A morning mass is the best way to gain fast entry to this famous basilica without having to stand in line for an hour with the mobs of cruise ship tours that infest Venice and seem to be an even greater peril to its future than global warming and the rising seas that flood San Marco Plaza every evening. The lines are atrocious, but to be fair are the only way to take in the entire experience of the 1000-year old church, one of the world’s most famous and certainly one of the most outrageous, with its homage to Venice’s Byzantine roots, its ties to the Holy Roman Church and the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the rise of the maritime city-state into the greatest naval power of its time.
I rose early and walked alone from the Hotel Flora to St. Mark’s in the morning quiet, accompanied only by a few locals on their way to work and the first wave of workers trundling in pallets of bottle water, washing machines, hams, postcards, and cigarettes to restock the trattorias and tabacherria’s depleted by the previous day’s assault. A few puddles stood on the paving stones, left over from the previous evening’s high full-moon tides. The pigeons were gone, some high overhead growling and cooing in the smog blackened cornices of the piazza, ready to come back down and flock over some salmonella loving tourist’s hands and arms later in the afternoon. St. Mark’s is one of the world’s more ubiquitous tourism clichés, a place so filmed and described that one feels silly pressing the shutter button on one’s own digital camera. Hemingway wrote, in Across and the River and Into the Trees, that the church looked like a “cinema palace” and the square, when flooded and devoid of pigeons was an unappealing place for breakfast with one’s 19-year old lover at the city’s oldest continuous café, the Florian. I didn’t mind, I was happy to see it open and empty as the sky pinked over the domes and spires of the fantastic church.
St. Mark, one of the 12 apostles, was a big score for the people of Venice, even after the Byzantine Emperor strongly suggested the city’s patron saint should be Saint Theodore, who, judging from his pose atop the column at the foot of the harbor, killed some crocodile type of beast. But the people of Venice wanted one of Jesus’ board of directors so to speak, so, upon the discovery of the long deceased saint’s corpse in Egypt, managed to smuggle it out of the country buried under an order of fresh pork, effectively masking it from Muslim detection until it was safe ashore. With a full apostle’s relics in their possession, the people of Venice pulled out the stops constructing a Basilica that surely must rank among the greatest religious structures in the world, certainly in Christianity.
The present structure is the third to bear the name St. Mark’s. Here is the Wikipedia being smart so I don’t have to be:
“The first St Mark’s was a temporary building in the Doge’s Palace, constructed in 828, when Venetian merchants stole the supposed relics of Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria. This was replaced by a new church on its present site in 832; from the same century dates the first St Mark’s Campanile (bell tower). The new church was burned in a rebellion in 976, rebuilt in 978 and again to form the basis of the present basilica since 1063. The basilica was consecrated in 1094, the same year in which the body of Saint Mark was supposedly rediscovered in a pillar by Vitale Faliero, doge at the time”
The 7 am service took place in the western, or port-side chapel to the left of the main altar and iconostasis. Entrance was gained through a side door roped off by a velvet disco rope. A security guard gave me the eye as I entered, but the first rule of sneaking into anything is never sneak and always arrive with the full psychological expectations and body language of one permitted to be there. This has worked for me at everything from churches to Grateful Dead concerts, even crime scenes marked off with yellow police tape. I pressed through a pair of doors, through a green curtain, and into a small chapel arrayed before a gorgeous golden icon of the Madonna and Child. Afterwards I learned this icon had serious historical significance, dating back to 1200 when it was carried into battle by Venetian armies and navies as superstitious inspiration. Twenty candles in red glass pendants hung from the ceiling on black chains, giving the altar an ancient, almost Hindu aspect I recall from some of the inner sanctums of the Temple of Shiva at Madurai. In the center of the church rose the altar, iconstasis, and prayer chancel, a marble object so old and worn it looked dirty and greasy from centuries of hands touching and rubbing it for good luck.
The floor was a fantastic constellation of mosaic work and cracked marble tiles, swirling like the end papers of an 18th century leatherbound novel. The columns before the apse, starting with the penditives that supported the circular base of the dome, were dark green like wet marine creatures, all dark but gleaming in the reflected sunlight that managed to murkily seep through the windows on the southern side of the cruciform nave. The last column, against the wall was plain brick, red and crumbling, making, to my projected imagination, a statement about simplicity and unadorned
Two columns of prayer benches and wooden chairs ran back about 15 rows from the altar. I sat alone on the left side in the customary back row, three nuns took the last row of the right side, a gentleman in a trench coat sat in the second row, and that was it. Five congregants sitting quietly. An electric bell rang and two priests, each about my age, popped out from behind the main altar in white vestments with gold collars and surplices. They quickly strolled in front of the icon, turned on their heels in perfect synchronization and knelt deeply before the table. They lingered for a moment, then rose, turned and with upraised right hands, greeted us.
To state the obvious: the service was conducted in Italian which meant I understood less than ten percent of the content but was able to more or less guess along with the rest. Morning weekday services are very efficient, very effective, and meant to nourish the spirit before a long day at the oar of a gondola the way a nonbeliever like me needs a caffe macchiato to get things rolling in the morning. Speaking of which, I did zone out and caught myself falling asleep at one point – one those whiplash inducing bouts of narcolepsy where I made a loud and abupt “Snark!” as I popped back awake. I dragged my shoe on the floor to try to mask the sound with another like it, but it was no good, I had snored and the nuns busted me.
At one point the man in the raincoat rose and joined the priests by reading some scripture or bible verse. One of the security guards assisted with the blessing of the holy sacrament, helping by unfolding the holy towel/napkin and helping the priest when he poured holy water from a small cruet over his hands.
Communion was served and I decided to partake – something I do more often ever since partaking in Istanbul at the Feast of the Three Hierarchs. Communion was supposed to be verboten in this project – as I do not want to participate in any holy of holy acts up at the altar, but sometimes I feel so moved to get up close and personal and check things out, so that Wednesday morning in Venice, in one of the oldest places I have ever stood, I tagged along in the communion line, stood before the priest, opened wide and waited for him to intinct my wafer in the vin sancto and place it in my gaping mouth.
It was the generic communion wafer, made of some pulp/paper product in a special communion wafer factory. It was the size of a Sacagawea silver dollar and it cemented itself to the roof of my mouth. I thought about scraping it off with my finger, but suffered through it as the priest wound things up and the mass drew to a close. I was first through the green curtain, popped a picture of some water puddle in the basilica’s porch, and once outside in the morning light found my chance to get the wafer pried free. Five minutes later I sat down with my wife and daughter in the garden of the Hotel Flora and drank my coffee.
Next: an overdue account of my one and only brush with Christian Science.