Tag Archives: St Mark

Holy Relics and the House of the Virgin Mary

I’m always fascinated by the relics revered in churches around the world and one of the biggest collections can be found in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice.

relics-romeAccording to my guidebooks, the basilica treasury holds the skull of John the Baptist, a leg of St George, the milk of the Virgin Mary, a thorn from Christ’s crown, some of his blood and three rocks which were used to stone St Stephen to death. In the small room that houses these relics, I’m unable to identify any of them as none are labelled. I think I can see a vial of blood and perhaps a femur but I can’t see anything that resembles a skull and you wouldn’t think that would be too hard to spot. Perhaps it’s not all that surprising as several other churches around the world lay claim to having John the Baptist’s skull, or at least a part of it. Rome, Damascus, Amiens, Mount Athos, Munich, and an island monastery in Bulgaria all supposedly have a piece of his cranium.

st-margaret-of-cortonaCatholic churches everywhere like to boast a holy relic or two as a means to draw in the pilgrims. Some even display a whole saintly body, like St Catherine in Siena and St Margherita in Cortona. Personally I find it a bit creepy and very unsaintly to display someone’s bones. It’s slightly better if they are concealed beneath a silver mask and some bejewelled clothes. Some of the reliquaries for displaying or containing pieces of bone can be quite beautiful but how many of these relics are actually the real deal.

st-maeks-bosy-stolen-mosaicFor example, the body of St Mark was stolen from a monastery in Alexandria by two Venetian merchants in 828 AD. Some historians and fiction writers will have you believe that they mistakenly stole the body of Alexander the Great. Either way, following a fire in 976 the bones were mislaid (probably destroyed) until an arm suddenly broke out from a column in 1094 and the body was miraculously rediscovered. It’s now sealed beneath the main altar of the basilica and out of bounds to scientists who may disprove its heritage.


dscf2877400 kms south of Venice, in the town of Loreto, it truly is a miracle that anyone really believes that the house of the Virgin Mary was transported from Nazareth to Loreto on the wings of angels. Even if it is the actual former home of the mother of Christ, it’s far more likely that it was stolen by crusaders and transported across the Mediterranean on a boat. Despite the logic, millions of pilgrims flock to the fortified sanctuary to see the house and the black Madonna within who has become the patron saint of aviators. Apparently, Charles Lindberg carried an image of her when he made his famous trans-Atlantic flight in 1927 and the crew of Apollo 9 took her image into space.











No photos are allowed within the chapel created from the Virgin’s house, but not far away I discover the small chapel of Santa Anna in Recanati which has its own replica, complete with a few pilfered bricks from the original and an identical black Madonna.









Belief in the power of these holy relics and miraculous events requires faith, perhaps even blind faith.



The Lions of Venice

Whilst wandering around Venice I found myself becoming obsessed with lions. The winged lion is a symbol of Mark the Evangelist, the patron Saint of the city. His remains were bought here from Alexandria in 828 and supposedly lie in the Basilica which was completed in 1094 to house them. Without doubt, the lion is a symbol of power and the Venetian Republic was very powerful for a very long time.


The winged lion is often seen with an open book with the words “Pax tibi, Marce, Evangelista meus” inscribed. This is translated as “Peace be upon you, O Mark, my evangelist”. The open book symbolizes the state’s sovereignty whereas a closed book suggests a delegated sovereignty.


The lions also serve a practical purpose, adorning many doors of Venice as knockers or bells.


Some are ridden and some are hidden.


Some are looking a little sad.


Some are terrifyingly real.


They even appear in some of the paintings housed in the Doge’s Palace and other Museums.


Top tip: If you have kids in tow, you can always suggest a game of “spot the lion” and I’m quite sure it will keep them amused for hours.