Everyone visiting Venice is amazed at the abundance of Orthodox shrines assembled in this city over the centuries. In terms of the number of holy relics, revered by the Orthodox Church, Venice is second only to Rome, and then by a small margin. The Venetians have accumulated objects of Christian worship not only because of their piety or desiring to obtain more heavenly patrons for their city. Often they served as a payment guarantee for cities falling into debt slavery to the Venetian Lion. Typically, such relics remained in the Venetian Republic. We are discussing some of them in this article.
St Mark the Evangelist
The holy relics of Venice’s heavenly patron St Mark the Evangelist are rightfully considered the main shrine of the city. Legends about St Mark’s sojourn in north-eastern Italy, namely in the ancient and ecclesiastically significant city of L’Aquileia, are contained in hagiographic literature, particularly in the lives of Mark’s supposed disciples, Sts Hermagoras and Fortunatus (Chronicle of the 14th century by Doge Andrea Dandolo). According to tradition, St Mark was caught in the Venetian lagoon by a storm, during which he had a vision from the Lord, telling him “Peace be with you, Mark, My Evangelist your body will rest here.” This prophecy was destined to come true many centuries later, since Mark did not stay long in L’Aquileia. According to local tradition, he travelled to Rome and presented to the Apostle Peter Hermagoras, the candidate for the bishop of L’Aquileia. Soon after that he left Italy and went to Alexandria of Egypt. In Alexandria, Mark suffered a martyr’s death for the name of Christ.
The transfer of his relics from Alexandria took place under the Emperor Michael II the Amorian (820-829). By that time, Egypt had long been occupied by the Arabs. Two Venetian merchants, in pursuit of making a fortune on a successful trade deal, docked their 10 ships, loaded with goods, at the Egyptian harbor of Soria. The merchants were taking high risks, since the Byzantine emperor imposed a ban on imperial ships (Venice at that time was part of the Byzantine Empire) disembarking in Muslim ports. On their way to venerate the relics of St Mark, who was honoured in Venice since ancient times as the founder of the church in L’Aquileia, the merchants met the keepers of the relics, Presbyter Theodore and monk Stauratius. The keepers were in disarray, as the Caliph of Egypt ordered Christian churches to be dismantled into bricks to build his palace. The Italians immediately offered to transfer the relics of the apostle to a safer place where they would enjoy nationwide recognition. It is not known exactly to what extent the keepers agreed with the idea, but one way or another, the merchants took the relics of St Mark and loaded them onto their ship, covering them for safety with pork carcasses, loathed by the Muslims. This is how St Mark returned to Venice, where, with the efforts of Orthodox artisans, a majestic basilica, decorated with stunning mosaics, was erected over his relics and in his name.
The Nikopeia Icon of the Mother of God
The Nikopeia Icon (gr. Νικοπεια) is another major relic of Venice. The icon was captured by the crusaders in Constantinople during the 4th Crusade (1204) and brought to Venice, where it was at one time kept in the sacristy (sagrestia dei chierici) of San Marco Cathedral. Only in the 17th century the icon was transferred to a dedicated baroque side-chapel, richly decorated with colored marble. The icon was first mentioned already in 610, when the Byzantine emperor Heraclius defeated the usurper Flavius Phocas. Most likely, the icon has been painted and kept in the Constantinople monastery of St John the Evangelist. This Hodegetria image of the Mother of God was highly revered in Byzantium, especially in the army, hence its name – Nikopeia, i.e. “Victorious”. Eastern basileis always took the icon with them on campaigns. It was also in battle that she was captured by the Franks during the fourth crusade, when Emperor Alexios V Doukas fled from the battlefield, abandoning the icon to the mercy of the victor. In difficult years of war, especially in the confrontation with the Ottoman Turks, Venetian city authorities, together with the clergy and the people, established fasting with special prayers to the Mother of God in front of Her Nikopeia image .
In this article, we spoke about the relics of the Apostle Mark and the Image of Nikopeia, one of the famous icons of the Mother of God. This is only a small part of the Orthodox relics kept in Venice and available for universal veneration. In the following articles, we will talk about other great shrines, in particular about the relics of Paul, the First Hermit (of Thebes), and the columns from Solomon’s Porch.