During my most recent trip, I went to Mass in San Marco on December 8 for The Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The Basilica was completely full (they even had video screens for people in the “no view” seats, and something about the sight of modern technology in that ancient church really amused me), and the Mass was conducted by the Patriarch of Venice who only does a few Masses a year on high holy days. The Mass lasted for an hour and a half, and I was not in the least bit bored because I was in my favorite church in the world, the music was gorgeous, all the pomp and circumstance seemed holy and beautiful, and it just felt great to be there.
The Patriarch (Angelo Cardinal Scola) has a lot of charisma, and he even gave messages in different languages. His English message was something about “the mystery and beauty of this great cathedral – may it give you hope” which of course it does, because I love that church so much! And then he said, “Have a nice stay in Venice.”
But the best part was the fact that the Pala d’Oro, that amazing golden altar screen, was turned around to face the people (most of the time, it’s flipped around so that they can charge us a Euro or so to go back and look at it). It's only turned around on high holy days and this was the first time I'd seen it like that. Beautiful!
The Pala d’Oro was commissioned by Doge Pietro Orseolo in 978 and the Venetians spent the next two centuries expanding and embellishing it. The word “pala” means cloth so essentially it’s an upright altar cloth or screen made of gold and jewels. While some sections of it were stolen from Constantinople, other sections were actually made in Venice by Venetian goldsmiths and artisans. This gold altarpiece is the only one of its type that has survived to modern times in one piece.
It has 80 enamel cloisonné plaques and several hundred smaller medallions with images of evangelists, apostles, prophets,saints and angels, all surrounded by an amazing collection of stones. Jan Morris (The World of Venice) shared the inventory with the caveat that some of these gemstones were stolen by Napoleon; we are lucky that he didn't melt the whole thing down for the gold too.
1,300 large pearls
75 balas rubies
“and unmeasured glitters of gold, silver, gilt, and precious enamel”
It's well worth paying the 1.5 euro to go behind the high altar to see this altarpiece because you can get very close to it. But there was something truly magical about seeing it facing out, behind the tomb of San Marco, during the celebration of this Mass.
As you can see, I took a couple of photos of it. The Basilica does have a “no photos” rule and there are signs all over the place telling us that, and I usually do try to obey the rules in a church most of the time BUT….when the Mass was over and the Patriarch was slowly leaving the building, a bunch of the Italians took out their cameras and started taking pictures of him! So I took advantage of that little breakdown in law and order to snap a few of the inside of the church and the screen. I couldn't resist. :)
Another story about taking photographs in churches...one afternoon I was in the Frari sitting in the seats in front of the Titian Assunta, and a very frazzled-looking lady herded a group of Italian teenagers over there and sat them down, then she left. I guess teenagers are the same all over, because these kids were rowdy and restless and bouncing off the walls. But I was completely charmed to see about three or four of these kids pull out their cell phones and take photos of the Titian Madonna! Would American teenagers have even noticed her?
I cropped this one and it's a bit blurry, but you can see some of those jewels.
A nice quote from E.V. Lucas (A Wanderer in Venice):
S. Mark's is described by Ruskin as an illuminated missal in mosaic. It is also a treasury of precious stones, for in addition to every known coloured stone that this earth of ours can produce, with which it is built and decorated and floored, it has the wonderful Pala d'oro, that sumptuous altar-piece of gold and silver and enamel which contains some six thousand jewels. More people, I guess, come to see this than anything else; but it is worth standing before, if only as a reminder of how far the Church has travelled since a carpenter's son, who despised riches, founded it...