Saint Mark's Basilica is one of the most iconic landmarks in Venice. It is one of the best known examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture in the world and is the most famous of the Venetian churches. It is connected to the Doge's Palace at the eastern end of St Mark's Square and originally served as the Doge's private chapel.
Since 1807, on the orders of Napoleon following the overthrow of the Venetian Republic, it has been the seat of the Patriarch of Venice, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice.
The basic shape of the church has a mixture of Italian and Byzantine styles, which has not changed much over the years. The western side of the church, facing into St Mark's Square, is constructed on three levels. On the lower level, there are five arched portals, framed by pillars, that open into the church through bronze doors. The tops of these arches are decorated with mosaics depicting the life of Christ, culminating in the 'Last Judgement' on the main portal. Lower down, they are decorated with scenes depicting the story of St Mark's relics.
On the top level, St Mark is joined by the four warrior saints: Constantine, Demetrius, George and Theodosius, who watch over the city. Above the large, central window, the winged lion holds a book, quoting: "Peace to you Mark my evangelist". On the balcony below, the four famous bronze horses face the square.
The 'Campanile', or 'Bell Tower' of St Mark's is about 99 metres high and once served as a lighthouse for navigating the Lagoon. All of the other bell towers in the Venetian lagoon are based on the same design. It was built early in the 16th century and featured a rotating platform at the top with a statue of the Archangel Gabriel serving as a weathercock. Of the five original bells in the belfry, only one remains, the others having been replaced after the original ones were destroyed when the tower collapsed in 1902.
The mosaics that cover the upper levels of the Basilica provide one of the most impressive features of the interior. The majority have a background of gold glass tesserae, creating a shimmering covering of gold. Many of the original mosaics were replaced over the years, often with inferior craftsmanship, leaving only about one third of the original mosaics. The oldest can be found outside in the main porch. Dating back to the 12th century, they were produced in a mixture of pure Byzantine and Italian styles.
Another feature of the interior is the fabulous 'Pala d'oro' altarpiece, considered to be one of the most precious examples of Byzantine art. It is 3 metres wide by 2 metres high and made of gold and silver. It contains nearly 2,000 gemstones including: 526 pearls, 330 garnets, 320 emeralds, 255 sapphires, 183 amethysts, 175 agates, 75 rubies, 34 topazes, 16 carnelians, and 13 jaspers.
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