Thursday, April 25, 2024

The Life of St Mark the Evangelist in Art

St Mark, whose feast is kept today, is the only evangelist who records that when the soldiers came to arrest Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, “a certain young man followed him, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and they laid hold on him. But he, casting off the linen cloth, fled from them naked.” (14, 51-52) In keeping with the common ancient practice of authorial anonymity, it has often been supposed that this young man was Mark himself, which would make this his first appearance in sacred history; such a figure often appears in pictures of this scene.

The Arrest of Christ in the Garden, ca 1597, by Giuseppe Cesari (1568-1640), usually known as “Cavaliere d’Arpino – the knight from Arpino”, the birthplace of his father. (He himself was born in Rome.) This is actually a studio copy, now in a museum in Kassel, Germany; the original hangs in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, in the same room as six works by the Cavaliere’s quondam employee, Caravaggio. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
A very ancient tradition, recorded by St Jerome (de Script. Eccl. 8) among others, says that Mark was St Peter’s interpreter, and came with him to Rome. Peter himself mentions this in his first epistle (5, 13): “The church that is in Babylon (i.e. Rome), elected together with you, saluteth you, and so doth my son Mark.” After composing his Gospel, Mark went to Alexandria, where he established the Church, and died in the eighth year of the reign of Nero, 62 AD, being succeeded by a man named Anianus, who is noted in the martyrology on the same day as he.

St Mark Preaching in Alexandria, ca. 1505, by the Venetian painters and brothers Gentile and Giovanni Bellini. The building in the background is an architectural fantasy based on St Mark’s basilica in Venice; the obelisks and minarets, and the clothing of the figures in the foreground, are likely based on descriptions by Venetian merchants who had traveled in the Middle East. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
In the 9th century, merchants from Venice (a city which specialized in pious thievery) stole the body of St Mark from a church in Alexandria, concealing it in their ship amid a load of pork products so that the Muslim custom inspectors would not discover it. This led to the creation of an expanded edition of the evangelist’s legend, by which St Peter first sent him to Aquileia, a town at the head of the Adriatic, where he established a patriarchate which would later be transferred to nearby Grado, and later still to Venice itself. The story has it that on setting foot on the shore of the Venetian lagoon, an angel spoke to him, saying, “Peace to thee, Mark, my evangelist; here thy body shall rest.” Mark then returned to Rome, bringing with him one of his converts, a man named Hermagoras, whom Peter ordained as his replacement so that Mark himself could go off to Egypt.
The Golden Legend of Bl Jacopo da Voragine tells the story that on entering Alexandria, Mark’s sandal broke, so he gave it to a cobbler to fix. The man badly wounded himself with his awl, and swore, “one God!”, at which Mark healed him, converted him, and later ordained him a bishop. This is the very Anianus mentioned above, who built the first church in Alexandria, and then preached the Gospel throughout the Libyan Pentapolis (the region to the west of Egypt, also known as Cyrenaica).
The Healing of Anianus, by Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano (1459-1517). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
Mark in the meantime was seized by the pagan priests while celebrating Mass during Eastertide, and dragged off to prison by a rope around his neck. In prison, he was visited first by an angel, then by the Lord himself, who repeated to him the words he had heard at the future site of Venice, “Peace to thee, Mark, my evangelist; fear not, for I am with thee, to deliver thee.” Just as Christ was left in prison overnight, and His passion resumed in the morning, so also Mark was dragged “in the morning” out of the prison, again by a rope around his neck, and died along the way, saying, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” The pagans would have destroyed his body, but were driven away by a powerful storm of thunder, lightning and hail; it was then rescued by the Christians, and taken to the church built by Anianus, his successor.
The Martyrdom of St Mark, 1515, by Giovanni Bellini. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 
Prior to the despoliation of Venice by Napoleon, the city had seven “Scuole Grandi – Great Schools”, confraternities which sponsored a wide variety of religious, charitable, social and cultural activities. In 1548, the oldest of these, named for Saint Mark, commissioned the painter Jacopo Robusti (1518-94), usually known by the nickname Tintoretto, to do a painting of one of the well-known posthumous miracles of their and their city’s patron, also narrated in the Golden Legend. A slave who had gone to visit Mark’s relics against his master’s orders was to be punished by having his eyes put out, but every instrument by which his master sought to injure him broke, until the master himself was converted, and became a devotee of the evangelist, frequently going to visit the relics himself.

Fourteen years later, three other paintings were commissioned from Tintoretto, which were completed by 1566. One of these represents yet another miracle from the Golden Legend. A Saracen pirate ship attacked a Venetian merchant vessel, but was wrecked by the sea, and all the pirates drowned save one, who called upon the evangelist to save him, promising to be baptized and make a pilgrimage to his tomb in Venice.
Another represents the first Christians of Alexandria recovering the Saint’s body right after his death, as explained above.
The fourth painting is often referred to as “the Finding of the Body of St Mark”, based an error of the Italian art historian Carlo Ridolfi (1594-1658). It actually represents St Mark, the standing figure at the left, performing various miracles in the first church of Alexandria.

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