Of Lions and Books
(and Swords)

What Do Fearsome Companions
of St Mark Tell Us About Venice,
Peace, and War.


TL;DR: There is a very popular ‘theory’ that asserts a venetian Lion with an open book tells you it was made in a time of peace (or that the town in which you found it was on friendly terms with the Republic of Venice). Correspondingly, a closed book under Lion’s paw means war (or hostilities). This ‘theory’ is wrong — so a different one is proposed.


Ah! — Venice, the most romantic city; its canali and gondolieri, its churches, piazzas, narrow streets and bridges (w/ and w/o gaspes); the lagoon and most expensive coffee and biennials and carnevale, all serenily looked upon by the city’s patron saint —Saint Mark the Evangelist. And with it, of course, the evangelist’s faithful companion: the Lion of St Mark, carved in stone, elaborately made in mosaics, painted, drawn, embroidered — everywhere: on palazzios and bell towers and wells, on boats and flags and T-shirts and smart-cut italian navy uniforms.


Mark — before he became Saint Mark — was actually a quite cranky, moody, explosive, annoying and grudgy kind of guy. Lion-tempered, one could say, and rightfully so. As an old story goes, he walked one day over a muddy bay in a muddy lagoon — feet in mud, cloak in mud, goddamn mud everywhere — and then he really loses it as one of his sandals is forever lost in the forsaken mud. He is not supposed to be here, lost in this mud! He is a bloody Evangelist! He wrote a book — The Book! He screams and kicks about and rants, insulting everything and everyone from hell (which, in his view, is a rather muddy place) to the big guy above, Creator Mudi — until at last the Angels in Heaven have enough of it and file a complaint to God himself. God, in his eternal wisdom and, well, not-so-eternal patience, sends an Angel down to Mark, berserking in the lagoon, with a simple and soothing message.

“Its okay, Mark. You did well with that book about my Son, but now you have to cool it down a notch. Or ten. Sit down — wait, not in the mud! — there, on that rock, there should be fine. Peace, Mark, my man — you are a bit strung, and this place is just perfect for your body to get some rest.”

Or, since the Angels speak Latin:

“PAX TIBI MARCE, EVANGELISTA MEVS.
HIC REQUIESCET CORPUS TUUM.”

This legend cemented the link between the Saint and the Lagoon.


Detail of the oldest extant copy of the Gospel of Saint Mark.
Papyrus P45, ~250 AD.


When Venice set about being Venice — with inhabitants of what is now Veneto and Friuli/Furlanija fleeing from all those armies of Quadi and Marcomanni and Visigothi and Attila the Hun himself into the maze of the Venetian Lagoon, founding Venezia on the island of Rivo Alto — today’s Rialto — at precisely noon, AD 425 — there was little hint of what it would become in the hundreds of years that followed.

Back then, Venetians didn’t even have lions on their flags. They had a patron saint, albeit not a very mighty one: it was St Theodore or St Theodore Tyron (or Tyro or Tiron or Tiro or Teron) of Amasea (if it wasn’t St Theodore Stratelates of Heraclea)— a warrior saint and a Dragon Slayer (not unlike St George).

But then Venice started to grow, the venetian fleet grew, and the trade, and the riches — and soon the egos of venerable Venetians were growing too. And those egos were growing fast.

Soon the poor Theodore wasn’t quite able to cope with the expansion of Venice and its puffed-up collective ego. Venetians were starting to look at both Romes — the old one in the middle of Italy, and the new one, Constantinople of many names, that actually exerted control of Venice through succession of bosses from the big one in Bisantium through the middle one in Exarhate of Ravenna to the local boss — Il Doge — in Venice proper. The comparison was not flattering.

The New Rome — Constantinople — had Saint Constantine, the Great Christian Emperor himself at the helm of a veritable armada of saints, who were wielding numerous relics, such as the pointy Holy Lancets that pierced the Side of Our Saviour (one could arm an army of Lancers with them), numerous Holy Pieces of the True Cross (so numerous that if put back together they would form a true forest of true crosses) and — it is said — three skulls of John the Baptist (of which one was of him in his teens!), among many many many many others.


One of the skulls of St John the Baptist, held in Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral, Reims, France.


The Old Rome, while dilapidated as it was and far removed from its glory days, still had the Pope, who was after all the Supreme Master (this was before the Great Schism — the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches were still The One Church). Plus, all the better-known guys from early Christianity came sooner or later to Rome, so its catacombs were filled to the brink with saints and church doctors and martyrs of both sexes. Leading the Holy Relics of Rome were complete skeletons of Saint Peter and Saint Paul themselves.

And poor Venetians had Saint Theodore Tiron of Amasea (or Saint Theodore Stratelates of Heraclea, if one ever gave a damn which one; they — the Venetians — didn’t) — and that was about it. Nothing really to brag about, right? A small muddy town with an insignificant crocodile-slaying saint nobody really cared about.

But the Venetians never looked upon themselves and their rapidly growing city as small or insignificant. So they recalled the old legend of Saint Mark and the Lagoon, which was to be his Resting Place as decreed by God himself — hell, they probably invented that story! — and set about to bring the relics of the Evangelist to their city, in order to boost its prominence. Significantly, one might add: an Evangelist easily trumps a million martyrs and at least a hundred of those Doctors of the Church! After all, there were only four of them.

Well, said the Venetians: since (we said that) God Himself said that the body of St Mark is going to rest in our lagoon, we may as well go and bring ‘im ‘ere! And boldly they went after him.


The story of how Venetians stole the body of St Mark from Alexandria, how they smuggled the relics through otherwise tough and suspicious custom (the resorceful gang covered the bones with pig’s fat, as the muslim officials were not to touch it, more less inspect the crate full of unholy animal residue!) is fascinating and entertaining. But alas, it is tangent to our story — it’s about Lions, yeah! — and we are stretching your patience enough already (it is still a long, looooong, long way to the end). Let us just conclude: at last the body — relics — of Saint Mark arrived in the City of Venice to much fervor and fanfare. It was the last day of January, 828. Venice now had a really cool patron saint. What’s more: with the saint another visitor came the city on stilts to stay here forever, to serve and to protect: a faithful and fearsome companion, the Lion of St Mark.

Venice took this Lion for their own — and Serenìsima Repùblica de Venesia became a Lion. Wherever Venetians went, the Lion of St Mark trodded majestically along.

Here our story begins.


Ancient bronze winged lion sculpture in the Piazza di San Marco, Venice. Hellenistic or Oriental Greek work. End of 4th — begining of 3rd century BC.


Lion of Saint Mark — [t]he first creature was like a lion, full of eyes in front and behind, as the Revelation goes — is a relative of The Sphynx and a close cousin of The Chimera: body of a goat, head of a lion, wings of an eagle. And the more iconographes became versed and manieristic, the more attributes our lion got. Like a saint’s halo. A mighty sword. And a book, of course.

All around the Adriatic we can find today the Venetian Lion in basreliefs on prominent buildings and palaces, its statues are looking upon us from church towers and bastions and daring pillars; its great wings spread as it is just about to fly, its hind legs emerging from the sea, and front paws resting proudly and defiantly on the Book. The open pages say PAX TIBI MARCE EVANGELISTA MEVS line of the old story: Peace be upon you, Mark, my Evangelist.

Usual Lion of St Mark
alato andante
(walking posture),
Koper, Slovenia
Unusual Lion of St Mark
in moleca
(
frontal posture),
Venice, Italy

Most Lions are usually depicted as leone alato andante — walking, seen from one side. Every now and then we see a different Lion, that is pictured from the front — in an almost exclusively City-of-Venice posture called leone in moleca, “crab-like” or, to use a more venetian expression: leone in maestà. This posture emphasizes the Lion rising from the sea and symbolises the holy union of Venice, its lagoon and the sea at large.

But the most significant difference between Lions that one can observe is in the books that the Lions hold.

The Book is usually opened. But sometimes it is — closed.


This difference is actually very prominent. At the very least, the book is an attribute of St Mark, and there is the Motto of Venice inscribed on it. There must be a good reason to close the book and hide the PAX TIBI MARCE etc. So — what does the closed book signify?

Lions of Saint Mark: one book closed, the other opened. What does this mean? How do books work?

Well, not long after the crumble of the Venetian Republic a theory of books emerged that was actually pretty simple, elegant, and telling:

If the building, built by Venetians, was finished in a time of peace, then the Lion that adorned it held an open book in his paws, prominently displaying words PAX TIBI and so on.

However, if the building was built in a time of war, then the angry and belligerent Lion closes the book and hides the whole Peace be upon you scribble, for there is no peace in war until victory!

Simple. elegant. Logical.

The theory was then expanded somehow, as digging through archives showed that some Lions held closed books in times of peace, and others stubbornly held open books while the war was raging all around. So, it was explained, if some town peacefully approached Venice for protection, or did not fight the Venetian Army but promptly surrendered as it arrived at the gates, then the most gracious Lion offered peace and protection to the good townspeople: PAX TIBI …! But for the towns who were stupid enough to fight La Serenissima — no such generosity: the book of peace remains closed for you, losers!

Even simpler. More elegant. More logical. Now expounded in (almost) every tourist guide of every town that has a Lion, in every show-off smart-ass travel blog, in school projects, textbooks, and even scholarly articles:

“Open Book Means Peace, Closed Book Means War.”

Or, alternatively:

“Open Means Friendly, Closed Means Hostile.”

Well, okay. Simple and logical, admittedly … but 


… a big but, actually …


The flag on the left was flown from the top mast of the flagship of Venetian fleet, La Capitana, under supreme fleet commander Sebastiano Vernier, future Doge of Venice, on a very significant day.

7 October 1571.

The flag is damaged, but one can see the Lion with a sword — and a book. An open book.

Why is the date so significant? Well, it was the day of the glorious victory at the Battle of Lepanto, where combined fleets of the Holy League — an alliance of Spain (with the Kingdom of Naples, the Kingdom of Sicily and the Kingdom of Sardinia), the Republic of Venice, the Papacy, the Republic of Genoa, the Duchy of Savoy, the Duchy of Urbino, the Knights Hospitaller and others — crushed the Ottoman fleet.

It was a day of a long, hard and bloody battle. War, if there ever was one. So — what was the bloodthirsty Lion doing there with an open book? Why were they calling on the Turbaned Turks: PEACE BE UPON YOU …!?

Did they make an honest mistake, and flew the wrong flag? Maybe they were just unwilling to spend money on new flags — them venetian scrooges! What if they — in the heat of the battle — forgot to change the flags, or just didn’t have the time to hoist the one with the closed book up the mast!

Hardly.

If one digs deeper, many Lions of St Mark can be uncovered that have an open book in worst of times or closed one in best of times. Towns that approached Venice and voluntarily submitted to the rule of La Serenissima have closed-book-lions, and those who engaged in protracted battles with venetians sport open-booked ones.

Something is wrong — with the theory. We must go deeper. And on the way ask some clarifying questions.


Here is the first one: this book that the Lion holds — which book is it anyway?

Well, the legend has it that the book is The Book, namely, the Gospel of Saint Mark.

Even if we accept that it is the Gospel that the Lion carries with him, there is one trouble with the Peace-Open-War-Closed theory. In those times every war was — at least in subscript — a holy, religious, converting war. Not just against enemies as the infidel Turks or blasphemous Cathars, Patharenes and all other disgusting heretics of the time: a (however small) religious dispute was a welcome stratagem even if one went and attacked the neighbouring duchy (or village) for its riches and land and women, and there was always a scholar of religion (or ten of those) at hand to find a convenient dispute. Therefore the Gospel was a Weapon, and a very powerful one: something you (with God on your side, d’oh!) would prominently display on your war banners!


While St Mark surely wrote The Happy Message, the conclusion that the book in Lion’s paws is the Gospel is also somewhat thin. As we saw, words PAX TIBI MARCE, EVANGELISTA MEVS are taken from a medieval legend, not from the Bible. There is no difficulty in picturing what would the not-so-happy guys (that never no one expects) of the Suprema Congregatio sanctæ romanæ et universalis inquisitionis — The Inquisition — do if somebody would go and scribble all over the book they so painstakingly (from pain and stake, which they mastered both) put together! Consensus over the canonical texts of the Bible was only just achieved (around AD 400 in the West, a century later in the East) — there was no way they would allow vandalising the Holy Scripture with some irreverent local graffitti. And there is more: some Lions out there do not display those words!


One of the Lions that does not say PAX TIBI MARCE 


Lion with an inscription on the Book that reads IN HOC SIGNO VINCES,
Museo maritimo, Venice

The Lion above is adorning the Court in Venice proper. The inscription reads Linquitur hic odium metus omnis rebus et ardor and Plectitur hicque scelus libratum cuspide veri; meaning Leave your hatred, envy and grudges outside and Here we shall punish the deeds, measured on the scales of truth.

The Lion on the smaller picture has an interesting book: there is a cross, and beside it words IN HOC SIGNO VINCES — under this sign you will conquer. Those words and the sign of the cross appeared to Constantine the Great in a vision on the eve of the final battle against non-christians. He won, surely, and the world was never the same. Since then, IN HOC SIGNO VINCES was a rallying cry of many of christian rulers and their armies — that differs in many ways from the PAX TIBI vibe of the usual inscription.

There are many more Lions of St Mark with different inscriptions. In Zadar, Croatia, the book says — in a somewhat circular way — Pax tibi quia semper dedisti nobis pacem (Peace be upon you who brought peace to us). On the island of Corfu, Greece, there is one with Sub umbra alarum tuarum protege nos (Protect us in the shadow of your wings).

So the Book in Lion’s paws is hardly the Good Book — and, what is more, the word PAX, peace, is not always present, as one would expect according to the Peace-Open-War-Closed theory.


Second important question: are there really only two options: an open book and a closed book?

The Lion of St Mark actually has three attributes: the Book, the Sword, and the Halo. As the halo is somewhat difficult to carve, it is not always there and it can be ignored as it really is a trickle-down attribute, coming from the Saint.

So there is the Book and the Sword. The Book is either open or closed, and the Sword can be lifted in a menacing manner, or put down on the ground (in which case the sculptors usually cut some corners and didn’t even bother with it). There are four combinations of those attributes:

  1. sword down, book open;
  2. sword down, book closed;
  3. sword up, book open;
  4. sword up, book closed.

The theory Open-Peace-Closed-War actually states that the combinations 2 and 3 are not even possible. There is no point in putting down the sword when you are going to war (2). On the other hand, an open book (PAX etc.) and an agressively raised sword just don’t go together well (3).

But … again a but …

See, the theory is crumbling, right? Now we shall do something strange and abandon the venerable position “The facts don’t fit the theory? Well, that’s just too bad for them!” — and try to find a theory that fits.


First, let’s check the structure of the Republic in the Lagoon. The Republic of Venice had a long and proud title La Serenìsima Repùblica de Venesia, that amounts to The Most Sovereign Republic of Venice. Not the Most Serene republic, as the title “serenissima” suggests; serenissima does not mean cool-in-a-majestic-way (serene), but Most Sovereign — Sovereignissima! Bear in mind that in those times another Most Sovereign Republic roamed the seas, namely La Serenissima Repubblica di Genoa (Venice’s archenemy) and even today the tiny San Marino is actually La Serenissima Repubblica di San Marino.

Republic is a somewhat misleading term. Venice had a supreme boss, the Doge of Venice, and Il Doge comes from latin Dux, the Duke.

While Venice was not a republic in the modern sense of the word, it was not a monarchy either. Il Doge ruled supreme, sure, but he was under oath given to all Venetians, and his actions and decisions were heavily dependent on numerous and detailed laws, and there were courts and assemblies and councils always eager to curb his enthusiasm for dictatorship.

At the bottom of the power chain in Venice there was L’Arengo— an assembly, a parliament of all men in Venice. Arengo rarely wielded any appreciable power, as it was susceptible to every kind of forcing, bribing, intimidations and demagogy.

One step higher was The Great Council — Maggior consiglio — composed exclusively of aristocrats of Venice. There were 35 of them in the M.C. at the start, then it expanded and hosted over a hundred wealthy men, and then it just grew exponentially — in 16th century there were 2.095 men with the right to sit in sessions of Maggior Consiglio. Their family names were written in the Golden Book of Venice, and only members of those families were eligible for the position of — well, consigliere. Theoretically it was the fount of all authority in Venice. Theoretically.

Then there was thePregadi, a senate of sorts, with 120 members, and the Council of Ten, a somewhat secretive club — homeland security and stuff — that often had the real power and operated behind the scenes.

Further up we find the Little Council — Minor Consiglio — with six trusted advisors to the Doge of Venice. Government in senso strictu.

On the judiciary side of power we find Supremo Tribunale della Quarantia, Court of 40 judges, that funcioned as the Supreme Court of Venice. This Quarantia expanded over time and split into Quarantia Criminale in Quarantia Civil, and the latter further split into Q. Civile Vecchia in Q. Civile Nuova.

Il Doge, Minor Consiglio and three leaders of the Quarantia tribunals consisted what it was called La Signoria — the Lordship — the supreme body of government of La serenissima repubblica di Venezia.


As we saw before, the Venetians were a proud bunch of people, and in the glory days of Venice they vied for power with Rome itself. There is a lot of similarities between their institutions of government — La Signoria — and the institutions of Rome. Not Rome of quattro- and cinquecento, but the Ancient Roman Republic, the greatest of them all. The separation of powers in ancient Roman republic and the checks-and-balances of their system reflected in the Venetian Lagoon: republic is above all; only in times of great crisis or imminent danger can the People of Venice entrust all the power into hands of one man (or a small group of them).

Medieval plague doctor in costume (the beak was supposed to prevent contraction by inhaling). One of today’s typical venetian masks is
il Medico della Pesta,
the beaked one.

Even La Signoria did not have this power of transfer of power, only the Maggior Consiglio could temporarily give supreme power to the Doge, the Judges of Quarantia or to the Ministry of Health. Yes, the plague ravaged Venice many times, and though it was seated on the islands in the lagoon the quarantine measures were hard to implement; at times of plague doctors wield the power.

Now — back to the Lions!

Look at this lion!

The composition, completed in year 1438, depicts the Doge — Francesco Foscari — kneeling before an imposing Lion of St Mark with the Sword down on the ground and the open Book.

There is almost an overflow of symbolism.

To whom the Doge answers? Who is he subordinate to? We have the answer above: to all of the Venetian institutes of power, from the Minor Consiglio and the Quarantias (La Signoria proper) to the Council of Ten and the Pregadi, to the Maggior Consiglio and the Arengo — in short, to the Republic of Venice as a whole.

The Lion — with an open book! — before which the Doge kneels is a symbol of the Republic, an allegory of its sovereignty (sovereingnissimity!) emanating from the people of Venice, history and Saint Mark.

The open Book is the key: as the Venice belong to Saint Mark, St Mark himself belongs to Venice; only La Serenissima could (and did) appropriate the words of an Angel — now Venice is saying to Mark: Peace be upon you, MY evangelist.

Let’s look back to the combinations of the Sword and the Book above and conclude the meaning of Combination 1:

“The Lion with an open Book and without the Sword
represents the Republic of Venice itself.”

Okay, so the open Book is the key symbol of the sovereignty of the Republic. What does the Lion tell us when he carries a closed book, then? In other words — what is the meaning of the Combination 2: A lion without the sword and with the book closed?

No biggie, right? A closed book means that the Republic had temporarily relinquished its sovereignty — and had transfered it to, well, using an Ancient Rome expression — to a dictator.

A Lion in moleca with
the book closed.
Time of plague, when doctors had the power.
The rule of Magistrati di salute is often depiced with a bunch of arrows that emanate from the book.
Island of Lazzaretto Nuovo, Venice.

A dictator could be the Doge himself, or an ad hoc military council, or the Supreme Commander of the Fleet. It could be the Minor Consiglio and — when Yersinia pestis came to the town and brought the Black Plague —even Magistrati di salute, ministry of health, that was responsible for the quarantine. In any of those instances the sovereignty of the Republic was delegated to an institution that normally did not have that much authority.

The closed book can also symbolise La Signoria, especially in times of a weak or absent Doge; La Signoria was the Executor of Sovereignty — as the sovereignty passed from God to St Mark to the Republic and finally to these offices of power.

So we may form a conclusion regarding Combination 2, a bit more convoluted:

“The Lion with a closed Book and without the Sword represents suspension of the sovereignty of the Republic — or delegation of sovereignty — or the executors of sovereignty.”

Two down, two to go. The Lions of Combination 3 and 4 are much rarer than the two above. Let’s look at the bizarre combination — bizzare under the crumbling Peace-Open-War-Closed theory — of Lion that bears Pax but has a menacing Sword lifted, threatening to strike. Like this one:

The open book is, obviously, sovereignty, La Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia personified. The sword, however, is not an instrument of war, but of authority. Sacred authority over life and death, to be precise: life and death of those who entrusted this authority to the Republic — the People of Venice.

The Sword of Authority is somewhat more familliar in this allegory:

Yes, it is Justice. The Lion with an open Book and visible Sword is a representation of the Justice of Venetian Republic. Usually, a symbol of the Court palaces of justice, other institutions of the judiciary, including prisons and gallows. We have another conclusion, about Combination 3:

“The Lion with an open Book and with the Sword raised
represents justice of the Venetian Republic.”

One more to go!

Lion of Combination 4, with a closed Book and raised Sword. Surely a dangerous and poweful symbol, right?

Well, yes — and no. Analyze this:

This beautiful Lion of St Mark is not in Venice, but in the town of Valstagna, located in a dramatic valley some 60 km north-west of Venice. Actually, Lions like this (Combination 4) are not found in Venice at all — we can only see them today in a handful of towns that were subject to the Venetian rule. There is a reason for that.

The Book is closed, so we are dealing with some sort of delegation of sovereignty. The Sword is raised, so there is Justice.

Did the Venetian Republic leave some of the sovereignty to the people of Valstagna, but the justice of La Serenissima is firmly in place?

Exactly. The town and the people were under jurisdiction of the Venetians, but were otherwise free. And in those times “free” pretty much meant “not having to pay taxes”.

This Lion is actually a Tax Free Zone sign.

This was a rather big favour; an honor in fact, bestowed by La Serenissima only to those who fought really valliantly on the side of Venice.

There we have it: the conclusion tor Combination 4:

“The Lion with a closed Book and with the Sword raised
represents that the town had won taxation privileges.”

There. Lions and books and swords can tell a lot … Let us repeat what they are saying:

  • if the Lion has an open Book and no Sword, then it represents the Republic of Venice itself;
  • if the Lion has a closed Book and no Sword, then it is from times of delegated or diminished sovereignty of Venice;
  • if the Lion has an open Book and raised Sword, then it means justice of Venice;
  • if the Lion has a closed Book and raised Sword, then it is a sign that the town got an honor of being a tax-free zone within the Republic of Venice.

So it was, then.

Or, at least I can dream that it was so — for La Serenissima never codified its symbols …


A plea: if you see a Lion of any of these book-sword combinations (especially 2, 3, and 4) outside Venice, please let me know. Using the above theory the Lion can be dated with greater precision — and the theory can be verified (or falsified). Photos much appreciated!