Venetian Patron Saint – the Winged Lion

Every city in Italy has many stories. In Venice, they are more than stories; they are legends. Let us begin with the symbol of Venice, the Winged Lion. Today, the Lion is an iconic symbol of the West, in a similar way that the Dragon symbolizes the East. So it was in the medieval times in Venice. While Venice is situated in the West, it has deep relations with the East. On the “Molo”, or the front door of Venice, are two massive granite columns which were brought back from the East in the 12th century. Each column is topped by a Patron Saint of Venice from two different periods of the city’s history. Facing the Molo to the left is St. Theodore from Asia Minor, also known as St. Theodore of Amasea, or St. Theodore of Tiro. The word Tiro literally means soldier or new recruit. St. Theodore was the early Patron Saint of Venice when it was fighting for its own survival, and when trade and commerce brought Venice closer to the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) than to the Holy See in Rome.

St. Theodore was a 3rd century Roman soldier who was not willing to worship pagan deities and was therefore condemned to death. The statue of St. Theodore on top of the column of Venice has an alligator/dragon underfoot. According to legend, St. Theodore armed himself with the sign of the cross and slew a dragon, symbolizing his power to vanquish evil. Venice also holds the relic of another famous dragon-slaying saint, St. George, in Saint Mark’s Basilica. At the time, St. George was actually the Patron Saint of Venice’s arch enemies, Genova and Milan. These legends and facts demonstrate the importance of the Dragon in Venetian history. There was another interesting story regarding a mysterious dragon living in the depths of the Venetian lagoon. It feared no one except the gondoliers as the gondolier’s oar posed a threat. Gondo/Gende/Gente means “warrior” in German dialect. As legend has it, the mists which envelop the lagoon are precipitations of the dragon’s breath.

The Winged Lion on top of the second granite column on the Molo is the symbol of another Patron Saint of Venice, St. Mark, one of the four Evangelists of the Christian faith. Venice needed St. Mark for its own national identity and to lend the republic legitimacy to the rest of Europe. The story of how St. Mark’s relics came to Venice had developed into an entire genre of literature in the Middle Ages. To Christians, the Furta Sacra (holy theft) was not a robbery but a rescue. In 829 CE, two Venetian merchants were conducting illegal business in Alexandria, Egypt. In fact, all business done with Muslims at the time was illegal because of a decree from Emperor Leo the Fifth. These two Venetian merchants, with the help of a Greek priest and a monk from the church of San Marco in Alexandria, stole St. Mark’s relics and brought them back to Venice. They were able to fool the Muslim guards by hiding the relics in a large basket filled with raw pork.

When the relics of St. Mark arrived in Venice, a grand ceremony took place. The first church of San Marco was built attached to the Doge Palace exactly as it still is today. The Church of San Marco was probably the first stone church built in Venice. It was modeled after the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. This first church of San Marco was unfortunately destroyed by fire in 976 CE and the relics of St. Mark were also lost. However, when this new church was rebuilt, St. Mark’s body was miraculously rediscovered in a pillar. The relics have been protecting the church ever since.

St. Mark became the special patron of the Doge and, by extension, the Republic of Venice. The Winged Lion became the coat of arms on the flag of Venice. In order to complete the story, Venetians claimed that when St. Mark was traveling between Rome and Aquileia, he docked at Rialto to rest and an angel came down from heaven and proclaimed : “Pax tibi, Marce, evangelista meus. Hic requiescat corpus tuum.” (Peace be with you, Mark, my evangelist. Here shall your body rest.)

The Doge Enrico Dandolo waving the flag of the Winged Lion on the shore of Constantinople after sacking it during the 1204 Fourth Crusade was one of the most enduring pictures of the Middle Ages. From the canvas of Tintoretto to the pages of Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, the Winged Lion has continued to be the symbol of Venice. Today, every September, “The Golden Lion Award” is awarded to the best film of the Venetian Film Festival.

The Venetian Gondola

Everything in Venice has some symbolism attached to it. The most famous Venetian icon, the gondola, is no exception. Although the origin of the word “gondola” has never been determined, the specifications of its color (black), its size( 35’6” long, 4’6” wide, with one side 10 inches longer than the other) and its required shape have been in existence since the 16th century. The “S” shaped metal prow illustrates the “S” curve of the Grand Canal. The six prongs in the back represent Venice’s six sestiere, or districts, and the prong that faces the back symbolizes Giudecca, an important large island that is part of the Dorsoduro sestiere. The shape on the top of the six prongs depicts the Venetian Doge’s hat, the “corno ducale”, and the arch between the doge’s symbol and the six prongs symbolizes the Rialto Bridge, the center of commerce in Venice since ancient times.

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