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|1645: St Mark's Basilica, Venice, Italy
St Mark's Basilica, Venice, Italy.
Roman Catholic, Patriarchate of Venice. The Patriarch of Venice,
traditionally a cardinal, is one of the few prelates in the
Western church to hold that title, which is purely honorary.
San Marco, the focal point of Venice, was built in AD828 to
receive the remains of the evangelist St Mark. The recounting
of how his relics were "acquired" from Constantinople
and presented to the doge in Venice is commemorated in fabulous
mosaics in the west portals of the great church. The basilica
was rebuilt after a 10th century fire, and it was enlarged,
decorated and elaborated upon through the 13th century. The
amount of gold mosaic, marble, porphyry, carved decoration and
sculptures in gothic and byzantine styles creates an effect
that is beyond exuberant, full of life and spirit and exoticism.
You cannot look upon this building for the first time without
an open jaw followed by a smile.
With Notre Dame, Westminster Abbey and St Peter's, San Marco
probably receives the greatest crush of tourists of any place
in the western world. As at those places, which also maintain
a schedule of worship, the hordes of visitors must be diverted
to the rear and sides of the interior, hushed, and prohibited
from taking photos during mass. The basilica is officially a
martyrium, the resting place of a martyred saint. It wasn't
elevated to be the cathedral church until 1807, being reserved
for veneration of the relics and the use of the doge (the elected
ruler of the Republic of Venice).
The basilica, along with the campanile and doge's palace, comprise
the Piazza San Marco, which Napoleon called "the finest
drawing room in Europe." It is one of the most recognisable
places on earth. The backdrop for countless movies, travelogues
and posters, the spot is one of vast beauty and has an intense
sense of excitement and glamour. The quay looking out from the
doge's palace at the end of the Grand Canal is where the throngs
arrive and depart in the vaporetto boats. The piazza offers
a number of competing ristoranti with outdoor tables and live
café music. Tour groups criss-cross the space during all daylight
hours. Pigeons, though less a menace than they used to be since
their feeding was prohibited, are still a source of free entertainment
for children and their parental paparazzi.
Not listed, but there were three priests concelebrating, assisted
by two acolytes (rather mature men) and one reader who was a
The date & time:
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 19 October 2008, 10.30am.
What was the name of the service?
La Santa Messa con il Popolo di Dio (Holy Mass of the
People of God).
How full was the building?
There were about 500 people on nice folding chairs without at
all crowding the space. The chairs were mostly full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A sister guessed I wanted one of the multi-language printouts
of the readings, and put one into my hands.
Was your pew comfortable?
The chairs were like rather dressy versions of a director's
chair, with a cloth sling seat and back. Comfortable enough,
but there was no provision for kneeling unless you were in the
front row at the kneeling rail.
How would you describe the pre-service
Some hushed murmurings of prayer and greeting, but overall quiet.
The hum of tourists circulating around the rear and side aisles
was starting to build after an earlier service had ended. It
is my guess that the early service was mostly the local faithful,
and the 10.30 was comprised much more of tourist-worshippers
What were the exact opening words of the
(In English!) "Good morning and welcome to the Basilica
of San Marco." Announcements followed, describing the participation
of the choir, the mass setting and anthem. The pieces mentioned
were (perhaps) late classical or baroque settings for choir
and organ, but not by composers I was familiar with, definitely
not Gabrieli or Monteverdi, the most famous of the many musicians
associated with San Marco.
What books did the congregation use during the
None. There was the sheet of the readings translated into English,
Spanish, French and German. I saw someone near me with a little
printed order of service, a copy of which I snagged at the end
of the mass.
What musical instruments were played?
Pipe organ. The basilica's current instrument is by the Tamburini
firm and is located in the decani side loft overlooking the
presbytery. The adult mixed choir seemed to occupy the cantorum
loft. I say "seemed" as I couldn't actually see them.
I am hoping that the basilica still employs brass choirs for
special occasions. The organ sounded pretty, but is probably
an accompanimental (not a recital) instrument as is typical
in large Italian churches. I was surprised at the drabness of
the organ case given the opulence of the basilica's interior.
Did anything distract you?
The beauty and staggering sense of the ancient was my distraction.
It is certainly the closest I will get to the experience of
Christian worship in a place like Hagia Sophia. I wondered what
the church would look like if they cleaned the centuries of
candle wax, incense soot, and the breath and odor of almost
a millennium of the faithful and curious off that figured marble,
mosaic, gilding and bronze, and polished things up. Maybe that
would be a mistake. Also the floor is a distraction, again both
for its beauty and its age. The intricate tessellated and geometric
pavements have heaved wildly where the supporting structure
has settled. Where would differential settlement be more likely
to show up than a 1200 year old structure built on pilings over
a tidal lagoon? Much of the floor in the area where chairs were
set up (and it turns out most of the route of tour groups) is
covered with a sort of synthetic walk-off mat. Most necessary
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
Worship was novus ordo,
dignified and pretty straightforward, but with no entrance procession
(how great that could have been!) or recessional. Mass was,
however, celebrated at the high altar. There was incense
the gospel book was censed, as were the altar, ministers and
congregation at the offertory. The gospel was proclaimed from
a portable lectern, not the pulpit. Sanctus bells were jangled.
We received communion under the species of bread only, and outside
the rood screen. I think I was struck most by how typical the mass was. Although I certainly couldn’t catch the
nuances of the spoken Italian, there was clearly no attempt
to be creative or to embellish worship, no expectation that
people could be induced to sing or participate, no clue that
this church is unique or the mass was very different from one
you would attend in a working class neighbourhood. The choir
and their music seemed remote and only minimally engaged. Given
the age and grandeur of the space I expected more. I was disappointed
not to be able to see the choir.
Exactly how long was the
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 The homilist spoke in Italian; the only English I heard
were the opening words of the service. Again, he spoke from
the portable lectern, not the pulpit. Not being able really
to follow, I can give him only a middling grade. His style was
fairly stiff, and not particularly informal or folksy, but direct
and pastoral. He probably has to preach to 500 new faces every
week at this particular service.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
He preached on Mark 12:13-17 ("Render unto Caesar that
which is Caesar's") but I really couldn't follow very well.
I'm sure it was solid doctrinally. And there was no reaction
from the assembly, good or negative.
Which part of the service was like being in
Just being in San Marco with the devotion, history, holiness and great beauty it embodies, is pretty close to heaven for this worshipper.
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
The (no doubt) paid choir wasn't that impressive. The mass setting
was okay, but the psalm verses were ragged and intonation not
so good. The balance was soprano heavy. There were no hymns
printed, nor was anything sung by the congregation. Even with
so transient a group, something could be done. Only the familiar
Pater Noster drew out any congregational participation
no music was provided, but the chant setting is so familiar
that everyone was able to join in.
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
Between the tour groups and the noon mass attendees, you must
move along. I came back another day on such a tour. At that
time I noticed that the lower marble panels of the gothic rood
screen (which were open during the mass, thus allowing some
view of the celebrant in front of the gold altarpiece) had been
reinstalled, giving a more closed effect to the sanctuary.
How would you describe the after-service
None. I had a panini and a nice glass of wine in one of those
overpriced cafés in the piazza. Delicious.
How would you feel about
making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 Probably not, but I sure was delighted to visit. A
thing about Venetians is that they are polite and pleasant,
and this even as their city is absolutely overrun with tourists
all year round. I’m not sure how many of us would have
Did the service make you
feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I will remember how ancient the church feels, how richly it
is decorated, all at least 700 years ago, and how it is unlike
anything else in the West, at least unlike anywhere else I have
visited. And what other church's website lists alternate access
points during high tides?
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