‘Invasion of the body-snatchers’

by Peter Harrison.

Everyone who has visited Venice knows St Marks’ Square with its Basilica di San Marco supposedly containing the saintly remains of Saint Mark, the important Christian evangelist and apostle.

I wouldn’t like to and truly couldn’t, put you off this, one of the most wonderful cities in the world, but……

In the early and latterly medieval days of the Christian Church, relics were powerfully attractive. How many knucklebones of Saint Baldo were revered? There were enough splinters of the holy cross sold to make a forest and enough iron nails from the body of Christ to set up a modern day foundry!

The riches brought to the church were greatly enhanced by donations from rural pilgrims, easily impressed by the opportunity to kiss the left toenail of a saint.

Long before the 25th of April became the National Holiday of Italian Liberation, the day was the celebration of the Patron Saint of Venice, Marco, whose bones (earthly remains!) were traditionally thought to be on Muslim soil in Alexandria, Egypt.

The perceived history was that they were transferred to Venice, in the year 828, by two legendary Venetian merchants, Buono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello.

Sent by the Doge (Prince) of Venice to steal from the Muslims the precious remains (Islam, strangely for some who know nothing of its history, venerates Jesus Christ and his disciples), two resourceful merchants, not being able to discover the true body, dug up a ‘lesser Christian celebrity’, covered the body up in a cargo of pork and passed through ‘customs’ without being inspected: this because kanzir (pork) was an ‘unclean’ and untouchable export. Thus they earned their fee by selling a ‘load of old bones’ which had nothing to do with Saint Mark.

To add further to the confusion, a British historian, Andrew Chugg, claims that the venerated tomb of St Mark in Venice contains not the great evangelist but the body of the most famous warlord in history. He claims that the mummified remains, buried beneath the altar of St Mark’s Basilica, in fact belong to Alexander the Great. The Macedonian king lived in the 4th century BC and had divine status in his lifetime and a following for many centuries after. By his 30th birthday he had conquered an empire stretching 3,000 miles from Greece to India.

died aged 32 or 33 and for 700 years his corpse lay entombed in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, which he founded. In the 4th century AD it vanished. Chugg, the author of several books on Alexander, believes the confusion occurred when the warrior’s body was disguised as St Mark to protect it from destruction during a Christian uprising.

“Both bodies were said to be mummified in linen, and one seems to disappear at the same time that the other appears – in almost exactly the same place, near the central crossroads of Alexandria,” he writes. “It’s a strong possibility that somebody in the Church hierarchy, perhaps even the Patriarch himself, decided it might be a good plan to pretend the remains of Alexander were those of St Mark”. If this is true, then it was Alexander’s remains – not those of St Mark – that were stolen by Venetian merchants and taken back to their native city some four centuries later.” In fact, three early Christian sources state that St Mark’s body was burnt after his death.

Happily, whoever lies in the Basilica is not of great importance. Venice
remains one of the world’s most picturesque destinations and a visit will give the traveller a lifetime of memories…..