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.
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”.”