Kurt Weitzmann
University of Chicago Press, 852 (text in two volumes), 160 color plates, 731 black and white pp., $350.00

San Marco in Venice, the palatine chapel of the doge and the state church of the Serenissima, has always been admired as one of the great exotic buildings in the history of European architecture. At the same moment when elsewhere in Europe—at Cluny, along the pilgrimage roads to Santiago, in Norman England, or in the Empire—the first monumental Roman-esque buildings began to rise, Venice built the most ambitious Byzantine church ever erected in the Latin West. There was an only too evident ideological reason for this choice: the Venetians wished the shrine of Saint Mark, their state saint and venerated Apostle, to be a copy of the Church of the Holy Apostles, which had been constructed five centuries earlier by Justinian in the capital of the Eastern empire. The relics of Saint Mark are said to have reached Venice in 829. The present church with its cross plan and its five domes dates from the late eleventh century.

Until the end of the republic in 1797 San Marco was the spiritual and political sanctuary of the Venetian state. It was the center of the domineering ecclesiastical festivities of the Serenissima, the place where the doge was officially presented to the people of Venice after his election and invested with the “Vexillum Sancti Marci.” So it is no wonder that San Marco has not only been enlarged, enriched, and decorated but also restored again and again. Large parts of the booty, the sacred trophies, that reached Venice after the capture of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1240 were stored in and around the shrine of the state saint. (The famous horses of San Marco are certainly the most stupendous of these spoils.)

The exterior of San Marco has always baffled visitors to Venice by the lavishness and the splendor of its accumulated decorations. The interior shows one of the largest and most intriguing series of mosaics from the Middle Ages that have been conserved either in the East or in the West. These mosaics are displayed in the apses and on the five domes, on the walls and the pillars; they continue in the atrium and they originally covered even the upper parts of the façade. Destruction, renovations, and restorations have obliterated, changed, and distorted large parts of the original decoration. Even so, there remain more than six hundred square meters of mosaics from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries that are more or less well preserved. It is understandable that no exhaustive study of this over-powering mass of material—and the problems it presents—was ever undertaken. To fill this gap was the truly gigantic task which Otto Demus set for himself with the present monumental publication, and which he has bravely achieved.

Demus has been interested in the mosaics of San Marco ever since he presented his doctoral dissertation at the University of Vienna in 1927. He wrote on the mosaics in the Byzantine churches of Greece as early as 1931 and he published a long study of the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.