Egypt Today

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February 2005  Volume #26  Issue 02

Bones of Contention

The epilogue to St. Mark’s life remains shrouded in mythical lore. Following his story from Alexandria to Venice raises more questions than it answers.

By  Fayza Hassan  

(Courtesy of Taschen Press)

Tintoretto’s “The Abduction of the Body of St. Mark”

 

THE FAMOUS COLLEGE St. Marc in Alexandria was erected by the Frères des Ecoles Chrétiennes in 1927. From the time of its establishment till the Revolution and somewhat beyond, the college was the successful answer of Alexandria’s francophone society to the famous British Victoria College. Today, the Frères of St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle run a bustling establishment of some 2,500 students who study French as a foreign language.

    

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Courtesy of Storti Edizioni Press)

  Mosaic detail of the transport of St. Mark’s body at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice

 

To historians, the college has a further import: built close to the site of the long-vanished church and oratory of St. Mark, it stands as a reminder of the beginning of Christianity in Alexandria. Saint Mark is credited for having been the first to preach the Gospel in Alexandria; Although his identity is somewhat controversial, he is acknowledged by the Coptic Church to have gained his first convert in 45 AD on his arrival in the city (a Jewish shoemaker named Anianus) and to have continued to preach until he was martyred by the Romans in 62 AD for speaking against the cult of Serapis, an anthropomorphic deity with Egyptian and Hellenistic roots. St. Mark was buried in the original church of St. Mark on the seashore, in Mazarita.

Despite the turbulence of the times, the saint was left undisturbed until 827 AD, when the Venetians, having become quite prosperous and a commercial power to be reckoned with, began to covet a great apostle of their own to grace their beautiful city; Venice’s patron Theodore was a rather obscure saint and no longer considered important enough.

 Conveniently, the doges of Venice expressed a sudden worry about St. Mark, the Apostle interred in Alexandria, a city now ruled by the Muslims. Conveniently, the doges of Venice expressed a sudden worry about St. Mark, the Apostle interred in Alexandria, a city now ruled by the Muslims. There were rumors, they said, that the Abbasid Caliph (ruling from Baghdad) had ordered the construction of several splendid palaces and was running short of building materials. Ancient monuments were being quarried for stones, marble, wood and sundry decorations. Churches would soon be targeted; therefore, the one housing the body of St. Mark was under threat.

Learning of their predicament, some Venetian merchants approached Alexandrian priests with an offer of help. Entrusted with the mission, they sailed to Alexandria where they convinced the custodians of the Church of St. Mark that the relic they held was in great danger. The deal that was struck between the parties has not been documented, but it was agreed that the saint’s remains should be moved to Venice, where they could be protected.

This was done in great secrecy: a chest was introduced into the church at night into which the bones of the saint were placed. Then, to discourage the customs authorities from inspecting closely the container, its top was filled with pickled pork and hams. As expected, the customs officials refused to handle the meat and the merchants sailed away with their treasure. On arrival, they delivered their holy load to the house of the reigning doge where it was kept concealed in his private chapel until proper arrangements were made for a church worthy of such a saint.

The abduction remained a secret so well guarded that when St. Mark’s relic was finally placed in the famous Venetian church it had lost its connection with the Evangelist and martyr of Alexandria and become synonymous with Venice itself. The winged lion, the saint’s attribute, became the symbol of the Republic.

This incident seems to have fascinated the painter Tintoretto, who portrayed its occurrence in 1562-1566. The large canvas hangs today in the Gallerie dell Academia in Venice. In this painting St. Mark has a strong, handsome body, Tintoretto totally disregarding the fact that he had been dragged through the streets of Alexandria and then at least partially burned, according to historians.

But then again, the identity of St. Mark himself is shrouded in legends, and adjustments had to be made to the chronology of his travels in order to place him in Egypt at the time of his martyrdom. The Venetian merchants may themselves have had doubts as to who exactly they were transporting to Venice. To reinforce their position with their patrons, they recounted that when they set sail from Alexandria they told those on the other ships that they were carrying the body of St. Mark. They were then answered that surely they had been given the body of an Egyptian whom they believed was St. Mark. But lo and behold, the ship carrying the relic immediately turned and rammed the other ship until all aboard cried out; “We believe it is the true body of St. Mark.”

Once in Venice, St. Mark continued to perform miracles. When the first St. Mark church was built, the saint was transferred there in the greatest confidentiality. In 976 AD there was an uprising and the church was burnt to the ground, and no one knew where to find the bones of St. Mark in the rubble. A new church was built, but the disappearance of the saint remained undisclosed, mourned in secret by the priests with prayers and penitential exercises.

According to the official church records, the church suddenly began to quake and crumble one day, and the coffin containing the precious bones appeared in the masonry of one of the columns. Another version relates that St. Mark himself stuck his arm out of a pillar to show where he was. In the end, however, it was the faith that the Venetians had in their saint that was important.

Meanwhile in Egypt, from the 11th to the 14th century, the head of St. Mark played an important role in the consecration of the patriarchs of the Coptic Church. However, after the 14th century the head was no longer displayed to the public for fear of damage to the relic. Since nothing in the Venetian tradition mentions that St. Mark’s body was headless, Professor Otto F. A. Meinardus hypothesizes in Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity (American University Press, 1999) that a tradition was started to assert that the head had somehow remained in Egypt.

In 1963, the Vatican consented to the repatriation of several holy relics. Accordingly, the relics of St. Mark reposing in the church in Venice were requested by Alexandria in 1967 and their return agreed upon. In 1968, a small particle of bone which had been a gift from Cardinal Giovanni Urbani, the patriarch of Venice, to Pope Paul VI was presented to a delegation of bishops and notables of the Coptic and Ethiopian churches who had traveled to Rome to receive it.

Following the inauguration of the new St. Mark Cathedral in Abbassiya, a Divine Liturgy was celebrated to commemorate the 1900th anniversary of St. Mark’s martyrdom in Alexandria. At this point, the relic recovered in Rome was solemnly placed in an appropriate setting beneath the high altar, and a new cult center was created.

However, the body of St. Mark has not been returned. The new relic has not been joined to the head nor has the box purported to contain it been brought from Alexandria and opened for a sighting of the contents. Thus the mystery surrounding St. Mark endures.  et

 

 

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