The lion is a representation of the Venetian patron saint, St Mark. So legend tells, St Mark travelled to Venice in his lifetime whereupon an angel told him, ‘May peace be with you, Mark, my evangelist. Here your body will rest.’ Venetians later took this prophecy to heart when they stole Mark’s remains from Egypt and interred them in the Basilica (see my earlier blog ‘The very bones of Venice: Saint Mark’).
Why a lion specifically? And why winged? In Christian iconography the lion is one of the symbols representing the four evangelists. The lion conveys power (of the Word coming via the evangelist) and its wings tell of spirituality – a heavenly beast.
You find lions everywhere in Venice, from ornate carvings in architecture to the beast fluttering on the flags. The Venetian lion is often depicted with water, to represent the city’s strong relationship with the ocean; in some statues it is in moleca, crab-like.
In St Mark’s Square stands the most famous Venetian lion: a bronze sculpture atop a granite column dating back to the 12th century. (On the other column stands Venice’s original saint, Theodore of Amasea, on a crocodile, to represent the dragon he is supposed to have slain.) Interestingly, elements of the Mark statue date back to the beginning of the 3rd century BC in the Greek world; at some point the statue was refashioned to represent Mark, possibly as late as 1293, when its restoration was first recorded. Certainly, the statue had become symbol of Venice by 1797, because Napoleon seized it after his conquest of the Venetian Republic and brought it to Paris. Thankfully, the Venetians reclaimed their precious icon, and it now stands proudly looking its domain: the square that is ‘the most beautiful drawing room in Europe’ and, beyond, a city whose ideals most definitely live up to the emblem of the lion: majestic, strong, passionate.