The Venetian Lions

The iconic bronze winged lion on top of the granite column in the piazetta. Viewed from the top of the clock tower right across the Piazza!
The iconic, 4th century, bronze winged lion on top of the granite column in the piazetta as viewed from the top of the clock tower right across the Piazza San Marco! Note the gospel beneath its paws which is a later addition, along with the wings.

Status was paramount in the ancient world. For empires as much as for ordinary citizens. The aura of power as important as the exercise of power itself. Visual imagery and symbolism went a long way in engendering that impression. And so it was that a maritime republic of the stature of Venice felt the need to be associated with a patron saint of greater eminence than their humble Saint Theodore.

An elaborate myth was created, therefore, around the legend of a prophesy that the Venetian lagoon would be the final resting place of the apostle Saint Mark, which was then used to legitimise the smuggling out of his remains from his tomb in Alexandria. And the winged lion, the symbol of their exalted new evangelist saint, became their state emblem.

On a flag.
On a flag.

Soon the photogenic mascot upstaged the saint himself! Statues of the evangelist are few and far between, especially beyond San Marco. But his majestic symbol is omnipresent. Generally depicted with one paw on the open gospel (of St. Mark of course) that is inscribed with: “PAX TIBI, MARCE, EVANGELISTA MUES”, the words of the angel credited with the prophecy, meaning “Peace be upon you, O Mark, my Evangelist”. The open book signified peace and a pledge of protection. A closed gospel, sometimes accompanied by a sword in one paw, was said to symbolise the threat of war or retribution.*

Many winged lions survive the republic in the erstwhile colonies around Dalmatia and Istria. One in Trogir, in present day Croatia, is supposed to have held a book that read “Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered”.  Legend claims that the lion closed its book when news of the fall of the Venetian republic reached the city. No amount of online searching yielded an image of a Venetian lion in Trogir that corresponded with that story. Shall have to go looking for him in person.*

Meanwhile, here is a gallery of Venetian lions in a belated tribute to the mighty beast.

Happy travels……….no matter where life takes you.

PS: One of my (new) readers, Vea Fici, stumbled upon a more plausible theory regarding the iconography of the Lions of Saint Mark:

” there are four possible combinations of book and sword and each has a different meaning: open book and no sword (lowered sword) symbolises the Venetian republic itself, closed book and no sword means delegation of sovereignty, open book and raised sword symbolises the judiciary, and closed book with raised sword means “tax free zone”.”

Do check out the fascinating article to read how the author Saša Iskrić Smrekar arrived at these conclusions.

Posted by

Hi, I'm Madhu. Wanderer. Travel blogger. Story teller. Bitten late and hard by the travel bug, I am on a mission to make up for lost time.

82 thoughts on “The Venetian Lions

  1. This is in-depth form of traveling. Learning about the place deeply. I never even noticed these lions. Great observation, Madhu. I applaud your thirst for knowledge, and I thank you for imparting it with us.

  2. The “open book means peace” and “closed book means war” is actually wrong – there are four possible combinations of book and sword and each has a different meaning: open book and no sword (lowered sword) symbolises the venetian republic itself, closed book and no sword means delegation of sovereignty, open book and raised sword sybolises the judiciary, and closed book with raised sword meas “tax free zone”.

    Here is an in-depth article about the iconography of Lions of St Mark:

    View at Medium.com

    1. That was a fascinating read!!! Your arguments make a lot of sense. I did think the ‘Peace-Open, War-Closed’ theory sounded weak. I appreciate your stopping by to read and comment.

  3. Thanks! At least in the name of the author, as the article is not mine (just stumbled upon it) 🙂

    And somehow the link to the text is missing …?

    1. Oh, I assumed you were the author and commenting under another name. Shall correct it right away. The word ‘article’ is linked to that post and seems to work fine for me.

  4. Imagine the planning meeting for smuggling the remains and well done on the winged lions being the winning proposal for the perpetuation of sovereign power! Makes you wonder what symbols will endure from our time into classical history. A wonderful post, thank you Madhu!

    1. Whoever thought up the scheme of smuggling his remains in a pork fat covered casket was indeed a genius!! Our generation does not seem to have very many enduring symbols to pass on do we? Thank you for reading Patti. Happy Sunday 🙂

  5. Beautiful article informative and educative. Refreshed my memories of a visit years ago as well learnt much more. Thanks Madhu.

Leave a Reply to restlessjo Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.