Christian sites in Venice: what we need to know about the fragments of the Holy Cross

“First the Venetians, then the Christians.”

What do we know about Venice? World-famous gondolas, canals, Venetian masks, the festival. And today it is the second city in Europe – after Rome – by the number of shrines of the undivided Church. The city that once dared to disobey the orders of the Pope. A city that was an outpost of Byzantium in Italy and, afterwards, sponsored the Crusade against Constantinople. A city originally free from a pagan past. “St. Mark’s Republic.”

About Venice, its shrines, its history and Orthodoxy in the “city of bridges and canals” tells the rector of the only Russian Orthodox parish in Venice today – priest Alexy Yastrebov.

My first steps in Venice were a revelation to me. I arrived in the winter, in the evening, and immediately went to get acquainted with the clergy of the Greek Church. And my parishioners that same evening offered to worship the local shrines.

The first thing I saw were the relics of St. Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, and the relics of St. Athanasius the Great, Patriarch of Alexandria, whom I had regarded with particular reverence since my seminary years: he was an ascetic, theologian, talented administrator, writer, and fighter against Arian heresy, a legendary and very strong personality. The Orthodox version of “How Steel Was Tempered” is about him. And here I see his relics in front of me.

Subsequently, I have observed the reaction of different people to the shrines of Venice: it is both astonishment, awe, and delight. I will never forget, for example, the spiritual rapture of Father Gennady Belovolov, rector of the Leushinsky branch in St. Petersburg, and his companions before the Byzantine image of Our Lady of Nicopeia, the prototype of the icon “I am with you and no one on you” that they and our entire Church revere (associated with the great ascetics – the right hand of St. John of Kronstadt and the Church). John of Kronstadt and St. Seraphim of Vyritsky).

For Italy, the abundance of holy relics is no surprise. They were given to one another by noblemen, brought from territories occupied by the Turks to save them from desecration, they were even stolen, often by any means: torture, bribery. In the Middle Ages it was thought that the more relics of saints and martyrs a city had, the more heavenly patrons it had.

St. Mark’s Basilica, photo by Fr. Alexei Yastrebov

A city free of paganism

Venice was originally a Christian city, free from a pagan past. Founded in 421 AD on the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25) by Roman citizens who had fled the Huns, it soon became a vassal of the Byzantine Empire. But from the very beginning – on terms of autonomy. The city-state from the end of the VII century to the end of the XVIII century was ruled by the Doge – there were 40 of them.

For their participation in the wars against Byzantine enemies, the inhabitants of the lagoon were exempted from imperial taxes and helped with the construction of the grandiose cathedral of St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice.

Gradually the republic grew stronger, and stronger enough that in 1204 it turned its weapons – and its financial resources – against its own former suzerain, the Byzantine Empire. During the Fourth Crusade, Doge Enrico Dandolo sided with the son of the deposed Byzantine emperor Isaac Angelus, who promised the crusaders a generous reward for help in regaining the throne. Thus, on the way to the Holy Land, the army goes to storm Constantinople. For fifty years Venice participates in the plundering of the East.

Little-known but surprising places in Thailand and Malaysia

However, as if in punishment for this, in 1347 the Venetian army, which had returned from the Crimea after a siege of the Genoese fortress of Cafa (now Feodosia), brings a plague epidemic to the lagoon. Outbreaks of the terrible disease several times killed up to half of the city’s population. It is no coincidence that the Basilica of Our Lady of Health was built to commemorate the deliverance from the “black death”.

A new blow to Venice is the invasion of the Turks, who in 1453, after the fall of Constantinople, rushed to seize the Mediterranean. The legitimate economic, military and political decline of the once glittering city makes it easy prey to the French and Austrians in the late 18th century. Venice became Italian (but again, not independent) only in 1866.

Photo by Vladimir Eshtokin

Between Two Churches

When it comes to the religious picture, everything that has to do with Italy is usually associated with traditional Catholicism. Venice, of course, is a Catholic land. But the religious situation in Venice has always been special.

Historically, Venice has occupied a middle ground between the Churches of the West and the East. This is a characteristic feature of local spiritual and secular culture.

The medieval urge to imitate Byzantium – even if originally in the rites and ceremonies of the imperial court – has survived the Fourth Crusade: the influence of Eastern Christianity is still felt here today. This is particularly noticeable in the grandiose St. Mark’s Cathedral where one can see, for example, a marble Gothic iconostasis from the late 14th century (whereas Catholic churches usually have no iconostasis) or an image of Our Lady of Nicopeia (“the victorious”) from the 11th to 12th centuries, in front of which in Byzantium imperial troops asked for intercession on the eve of battles (ironically, more precisely, by the Providence of God, the icon was captured just before the defeat of the Romans and the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade). And St. Mark’s Cathedral itself was erected under the direction of Byzantine craftsmen, on the model of Constantinople’s “Apostoleon” (temple of the 12 apostles).

Orthodoxy continued to influence Venice after the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks: through the Greek islands (including Crete), which had been under the rule of the Republic of Venice from the 13th to the 18th century. By the way, this influence was mutual: for example, in modern Greek churches the pews appeared precisely in the period of close contact with the Venetians. And Venice, in turn, for centuries celebrated the memory of the saints of the undivided Church.

Photo by Vladimir Eshtokin

The Venetians themselves proudly regarded themselves as citizens of their city-state first, and then as belonging to a certain religious tradition. “Veneziani, poi Cristiani” – “first Venetians, then Christians”: the inhabitants of the lagoon never lacked either self-sufficiency or a sense of superiority. In the 1920s, Doge Andrea Gritti put forward the idea of a “new Rome”, proclaiming Venice heir to the long-defunct Roman Empire.

The Senate of the “Republic of St. Mark” itself appointed its patriarchs, which is how the ruling bishops of the Venetian provinces have been titled since the end of the sixth century until today. A characteristic episode happened at the turn of the 16th-17th centuries: Venetians defiantly refused to obey the Vatican when Pope Clement VIII ordered all candidates to the Italian bishops to come to Rome for the “examination of bishops”. Venice believed that it should elect and approve its ruling bishops itself. And the Vatican eventually had to give in.

The 16 most beautiful villages of New Aquitaine, France

But the other side of this independence was dependence on secular authorities. The state interfered in pastoral matters, appointing bishops and priests. A peculiar version of theocracy emerged, formalized after the construction of St. Mark’s Basilica. The holy apostle was declared “head of state,” “ruling” along with the Doge. After the fall of Constantinople this doctrine becomes official. As a result, the Doge, for example, as secular head of the city-state and not head of the Church, nevertheless had the authority to teach the people “solemn blessings” on the days of major feasts – they were taught from a “pergola”, a special pulpit in the basilica of St. Mark. The basilica itself was the doge’s house church, and its clerics were not subordinate to the bishop, but to the “vicar of Saint Mark”.

Parts of the relics of the saints: the Great Martyr Panteleimon, the Apostle and Evangelist Luke, the martyr Sergius, the Great Martyr George. Photos of Fr. Alexei Yastrebov, with the permission of the procuratorium of the Basilica of St. Mark.

The arch between the domes of Ascension and Pentecost, St. Mark’s Basilica (XII-XIII centuries mosaic).

The center of sanctuaries

Venice as a center of holy places was made by the abovementioned belief: “more relics, more patrons”. Shrines were brought by the first founders of the city and placed as foundations of churches and altars; holy relics were donated to their allies by Byzantium (the first such donation was the 9th century relics of the holy Zacharias, father of St. John the Baptist – a gift from Emperor Leo V); in the periods of anarchy in parts of the empire (ca. IX-XII centuries) the Christian heritage was subject to pillage; during the Arab and Turkish conquests they removed relics, saving them from desecration.

And after the Catholic Trident Council (1545-1563) revived the veneration of the relics of the saints by Catholics, the study of the Roman catacombs began. Thus from the Eternal City the bodies of the first Christian martyrs were brought to Venice, about whom nothing is known except their names: St. Paul, a Roman patrician, Marcus of Florence, Venustus, Fidencius, the martyr Anna, the martyr Irene, etc.

Finally, Venice had its own saints who died before the separation of the Churches (that is, before 1054). These were the Doge Piero the First Orseolo Saint (died in 978) and the holy martyr Gerard, the enlightener of Hungary (1046).

So the “city of bridges and canals” became the owner of a unique collection of relics – according to an 18th century catalog, 49 relics of saints were kept in the city! Unfortunately, this statistic was corrected by the Napoleonic Wars: the Republic fell to the French in 1797 and then passed into the hands of the Austrians. Churches were devastated and relics could be simply thrown away – the conquerors were far more interested in precious relics.

But what remains, however, deserves the attention of any devout Christian.

The Bridge

…It happens that people who hardly ever go to church in Russia, when they come to Venice for a vacation, become interested in church life: it’s hard to be indifferent to the world of Orthodox holiness, which many people unexpectedly encounter here in the West. Venice was both the plunderer of Orthodoxy and its patroness, a “little Byzantium. And for me, this city is above all a city of bridges, both literally and figuratively. “A bridge between East and West,” though the expression has become trite.

Azerbaijan is a country hospitable to all tourists

The saints do not belong exclusively to the East or the West. They are the gracious possession of everyone who receives and honors them with faith and love; they are a reality that helps us, Orthodox and Catholics, to understand each other better.

The Icon of Our Lady of Consolation, or “The Bean”

That is why, when people come here, they come not as guests, but to our saints, our brothers and sisters in Christ glorified by the Church, to ask for their prayers and blessings.

An archival document from 1938, which is the minutes of a meeting of Venetian clergy, says the following: “More immeasurably than the most beautiful monuments of art and all its precious paintings and sculptures, Catholic Venice has always honored and protected the honorable relics of its saints. It is these, in their totality, that constitute the lasting value, which, by the grace of God, endures through the ages, despite the many political collisions, abolitions and destructions of monasteries and majestic temples.”


Since 2002, there is a community of Russian Orthodox Church in Venice, on Sundays and on major holidays we hold services – in the Catholic church, provided to us in the temporary use. The website of the Orthodox Parish of the Holy Myrrh-bearers is

In 2010 we published a 400-page guide entitled “The Sanctuaries of Venice”. The book contains a story about the history of the city-state, the history of Orthodoxy in Venice and information about its shrines. The guide is organized territorially: churches, as well as relics, icons, and other holy objects resting there, are described district by district. At the end of the book is a complete list of sanctuaries, a map showing the churches of Venice, and possible itineraries, varying according to the length of the trip.

In addition, as a result of long and painstaking work, in 2008 a DVD film “Orthodox sanctuaries of Venice” was released. In Moscow, the DVD is available in the bookstores of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the Sretensky Monastery and the Lavra of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius, and the book is on sale only in Venice: at the parish of the Holy Myrrh-bearers and the Basilica of San Marco. Come!

The crypt of the Basilica of St. Mark (where the relics of the Evangelist were kept until 1835) Photos by Fr. Alexei Yastrebov, by permission of the procurator’s office of St. Mark’s Basilica

Saints, whose relics are in Venice


St. Mark is the author of one of the four Gospels, the author of the liturgy traditionally called Mark’s, a disciple of the original apostles Peter and Paul, the founder of the Christian community in Northern Italy and the Alexandrian Patriarchate.

The Evangelist accepted a martyr’s death at the hands of pagans. He was seized during the Divine Liturgy, chained and dragged through all of Alexandria. The martyr never tired of repeating: “I thank You, Lord Jesus Christ, that You made me suffer all this for Your name’s sake. He was thrown into prison for the night, where an angel visited and strengthened him, and then the Lord Himself appeared to him and said: “Peace be with you, Mark, my evangelist.”

The 16 best beaches in Maryland, USA

The next morning the crowd of Gentiles continued to drag the apostle through the streets until Mark gave his soul to God. Christians placed the holy relics in a tomb in the Bucolis district of Alexandria.

During the Arab conquests, when the Caliph of Egypt ordered the dismantling of Christian temples in order to use their stones to build his palace, the holy relics were removed from Alexandria and transported to Venice by merchants. They transported the relics in a basket with the carcasses of pigs – the Muslim customs officials did not dare touch the “unclean” animals.

The relics were placed in the Doge’s home church – today the grandiose Basilica of St. Mark – since then Mark has been considered the patron saint of Venice. The relics are under the throne of the high altar of the upper church.

Relics of St. Paul of Thebes. Photo courtesy of Professor Renato D’Antiga


The Venerable Paul did not found a single monastery, but it is he who is considered the “father of Orthodox monasticism.”

He was born in Egypt, in the city of Thebaid. As an orphan, he suffered a lot at the hands of a selfish relative because of his parental inheritance. Paul was about to be extradited by the authorities during the persecution of Decius (249-251), and when he learned of this, he withdrew to the desert of Tiberias. There he lived 91 years, in a cave at the foot of the mountain, praying unceasingly to God and eating dates and bread brought to him by the raven.

Not long before the saint’s death, the Venerable Anthony the Great, who was ascetic in the same wilderness, came to his cave. Having taught Antony a lesson in humility, Paul came out of his cave to meet him. The elders called each other by name, embraced each other and had a long talk.

Saint Paul of Thebes died in the year 341 at the age of 113 and was buried by Saint Anthony the Great not far from his cave.

The relics of the saint were transferred to Constantinople by the emperor Manuel Comnenus (1143-1180). In Venice in the 13th century it was brought to the shrine by the noble citizen Giacomo Lanzolo: he persuaded the abbot of the Benedictine monastery to donate the relics. Today they are above the main altar of the Church of St Julian of Antinoy.


Saint Theodore Stratilat came from Asia Minor, serving as a soldier (“stratilat” in Greek) in the city of Heraclea near the Black Sea in the 3rd and 4th centuries. His life and service endeared him to the citizens of the city, and many were impressed by his example and converted to Christianity. When the emperor Licinius, who persecuted the Christians, learned of this, he came to the city and made the governor worship the pagan gods. When he firmly refused, he subjected Theodore to torments: they beat him brutally with iron rods, they burned him with fire, and finally they crucified him on the cross and put out his eyes. At night an angel appeared to the martyr and healed him completely. In the morning the servants of Licinius, who had been sent to throw Theodore’s body into the sea, believed in Christ when they saw him perfectly healthy. And after them, many other Gentiles. On learning of this, the emperor ordered the martyr to be beheaded. These events were described by their eyewitness, the servant and scribe of Saint Theodore – Huar.

Sightseeing in France: Cemetery of the guillotined victims of terror

In 1257, the captain of the Venetian navy, Giacomo Dandolo, invaded Mesembria (now the Bulgarian town of Nesebar) and transported the relics of the martyr to Constantinople. Ten years later, a relative of the captain transported the shrine to Venice. It is kept in a reliquary above the throne of the right side chapel of the Church of Christ the Savior. The vestment can be seen, with the imperishable hand and sandal-clad feet exposed. The relics are unveiled only twice a year: on November 1-15 (the saint’s feast day in the Western Church is November 9) and during the period from Catholic Easter to Ascension.


Saint John, Patriarch of Alexandria, was a native of Cyprus. By the will of his parents he married as a young man and had children, but after the death of his wife and children he became a monk. At the beginning of his archpastoral ministry he ordered that all the poor and needy in Alexandria be taken into account. Twice a week, on Wednesday and Friday, he went out to the door of the patriarchal cathedral and received all the needy: he sorted out quarrels, helped the offended, and distributed alms. Three times a week he visited hospitals. He ransomed people from Persian captivity. He himself was a strict ascetic and prayerful. John ordered a coffin for himself, but did not tell the craftsmen to finish it, but asked them to come every feast day and ask if it was time to finish the work. Shortly before his death, the archbishop saw in a dream an angel who said to him, “The King of kings is calling you to himself.” The patriarch passed away peacefully to the Lord in the year 616.

According to the accounts, not only the body of the saint remained undecayed, but also his vestments retained their vividness of color. The holy relics were transported to Venice in 1249. They can still be seen under glass on the right wall of the chapel of St. John, in the Church of St. John the Baptist in the Castello district.

On November 25, the feast day of the saint, a prayer service is always held at the shrine. There is permission from church authorities to serve prayer services also for groups of pilgrims from Russia who come to worship the saint.

Photo by Vladimir Eshtokin


– Relics of St. Nicholas of Myra (in 1087 the Baryans, who came to steal the relics of St. Nicholas from the temple of the Byzantine city of Myra, in a hurry left in a sarcophagus about a fifth of the relics. Nine years later, the Venetians removed this portion from Myra in Lycia); Sainted Athanasius of Alexandria, Saint Basil the Great, Sainted Martyr Barbara, Sainted Carmelites Cosmas and Damian, Righteous Simeon (about whom the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2), Martyr Lucia of Syracuse, the head of Saint Helena, Equal to the Apostles, and others.

– Shrines related to the sufferings of Christ: relics of the Holy Cross of the Empresses Irene and Mary, Henry of Flanders, etc.; relics of the Blood of Christ (San Marco and the scuola of San Giovanni Evangelista); spikes from the Crown of Thorns.

( No ratings yet )
Like this post? Please share to your friends:
Leave a Reply

;-) :| :x :twisted: :smile: :shock: :sad: :roll: :razz: :oops: :o :mrgreen: :lol: :idea: :grin: :evil: :cry: :cool: :arrow: :???: :?: :!: