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Saint Mark's Basilica, Venice

Saint Mark's Basilica, Venice, begun 1063 and Anastasis (The Harrowing of Hell) mosaic, c. 1180-1200, Middle Byzantine. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Steven Zucker and Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

(Cheerful Piano Music) Male Voiceover: We're in the basilica of Saint Mark in Venice, and it's called Saint Mark because it holds the body, the relic, of Saint Mark. Female voiceover: A couple of Venetian Merchants stole the body of Saint Mark from Alexandria in 829, and when his body was brought back, this was obviously an incredibly important relic. and the construction on the church began soon after that. Male voiceover: Now think about this. Saint Mark was one of the evangelists, one of the authors of the New Testament. It doesn't get more important than this, and the idea of bringing his body back from Alexandria was especially important because Egypt was then controlled not by the Byzantine Empire, that is, not by the Christian world, but it was in Islamic hands. Female voiceover: There is even a legend that Saint Mark had a vision that his final resting place should be in Venice. Male voiceover: Of course, these are the kinds of legends that grow up to justify these sorts of historical events. Female voiceover: That's how it seems to us, certainly in the 21st century. The church is Byzantine in style, in every way we think about Byzantine architecture. Male voiceover: And the church that we're in currently was begun in 1063. It replaced two earlier and smaller shrines This does refer to the Byzantine in very direct ways. The Venetians wanted their art, their architecture, to recall not only the Byzantine, the eastern traditions, but specifically the traditions of Constantinople. and so this church was based on The Church of the Holy Apostles, in Constantinople, a church that no longer exists. Female voiceover: And like The Church of the Holy Apostles, Saint Mark's is essentially a Greek cross, a cross with equal arms with domes over each arm, and another dome over the crossing. Male voiceover: And those domes recall a very direct link to the kind of architecture we find in Constantinople, that is a dome that has windows at it's base. A kind of necklace of light that makes the dome seem to levitate upward, and not to be supported. Female voiceover: That's the idea of the whole interior, the sense of being in a golden jewel box, the walls are covered with golden mosaics, so you have this sense of what you know to be solid wall dissolving into glittering light. Male voiceover: 40,000 square feet of the surface of this church is covered with mosaic. Female voiceover: The mosaics date from different time periods. But let's take a look at an early mosaic of a subject called The Harrowing of Hell, also known as The Anastasis. This is Christ, who has gone into Hell. He's battered down the doors, he's going in to save virtuous souls who are there because the lived before the possibility of salvation, that is, before his sacrifice on the cross. Male voiceover: In this case, you actually see Christ grabbing the wrist of Adam, Eve is just behind him. He's going to save Adam and Eve from Limbo, that is, from not being able to enter Heaven. Female voiceover: And you'll notice he's grabbing Adam not by the hand, but by the wrist. This idea that human beings can't save themselves, but needed Christ's sacrifice, they need Christ. Male voiceover: It's not a partnerhship, in other words. It is Christ leading them out. And behind them, perhaps other worthy souls. Perhaps Old Testament prophets. But I think my favorite part is what Christ is standing on. Female voiceover: Well, he's standing on Satan, whose hands are bound in chains and who's represented in a much darker color. Male voiceover: and around him is the debris of Christ's entrance into Hell. You can see the chains strewn about, you can see keys, you can see the doors of Hell that Christ had knocked down and now forms a cross. Female voiceover: And all of this, of course, in this typical Byzantine style, with a gold background, with forms of drapery created by lines that are more stylized than the way drapery falls on a human body. Male voiceover: Well, look at Christ for a moment. If you follow his right arm, the arm that holds Adam's wrist, look just over the elbow, and you see a bit of drapery that is just flying up, and it not only seems to have a life of its own, it also seems to suggest that christ has just arrived. Look at the length of those bodies, Look at their attenuation, This is not the proportion of ancient Greece, this is not the renaissance. This is that moment in the mid Byzantine style where we see that symbolic representation of the human form, not a precise rendering that is based on observation-- Female voiceover: Or look at Adam kneeling with his right knee coming to a point and then his left calf (Male laughs) and foot extending out behind him. This is not naturalism, this is the symbolic Byzantine language that we know so well. (Cheerful piano music)