Sunday 13 April 2008

Venetian Relics I: Double Decker Saints

This is one of my favourite Venetian churches: San Zaccaria, not too far from St Mark's Square. The Benedictine convent that was once attached to the church was the oldest and richest in the city (until its suppression in 1810). Such was the convent's prestige that the Doge solemnly processed to the church every Easter - indeed, it was said that one Abbess, Agiostina Morosini, had been the first to present the doge with his distinctive hat, the cornu. I like the detail that the procession always avoided the Riva degli Schiavoni, since one Doge (Pietro Tradonico) had been assassinated here in 837, so they came instead by the Via SS Filippo e Giacomo.

The church contains one of the most bizarre shrines that I've seen - a side altar on the epistle side aisle, which contains the bodies of two major saints, arranged as a sort of 'double-decker.' On the bottom is St Zechariah, the father of St John the Baptist and patron of the church. On top is St Athanasius, Doctor of the Church - with no obvious connection to his saintly neighbour, beyond the fact that he was a great theologian of the Incarnation. It seems strange that these major relics were just put in a side aisle, not even in a chapel of their own! I'm not sure of the provenance of the relics - possibly St Zechariah was pinched from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. The Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo also claims the body of St Athanasius...



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