Hidden treasures

The columns of the ciborium of the altar of St Mark’s Basilica

Historical Curiosities

The columns of the ciborium of the altar of St Mark’s Basilica

St Mark’s Basilica in Venice is an inexhaustible source of treasures... The four alabaster columns that support the ciborium above the high altar are definitely worth being admired!

They are four monolithic pillars of oriental alabaster - decorated in pairs by an excellent Master and little-known helpers of his- divided into nine sections separated by horizontal stripes, which in turn are articulated into nine small arches hosting one or more high-relief figures.

There are 324 niches in total, 108 of which are dedicated to scenes of one or more protagonists that reproduce the life of the Virgin Mary, the life and passion of Jesus Christ; there are also excellent representations of single episodes taken from the canonical and apocryphal Gospels arranged in several detailed in a horizontal or vertical sequence.

In the past, the columns of the ciborium were sometimes considered works of late antiquity, on other occasions as works of the Middle Ages: for this reason, they are attributed to the period between the 5th-6th century and the 11th-12th century.

Supporting the hypothesis of a 'distant' dating, namely the sixth century, is a detail in the episode of the Crucifixion, where, on the cross, among the evildoers, Christ doesn’t appear, but rather there is the symbol of the lamb, widespread in the East before the council of Trullo (692) and then replaced by the lifeless body. As for style, features of late antiquity technique can be seen, such as an overly marked representation of physiognomic traits and chunky figures; on the other hand, the outlines have a gothic appearance that could justify the hypothesis of a twelfth-century composition... The case is therefore still open!

We certainly know that the columns reached Venice in 1204, following the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.

To admire these extraordinary columns we recommend booking the skip-the-line entrance to St Mark’s Basilica: running during the busy months - from April to the beginning of November - it will allow you save precious time by avoiding the long queue generally present at the main door.

By Insidecom Editorial Staff

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