Mark 16:15: “ and he said to them, “go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation ”.
Mark was born in Cyrene, capital of Cyrenaica, in what is today Libya, according to several historians. His parents, Paul and Mary, were Jewish and they named him John. His family was economically well to do and therefore able to give him an excellent education. He learned to read and write Hebrew, Greek and Latin, deepening his knowledge of the sacred scriptures and in particular the texts of the prophets. John was probably born a few years after the birth of Christ, during the reign of Augustus. Before the death of the emperor in 14 a.C, Barbarian tribes had invaded Cyrenaica and pillaged the family’s lands and home, forcing his family to flee to Jerusalem, where John met the first messengers of the preaching of Jesus. John took the name Mark when he was introduced to the Greek-Roman world. Yet other sources have claimed that he was born in Palestine around the year 20. Mark belonged to a Hellenised family in Jerusalem who opened their home to the early Christians (acts 12:12 to 16). It is possible that Christ and his apostles visited their home, and that the last supper took place there. There is very little information available regarding Mark’s youth and his family. We have learned from the New Testament that he was a cousin of Barnabas (letter to the Colossians 4:10) and therefore a Jew of Levite lineage. The person Mark evangelist is known only via references in the acts of the apostles and in some of st. Peter and st. Paul’s letters. There is no source confirming that he met Jesus; however, since he lived in Jerusalem at the same time as Jesus did, he certainly must have at least heard of him. Several scholars have identified him with the boy clothed only in a sheet who, according to the gospel of Mark, followed Jesus after his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane. “Now a certain young man followed him, having a linen cloth thrown around his naked body. And the young men laid hold of him, and he left the linen cloth and fled from them naked.” (Mark 14:1.51,52). It is generally accepted that the boy was indeed Mark, the son of the wealthy widow Mary, who opened her home in Jerusalem to the master and his disciples. It is known that Mark was one of the first to be baptized by Peter, who visited his home quite often and called him in the spiritual sense, “my son”. The first precise reference to Mark in the acts of the apostles is the episode in which he describes the “miracle” of Peter’s release from prison: “so, when he had considered this, he came to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together praying.” (acts 12:12). More information is contained in the ecclesiastical history of Eusebius of Caesarea and the apocryphal acts of Mark, which were written much later and therefore are not reliable. Additional apocryphal fragments have been found that mention Mark, as well as two excerpts related to the martyrdom of Mark, one in Arabic and one in Ethiopian.
We know that Mark travelled with Paul and his cousin Barnabas to Antioch and that Paul referred to Mark as his assistant when he was preaching in Salamis (Cyprus), acts 13:5. Further in acts we learn that Mark abandoned Paul: “having set sail from Paphos, Paul and his companions came to perge in Pamphylia. John left them and returned to Jerusalem” (acts 13:13). Upon Mark’s departure, Paul, whose mission was to consolidate the churches of Syria and Cilicia, chose Silas as his companion while Mark travelled with his cousin Barnabas to Cyprus (acts 15:37-41); these events took pace in 52. Mark had reached Rome either in 42 or after 50, and as Peter’s assistant they carried out the mission to evangelize the circa forty-five thousand Jews living in Rome, as well as pagan Romans, and most importantly, the military classes. Greek was the international language of Peter’s audience and since he did not speak Greek very well, Mark was his interpreter. Around 200, Clement of Alexandria affirmed that Mark had composed his gospel in Rome, while the other ancient ecclesiastical writers claimed that Mark had transcribed the preaching of the apostle Peter without indicating where this had taken place. Clement declared that Peter preached the message of salvation to the knights of Caesar, who, in order to remember what the apostle had said, convinced Mark to write the gospel. Paul had evidently forgotten the “disagreements” with Mark as he is alongside the apostle in Rome between 61-64, as recorded in one of Paul’s letters: “Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, with Mark the cousin of Barnabas (about whom you received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him), and Jesus who is called Justus. These are my only fellow workers for the kingdom of God who are of the circumcision; they have proved to be a comfort to me” (Colossians 4:10 ff). Mark may have returned to the east before the persecution Nero actuated in 64; however, in 66 Paul requested Mark’s presence, as he wrote in his letter to Timothy: “be diligent to come to me quickly... only Luke is with me. get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry” (2 tim 4:9 to 11). Following the deaths of Peter and Paul in Rome, there is no other reliable information available concerning Mark.
Mark is considered the author of the second gospel, the shortest of the four; it consists of only sixteen chapters. The gospel of Mark reflects the interests and catechetical complications of a large community of converts to Christianity from paganism, which could be localized in Palestine or Syria, and dates to 70. He wrote his gospel considering the concept of the painful contrast between Christ’s powers of healing, forgiveness and victory over demons, and men who mocked him and desired his destruction. He explains this “contemptible” contrast in the context of the paschal mystery, demonstrating the profound law of the plan of God throughout Christian ministry. It is the gospel of the messiah humiliated and disputed, suffering and crucified, leading up to the centurion who professes his faith: “truly this man was the son of God”. Mark places more emphasis on the betrayal of Judas and Peter. To betray Christ or refuse to recognize him as a brother is the betrayal that is perpetually lurking behind the eucharistic supper.
It is clear that many of the stories and traditions concerning Mark intersect and overlap. There is much conflicting information regarding the epilogue of the life and death of the evangelist. The hagiography and iconography of the evangelist were defined and consolidated only at the end of the first and beginning of the second millennium, at least in the adriatic area. Both are the result of the contamination of two more or less legendary traditions, the Greek-oriental and the Latin occidental narratives, which, though, do contain some historical facts.
Mark founded the Church of Alexandria and was its first bishop. He died a martyr in the year of Christ, 68, under the reign of Nero and was buried in baucalis in Egypt. Mark’s apostolate in Alexandria is based on the text of the ecclesiastical history of Eusebius of Caesarea. Early historians and hagiographers embellished information about Mark and reconstructed an entire life of the saint from birth to martyrdom. According to Coptic sources, following the death of his cousin Barnabas and the apostles Peter and Paul, Jesus appeared before Mark inviting him to go to Egypt to evangelize the population in that territory. The saint obeyed the Lord’s calling, first returning to Jerusalem, where he gave his final farewell to his mother, who was nearing death, and then embarked on his new journey. When Mark reached Cyrene, he began to preach and perform miracles, and the population followed him assiduously, voluntarily adhering to the new preaching. Mark then resumed his journey to Alexandria, rival city of Rome, which had a population of one million inhabitants. The historian Simon Logoteta recounts the plan of the religious leaders of the city, who, when they realized the extraordinary number of followers and believers in Christ due to Mark’s preaching, to try to capture and kill him. Mark became aware of their plan by way of divine revelation; he thereupon ordered his disciples to build a large church in honour of Mary, constituting a true ecclesiastic hierarchy. Mark secretly escaped from Alexandria and returned to Cyrene, where he remained a few years to fortify the faith there and establish a hierarchy. The evangelist then returned to Alexandria to find that the number of Christians had increased significantly, were actively proselytizing and had already built a church for their worship in the village of Baucalis. Mark was killed in this village by means of dragging his body through the streets of the city. According to the “acts of Mark”, he died on april 25th around the year 72, at 57 years old. The Jews and the Pagans wanted to burn his body, but a violent storm caused them to flee in fear, allowing the Christians to retrieve the body and bury it in Baucalis in a cave. In the fifth century the body was taken from the cave and moved to the area of Canopus in Alexandria. This version of the events is also reported in the golden legend.
According to the latin-western legend, instead, Mark carried out his ministry predominantly in Rome and Venice. He arrived in Rome with Peter and was sent to the upper Adriatic metropolis of Aquileia, the capital of the Venetia et Histria region to evangelize the populations in the northeast. It is said that Mark converted Hermagoras, and became the first bishop of the city. Mark decided to leave the bishopric to continue his journeys; he was travelling by boat when a storm came up and he landed on the Rialtine Islands (the first nucleus of the future Venice), where he fell asleep and dreamed that an angel came to him saying: “pax tibi marce evangelista meus” (peace be with you my evangelist Mark) and the angel further promised that the islands would be his place of rest, awaiting his last day. The gospel of st Mark, traditionally attributed to the evangelist, was preserved first in the Basilica of Aquileia (the crypt of the basilica is decorated with frescoes depicting the cycle of the preaching of st Mark) and consequently in the patriarchal see at Cividale del Friuli. The text (actually, posthumous) is titled Evangelarium Forojuliense and is divided into three parts: one is preserved in the national archaeological museum of Cividale; the second part is in the archive of the cathedral of Prague and the third is kept in the biblioteca Marciana in Venice (which was a coveted spoils of war after the Serenissima conquered Friuli in 1420). Mark died in Alexandria and while according to some sources he died a natural death, still other sources indicate that st Mark was martyred.
There is, however, a common element in both hagiographies. Mark was a disciple of Peter; therefore, his gospel was “dictated” or “approved” by the prince of the apostles. This is a subtle but significant distinction. In the Victoria and Albert Museum in london, there is an ivory tile dating back to between the sixth and seventh centuries, where Peter is depicted as magister sitting on the curial bench dictating the gospel to Mark, whose head is bowed as he is humbly writing.
The iconography of the saint had definitely been established several centuries later, in the thirteenth century and we can observe in the mosaic room of the Zen Chapel in st Mark’s church in Venice, the evangelist writing the book in his study and then submitting it for approval to st Peter, who blesses him.
In the Venetian political elaboration of the Vita Santi Marci (the Life of st Mark) the evangelist has grown in rank and prestige. He is no longer just a scribe, but an author in his own right. As for the presence of Peter alongside Mark, we see them depicted together with St Hermagoras in the mosaics in the apse of the basilica that the Venetians consider precious, to be embellished and solemnly respected.
He remains of the evangelist that had been transported to the church built in Canopus of Alexandria, where his relics were kept, was burned to the ground in 644 by the Arabs and rebuilt later by the patriarchs of Alexandria. In the year 828, two Venetian merchants, Rustico da Torcello and Buono da Malamacco, stole Mark’s remains and transported them, hidden in a basket of vegetables and pork meat, to Venice. The relics were received with great honour by the doge Justinian Particiaco and temporarily placed in a small chapel, which today is identified as the treasure of saint Mark. The church dedicated to saint Mark was constructed a few years later and still today houses his relics. In 1071, saint Mark was designated the principal patron of Venice and namesake of the church, replacing saint Theodore, who the Venetians had venerated until then. Saint Mark’s symbol is a winged lion carrying in its paws a book upon which is written the phrase: “pax tibi marce evangelista meus”. The winged lion is also the emblem that identifies the lagoon city. Peter and Mark had very different vocations in history. Peter exclusively followed the religious path whereas Mark followed, almost entirely, the political one. everyone refers to saint Peter as caput ecclesiae, the first pope, the saint who in the Catholic Ekumen validates apostolic succession. saint Mark on the contrary, immediately became a symbol of the state. In the ten centuries of its history, the oligarchic Venetian republic has been identified with the name of the evangelist. The Venetian republic also took Mark’s symbol, the lion, and invested it with complex symbolism. The figure of the lion symbolizes the power of the word of the evangelist and spiritual elevation while the halo is the traditional Christian symbol of holiness. However, the lion also expressed the heraldic symbol of majesty and power (the raised tail of the lion evidences this trait), while the book expressed the concepts of wisdom and peace, and the halo conferred an image of religious piety. The sword, in addition to strength, is rather a symbol of justice and is recurrent in anthropomorphic representations of justice and not. It thus symbolically presented all the traits with which Venice likes to think and describe herself: majesty, power, wisdom, justice, peace, military strength and religious piety.
It is important to remember that the symbol of the lion representing st Mark is typical of Christian iconography and derives from the prophetic visions contained in the verses of st. John’s revelation (4:7). The lion is one of the four living creatures described in the book and positioned around the almighty’s throne, singing his praises, which the four evangelists then chose as their symbols. The prophet Ezekiel had previously described these “creatures” in his book contained in the Old Testament. The lion is associated with Mark based on the words at the beginning of his gospel in reference to the Christian vision of st. John the baptist dressed in a lion skin (despite the fact that Mark describes him as dressed in camel hair), while the evangelical phrase of the voice crying in the wilderness suggested a roar in the desert. In 180 ad st Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, interpreted the four tetramorphic creatures as symbols of the four evangelists. The early church did not seem to be favourable to these images as they evoked idolatry. When Christian belief was finally accepted into the sacred sphere, portraits of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, accompanied or not by their symbols, were sometimes prefaced to their respective gospels, according to the rather widespread Greek-Roman custom, to put the portrait of the author as the “title” of his work, on high level books. The Christians continued the practice of an already established tradition in the classic world. The iconography of Mark had been documented since the fourth century regarding monumental and plastic arts and by the sixth century it had spread to illustrations, from the Rossano codex to the mosaic images in the basilica of San Vitale during the Justinian age, depicting the four evangelists.
The religious cult of st Mark evangelist is widespread among Christian churches. St Mark is venerated in the eastern churches of Egypt, which originated from the ancient patriarchate of Alexandria, and the Italian patriarchates (now abolished) of Grado and Aquileia as well as the patriarchate of Venice where the body of the saint is kept in the basilica. The religious commemoration of st Mark is on 25 april, the anniversary of his martyrdom. St Mark evangelist is the protector of clerks, notaries, glaziers, opticians, and stained glass painters.
Lorenzo Ghiberti created the panel depicting st Mark on the North Door of the Baptistery in Florence between 1403-15. The panel belongs to the first phase of his work, which still reflects the influence of late Gothic style. His adherence to Gothic- international influence is evidenced in the accented decorations of the figures, the draperies and in the rhythm of the composition that describes the scene. Ghiberti conformed to the international Gothic style, while at the same time he introduced spatial perspective innovations of early Renaissance style. the other panels created in the early stages of the work,
Together with the evangelists include agony in the garden, Jesus among the doctors, temptation of Christ, transfiguration, crucifixion, the last supper and the figures of the fathers of the church.
Ghiberti placed the figure of the saint perfectly centred and inscribed in the quatrefoil frame. Saint Mark is seated with the lectern to his right, represented in perspective and referring to the “classic” style. Unlike the furnishings in the panels of the other evangelists and doctors of the church, the lectern in this panel is almost a pretext to refer to the ideal Classical architecture. The two columns with Ionic capitals support an entablature (sustaining the base of the lectern) while the top surface of the desk is tilted, reminiscent of a half gable. The evangelist is depicted in old age with a beard and curly hair; he is front view, his head slightly bent, captured in the act of writing. He is holding the stylus in the fingers of his right hand, suspended, as if reflecting, almost lost in thought. His left arm is lying on his chest in the act of devotion, holding his garments. The shape of the saint is outlined in ample, elegant draperies, clearly Gothic style, that cover his limbs, whilst the winged lion is high up in the sky to the left of the saint, peeking through the clouds. The half body of the lion depicted has a thick mane and is in a regal pose. The lion’s wings are spread and he is holding an unrolled scroll inscribed with the text in Greek letters.