The Lion of Venice

Click here to go back.

The winged lion has long been a traditional symbol of Venice. It is one symbol of Mark the Evangelist (the apostle), who has been the is the city's patron saint ever since his remains were taken from a tomb in Alexandria, Egypt, and brought to Venice in 828 AD. Venice's original patron saint had been St. Theodore of Amasea, a soldier-saint perhaps best known for battling a dragon (or, as a statue of him in Venice depicts it, a crocodile), but as Venice grew and became an important player in world affairs, it was felt that a more presitigious saint was needed.
And so, St. Mark was chosen.

Depictions of St. Mark's lion can be found everywhere in Venice. There is a famous lion on the clocktower in the Piazza San Marco, a lion atop a column in the piazzetta outside the Palazzo Ducale, and lions everywhere throughout Venice in paintings and carved into marble on almost every building. Even the top award at the Venice Film Festival is called the Golden Lion. Click on the flag at the top of this page for just one more example.

The lion of Venice is usually depicted with its paw on an open book that contains the text

Pax tibi, Marce, Evangelista meus.

This is Latin, and means "Peace be upon you, O Mark, my Evangelist." Venetian legend has it that, while visiting the region of Italy that would later become Veneto, Mark was approached by an angel, greeted with those words, and told that the Venetian lagoon would be his ultimate resting place. The actual story is most likely as described above, with the Venetians taking it upon themselves to fulfill the angel's prophecy (which they probably wrote themselves, too).

Interestingly, during times of war, the lion was depicted with a sword in one paw and the book, closed, safely kept under the other. Other depictions sometimes show a halo about the lion's head, the words on the book abbreviated to their initials, and the lion in moleca (showing only the head, top of the body, and paws).

Halifax's Winged Lion
It also happens that there is a Venetian winged lion in my home city, Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was brought there on board a replica of the Matthew, the ship that John Cabot sailed to the New World in the late 15th century in an expedition perhaps inspired by the success of Christopher Columbus.

John Cabot
John Cabot (a.k.a. Giovanni Caboto) was born in Italy c. 1450 and became a Venetian citizen early in his life. Despite his Italian heritage, he did all of his exploring for the British crown because no other European power was interested in supporting him. His first expedition in 1497 was a success, making him one of the first European explorers to land on what is today known as Cape Breton Island, which makes up the eastern part of Nova Scotia. His second expedition one year later met with disaster, however, and John Cabot was never heard from again.

On Saturday, August 23, 1997, Italy's ambassador to Canada, along with a member of the Venetian government, presented Halifax with a carved marble monument (featuring Venice's winged lion) to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of John Cabot's arrival in North America. Below are a few photos I took of the monument on Saturday, February 17, 2007.


(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

* * *

Click here to go back.