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.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

82 thoughts on “The Venetian Lions

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

  2. 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 🙂

  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. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Thank you for the insights on the winged lion, Madhu! I ahve patented the Unicorn, preferably with wings to fly me to my dreams!

    1. I am married to one too Jo. And am a Leo myself when it suits me! So I have a special affinity as well 🙂

      1. Jo I have been meaning to ask, how are you able to like a comment? Is there a like button below each comment on my blog? I don’t remember enabling it, and I can’t see any like buttons when I am signed in. Have been getting notifications of likes though!!

  7. I hope one day to be able to visit some of the interesting places you paint so well with your words Madhu.

    1. I hope you do too LuAnn. You have been showing me some of the most glorious landscapes on your continent as well. I am not sure I will ever get to them myself, so the gratitude is mutual 🙂

  8. A fascinating piece of history, and a wonderful collection of winged lions. Our last house in Johannesburg, had a couple of big ones either side of the front entrance steps. I loved them, but couldn’t take them with us when we sold. 😦

    1. That must have been a magnificent entrance! Do have photos of the lions Sylvia? Pity you couldn’t take them with you.

  9. Lovely post and great tribute to the Lion too, Madhu!
    Best regards from the North, Dina

  10. Most intriguing post, Madhu. I have been looking online for the lion from Trogir (could not find anything). The last time I was in Trogir I was still a kid, and don’t remember much. It is possible that the said lion disappeared in 1932, when eight Venetian lions were destroyed. The soldiers of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia destroyed them seeing them as threatening symbols of Italianisation of the entire Adriatic east coast.

    1. I figured they must have been destroyed. I got me daughter to check in her albums, but she too only found the lone lion with the open book. Thanks Paula. Maybe we can go searching for him together someday 🙂

      1. That would be really great Madhu, and not at all infeasable 🙂 You did not tell me if your daughter had a good time over here – feel free to speak the truth (I won’t take any bad comments personally :D)

        1. There is nothing bad to say! 🙂 They were surprised by how much they loved Croatia! Even the boys, and I got the feeling they preferred it to Paris!!! Their few days in Paris was washed out by rain, so that could be a reason, but still! 🙂

        2. 🙂 It makes me really happy to hear that. Kind regards to your daughter and the boys 🙂

  11. Do you know that one of the lions in front of the Arsenale comes form the Greek island of Dhelos?
    Oh, I love Venice!
    Great post!
    xx,
    E.

    1. Me too! And I do. Can you believe I got so busy getting lost in Venice, that I never made it to the Arsenale in over seven days??? 🙂

      1. Of course I can believe it! That’s why I hate when people say that one day to visit Venice is enough. There is so much to explore and discover… Sigh! 🙂

  12. lovely lions, thanks, I was in Venice just last month. The lion is a very appealing symbol, no wonder they are so popular! My favourites are the huge ones over by the Arsenale, and I also came across some by mistake, when I got lost, as you are supposed ti do in Venice, and ended up by the ‘ Ospidale’, which has lions in the stone relief on its facade.

    1. They really are appealing. I am surprised no other nation usurped that symbol before the 12th. Century! I never made it to the Arsenale in over seven days…..was too busy getting lost 🙂
      Thank you for your visit and comment.

    1. Me too Debra. I discovered in the course of researching for this post, that Saint Theodoro’s relics lie in the Chiesa San Salvatore, and that church has reliefs on the facade depicting him with his crocodile! More things to do on a return visit 🙂

  13. It makes me wonder how many myths have been ‘created’ in relatively modern times. It takes away the magic to know such detail doesn’t it? A very interesting post, fascinating how the symbol has spread so far and used so often in old buildings etc.

    1. It does, a bit like discovering Santa isn’t real after all! But we can’t escape the truth that most legends were created for a reason. And that they weren’t always this benign. Thank you for reading Gilly, happy Thursday! 🙂

    1. Jemmrose, appreciate your visit and compliment. I enjoyed reading your travel post on Pisa. Look forward to reading more at leisure.

  14. I first saw the image of the winged lion back in 2000 on the emblem of the Italian city’s football club. I’ve always been fascinated by such imagery and symbolism, the one blends culture, myth and legend. Those winged lions alone are enough reason for me to visit the city. 🙂 Great shots, Madhu!

    1. Adopting this symbol surely tops the list of strategic moves by the erstwhile Venetian republic! I agree, the winged lions alone justify a visit to Venice 🙂 Thank you Bama.

  15. You have quite a photo collection of winged lions, Madhu. Interesting story behind the legend. Being curious, I went on line and found the winged lion is the symbol of St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Tampa, Florida, and is used as the logo for that parish. Their website went on to explain this symbol comes from St. Mark’s description of John the Baptist’s voice “crying out in the wilderness” upon hearing the Word of God (Mark 1:3). His voice is said to have sounded like that of a roaring lion. Little did the Venetians know that this roaring symbol would be good for business as well as sell chocolates. One of us will have to go to Trogir and research. 🙂

    1. Can’t wait to go looking for that lion in Trogir Lynne! 🙂 Thanks for the biblical story behind the symbol.

  16. Beautiful posts on these lions, Madhu. Wonderful tribute to the king. Their month anyway, with World Lion Day, 4 days ago! 🙂

  17. So glad you put a collection of your Venetian lions together for us Madhu – especially the less well-known ‘domestic’ incarnations of the beast, and from the vantage of the clock tower.

    1. You are most welcome Meredith. I regret not having made it to the lions near the Arsenal.

  18. A very fun post, Madhu. I love the photos and the stories. Thanks for doing all the legwork, and collecting the lions for our convenience!

  19. I have been 3 times in Venetian lion and has the following meaning: The Lion of Venice is an ancient bronze winged lion sculpture in the Piazza di San Marco (St Mark’s Square) of Venice, Italy, which came to symbolize the city — as well as one of its patron saints, St Mark — after its arrival there in the 12th century

    1. You are right, the lion sculpture pre-dates the gospels even, to the 4th century BC! The wings and the book were added much after it was associated with Saint Mark and after the winged lion became the state symbol. This post is about that lion symbol and not about this particular sculpture in isolation. Thanks for reading Mihrank.

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