Born in 5 AD, Mark the Evangelist spent much of his life proselytizing God’s Word. Author of the Gospel of Mark, he also founded the Church of Alexandria in Egypt (and, by extension, he founded Christianity in Africa) and became Alexandria’s first bishop. Things didn’t go very smoothly for him; the city’s pagans so resented his attempts to convert them and abandon their traditional gods that, in 68 AD, they wrapped a rope around his neck and dragged him through the streets until he was dead. In the nearly two millennia since his death at age 63, Mark has been portrayed in paintings, mosaics, statues, stained glass, and a host of other media. He’s usually writing or holding his gospel, and he’s often in the company of a winged lion. These are my favorites.
#1 Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle (Washington, D.C.)
Both Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II must have been impressed by the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle when they made their visits. Completed in 1873, the exterior presents an unassuming brick and sandstone façade, with a handsome dome. The interior is glorious, filled with columns, marble, alabaster windows, ceramic Stations of the Cross overlaid with gold leaf that were a gift from Napoleon’s grandnephew, and gorgeous light fixtures. Particularly striking are the four perfectly executed mosaics of countless Italian tesserae decorating the pendentives under the dome. Each one represents one of the Four Evangelists, accompanied by his corresponding tetramorph. For those unfamiliar with their iconic symbols, the evangelists are identified, in Latin, below their image. Sanctvs Marcvs, barefooted, sits on a stone wall. Clad in robes of blue and teal, with a reddish-orange hooded cloak, a youngish Mark with a trim beard strikes a thoughtful pose, with one muscular forearm propped on an elbow on his knee, his hand supporting his chin, and the other resting on his seat back. Behind him, a serene haloed lion rests his paw on a tablet identifying Mark as the second evangelist. The lion’s white wings are wide open, stretching to the very corners of the pendentive, either ready to wrap Mark into its protection or to fly off and spread Mark’s laborious undertaking.
#2 Gallerie dell’Accademia (Venice, Italy)
The Gallerie dell’Accademia, a top museum gallery of pre-19th-century art in Venice, houses the best painting of St. Mark, and it’s an unusual one at that. Part of a series of works on St. Mark by Venetian native son Tintoretto, Stealing of St. Mark’s Body plays upon the story of the evangelist’s post-life life. More than 700 years after Mark died, legend holds that two Venetian merchants, aided by a couple of Greek monks, absquatulated with the relics that were believed to be his body and brought to Venice. Hidden in a barrel covered with a layer of pork to prevent Muslims from inspecting it too closely, the relics didn’t find their way to the designated church, but rather to a doge’s palace. After the doge died, his will specified that a basilica be built to St. Mark, but the relics could not be found until the saint himself extended his arm from a pillar and pointed to their location, but they may not exactly be the complete picture. Copts believe that Mark’s head is in a church in Alexandria, and other relics are in Cairo. Tintoretto’s painting, from 1566, presents it all in a fascinating, yet hardly historically accurate, manner. The work depicts a quartet of men carrying Mark’s naked body through what could misleadingly be the Piazza San Marco, but the presence of a camel puts it in Egypt. And, after more than seven centuries, the body would hardly look that fresh. Still, it’s a gripping representation. An ominous orange sky with scary black clouds adds to the scene’s tension. Tintoretto painted all the background figures in white, unlike those doing the thieving, and all of them have their backs to the unfolding drama, perhaps running inside to escape the brewing storm, perhaps not wishing to witness the crime in progress. Another foreground figure lies on the ground in the lower left corner, tugging at a scarlet mantle. It makes no sense, until you learn that this part of the painting was cropped to fit a new location when it was making its way around the Continent, and the mysterious action would have more completely shown someone trying to stop the robbery. Tintoretto also took great liberties by including himself in the painting; he’s the bearded man beside the camel.
#3 National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.)
Commissioned by Pope Pius V as part of a five-panel work, Giorgio Vasari completed the Saint Mark panel in 1571 to decorate the chapel of the new Pius Tower in the Vatican. After 1750, the chapel was dismantled and the paintings were scattered. Saint Mark bounced around in private collections until the National Gallery of Art acquired it in 2012. Vasari had earned a knighthood from the pope for his work, and it’s easy to see why. In this oil painting, measuring nearly six feet high by more than three feet wide, a burly Mark seems to be bursting out of the scene, filling almost the entire panel. Dressed in flowing red and white clothes, Mark holds a book of the gospel he is creating, juggling an inkwell and quill in one hand and what looks like an early set of spectacles in the other. As he reads his own work, his furrowed brow reveals deep thought, perhaps, or maybe an insecurity: Is what I’ve written good enough? The expression of the small winged lion with a curly mane at his bare feet, however, isn’t so ambiguous: Yes, I know what Mark is doing, and don’t even think of distracting him.
#4 Vatican Museums (Vatican City)
A senescent St. Mark struggles with his task in the spectacular Vatican Museums. Painted high up on a wall in a medallion, a bald and white-bearded Mark looks rather worried as he scribbles away. The half-naked figure appears as if he has pushed aside his red robe in an attempt to free himself of constrictions. A crucifix reminds him of his mission, but a skull may be signaling that time is almost up for the aged evangelist. A smattering of bound books, clearly an asynchronous element of the painting, may serve as references. Mark is toiling away in a cave, and the lion next to him may very well be protecting the entrance, preventing anyone from coming in and disturbing him.
#5 St. Paul’s Cathedral (Mdina, Malta)
An even more stressed-out Mark shows up in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Rebuilt after a massive earthquake in nearby Sicily and completed in 1702, the cathedral dominates both the square in which it is located and the entire Mdina skyline with its belfries and dome. Like the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., this cathedral features the Four Evangelists in the dome’s pendentives. A weary, older Mark sitting on a dark-gray cloud is so overworked by his task that he takes a white cloth to wipe the sweat from his brow. His hand, holding a quill, rests on the head of the winged lion, but he’s clearly distracted, exhausted, reaching the end of his rope. In his dysphoria, he has no parchment, no book in which to write. An angel holding a banner in Latin refers to text from three gospels, including Mark’s, that describes Jesus’s final moment of His life, on the crucifix: Voce magna expiravit. It might just as well sum up the anxious Mark’s precarious moment: It translates as, “In a loud voice, he gave up the ghost.”
- Dome pendentive painting, Basilica of St. Peter (Vatican City)
- Mosaic, Basilica of St. Mark (Venice, Italy)
- Pulpit carving, Church of the Holy Spirit (Tallinn, Estonia)
- Stained-glass window, St. Augustine Catholic Church (Montpelier, Vermont)
- Dome pendentive painting, Sacred Heart Church (Tampa, Florida)
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