In Venetian art, Venetian history

Holy relics and disbelief

Holy relics create curiosity and even when disbelief prevails, wouldn’t you still feel like checking as St. Thomas did? At the Accademia Galleries in Venice you can admire a wonderful altar piece by Cima da Conegliano, representing the Incredulity of St. Thomas. It belonged to the Guild of Masons at San Samuele. The realism of the scene surely emphasizes the professional ability of the patrons —observe the construction details! At the same time, this authenticity also helps us pin down the terms of the question: can we really “touch” saints? Is there a physical link with the sacred? Just look at the assertive way Jesus with his hand holds St. Thomas’ wrist.

Giambattista Cima da Conegliano, Incredulity of St Thomas and St Magno, bishop of Oderzo, 1503-1505 ca., Accademia Galleries, Venice

Detail of Giambattista Cima da Conegliano, Incredulity of St Thomas and St Magno, bishop of Oderzo, 1503-1505 ca., Accademia Galleries, Venice

A tangible relationship with the sacred is linked to the desire to remember great personalities. Holy relics became very important “objects”. Actually, veneration went beyond saints’ bodies and moved to whatever came into contact with them. You certainly remember the piece of the cross where Jesus was crucified at the Scuola Grande San Giovanni Evangelista and the wonderful cycle of paintings by Gentile Bellini and partners you can admire at the Accademia Galleries in Venice.

Cross reliquary, 1371, Scuola Grande San Giovanni Evangelista, Venice

Holy relics in Venice: the translation of bones of saints

Holy relics meant much. And Venice, where there were merchants and shipbuilders, but no saints, was one of the most active cities “translating” holy relics from their original site. 

The best-known example is the body of the Evangelist St. Mark, of course. Originally buried in Alexandria after Mark founded the Coptic Christian Church and was martyred, St. Mark’s body was brought to Venice in the year 828 by two Venetian merchants, named Buono and Rustico.

The “translation” of holy relics, however, is a kind of appropriation that needs justification. You cannot simply relocate holy relics, bringing them to another city and say nothing. Especially when you basically “stole” holy relics!

Legends and justification

According to the official legend, St. Mark had been told by an angel he would rest in Venice. Not just, by tradition, infidels in Alexandria threatened to destroy the church where he was buried. Those Venetian merchants, therefore, “saved” St. Mark’s body and, as stories spin, they outsmarted Muslim customs officers hiding the holy relics in pork.

Buono and Rustico hiding St Mark’s holy relics under pork, Mosaics, St Mark’s Basilica Façade, 17th century, Venice

Veneration of saints’ bones

Holy relics also need veneration. Which implies they need to be remembered, hidden in a crypt and, on major events, exhibited in grand ceremonies. Or lost and then found again. 

Again, the best-known story is the one regarding the body of St. Mark. When St. Mark’s church thanks to the bequest of Doge Domenico Contarini was rebuilt and finally consecrated in 1094, the body of Mark could no longer be found. But a miraculous event took place: a pillar/column cracked and there appeared St. Mark’s body. You can call it miracle, I would say it is also need for legitimization.

Paolo Veneziano, Inventio – St Mark’s holy relics re-appearing, 1345, St Mark’s Basilica Museum, Venice

The story certainly impressed Anselm Kiefer and it features in his latest work you can admire at the Doge’s palace in the Hall of the Scrutiny (till Jan. 6th, 2023). Check this out:

Anselm Kiefer, Questi scritti, quando verranno bruciati, daranno finalmente un po’ di luce – site specific installation – detail of the empty coffin of St Mark, Scrutiny Hall in the Doge’s palace, Venice, 2022

See the words “San Marco”? Detail from Anselm Kiefer, Questi scritti, quando verranno bruciati, daranno finalmente un po’ di luce – site specific installation – detail of the empty coffin of St Mark, Scrutiny Hall in the Doge’s palace, Venice, 2022

More details from Anselm Kiefer, Questi scritti, quando verranno bruciati, daranno finalmente un po’ di luce – site specific installation – detail of the empty coffin of St Mark, Scrutiny Hall in the Doge’s palace, Venice, 2022

I mean, it is not easy to hold holy relics. It implies a lot of work to make sure holy relics are not just objects. Mausoleums, ceremonies, propaganda, miracles… risking in the end protestants accuse you of a commercial use of faith.

Holy relics in Venice: why?

But it was definitely worth it. First of all, they were believed to bring holy protection to the city where they were kept. Then, holy relics in Venice were touristic attractions for religious pilgrims —and the business this implies. And last, but not least, they brought the city where they were treasured political relevance: the higher the relevance of the holy relics, the higher the political weight of the city holding them. 

In fact, the Doge of Venice made sure St. Mark’s church keeping the body of the Evangelist St. Mark would be his private chapel, “free from the bishop”, aka State church of the Doge’s Palace. The papacy and its representatives in Venice were instead physically marginalized on the island of San Pietro di Castello. 

St Peter’s and St Mark’s chairs

Regarding the rivalry between the papacy and the doges, I love the story of St. Peter’s and St. Mark’s chairs. 

By tradition, St. Peter had used a seat when preaching in Antakya. This seat was donated to Venice by the Byzantine Emperor Michael III Palaiologos (842-867) and kept in the church of the Bishop of Castello. 

St Peter’s chair in the church of San Pietro di Castello, Venice

In 1451 Pope Nicholas V decreed the extinction of the Patriarchate of Grado and decided the bishop’s church of St. Peter would become the seat of the newly created Patriarchate of Venice. The doge then feared the authority of St. Mark’s church would be diminished. He immediately arranged the transfer of the beautiful alabaster seat of St. Mark, till then kept in St. Euphemia’s church in Grado, to St. Mark’s church. 

Evangelist St Mark’s Chair, Grado

Even if technically we cannot talk about holy relics, this story well portrays the strategy of power linked to “religious” objects. Not to mention the seat of St. Peter is a beautiful combination of different materials, including a funeral stele featuring islamic inscriptions… but that’s a detail.

Antonio Canova’s cenotaph at the Frari church

Is this it? Well, you will admire wonderful works of art containing holy relics in Venice. The most celebrated reliquary in the Santa Maria Gloriosa church, called the Frari, designed also with the help of Andrea Brustolon is one of my favorite. The expertise of jewelers and goldsmith shown is as fascinating as the holy relics it protects.

Andrea Brustolon and others, Reliquary, shrine in the Pesaro Chapel in the Frari church, Venice

Details of Andrea Brustolon’s Reliquary, shrine in the Pesaro Chapel in the Frari church, Venice

In such a city therefore, it does not surprise us to learn that an artist himself was considered like a saint, whose “holy” relics would deserve a cenotaph. I am talking about the artist Antonio Canova. 

The sculptor’s hand was severed and placed in formaldehyde, while his heart was buried in the cenotaph at the Frari church. 

Antonio Canova’s Cenotaph at the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari Church in Venice, 1822

Sculpture holding the canopy vase at Antonio Canova’s Cenotaph at the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari Church in Venice, 1822

Roberto Longhi, who clearly did not like Canova, was pretty blunt:

“Canova fu un artista nato morto, il cui cuore è ai Frari, la cui mano è all’Accademia, e il resto non so dove”

which turns into “Canova, was an artist born dead, whose heart is at the Frari, whose hand is at the Fine Arts School, and the rest, I don’t know”. 

Well, we do know about Possagno where Canova’s tomb is —where a gorgeous museum dedicated to Canova can be enjoyed of, together with his home and his temple—, but the power of holy relics is exactly that of turning the intangible and the bodiless very real.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy
www.seevenice.it

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