The winged lion (with the book, but also sometimes with a inkwell) is the symbol of the evangelist St Mark, patron saint of the Serenissima Republic of Venice.
The four evangelists are all accompanied by a precise symbol: in addition to the lion of St Mark, the iconography recalls the bull of St Luke, the angel of Matthew and the eagle of John.
The origin of these symbols is very ancient and seems to have to be found in a piece by Ezekiel (1,5-14) with the vision of God in the throne surrounded by four animated beings (tetramorph).
In the Apocalypse, the vision is of Christ on the throne surrounded by 24 vigilances, each with a harp, by seven fire lamps and by the same four creatures of Ezekiel who then become the symbols of the evangelists.
In the Middle Ages, the exegetes also found the justification for the symbols and specified that Saint Mark is represented by the lion because his Gospel (the shortest) begins with the majestic voice of John the Baptist who “roars” in the desert “according to what is written in Isaiah prophet”.
The life of this saint, companion of the Apostles, son of a widowed Mary, owner of a house in Jerusalem where Peter, miraculously escaped from prison, took refuge. Begun to the apostolic life of his cousin Barnabas, Peter considers him to be a son, while relations with Paul are more difficult (and how to wrongly give him…).
Antioch, Cyprus and Rome are some of the stages of Marco’s travels, who would then preach in Alexandria in Egypt where he would be martyred at the time of Trajan, with fire or perhaps dragged along the streets with a rope tied to his neck.
Around the year 828, Buono (man of Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello (merchant) disembarked with other companions in Egypt and stole the body of St. Mark, already venerated by Christians in the East at that time, replacing it in the urn with that of Blessed Claudia. To escape the controls, the relic is hidden between pork meat, considered immersed by the Saracens.
On the last day of January in 829, San Marco was received triumphantly by the Doge and the Venetians, and became the symbol of the nascent Republic, replacing San Teodoro of Greek origin, even in an empirical autonomy towards the Eastern Empire.
The construction of the basilica is immediately begun in it is placed the body of St. Mark’s, perhaps in the crypt; then found in 1094 in an urn inside a pillar. In front of this pillar, a perennial lamp is lit to commemorate the event. The discovery of 1811, in Napoleonic times, and the reconnaissance of 1835, during the Austrian rule, complete the history of the relic that is now placed under the high altar of the basilica.
Legend has it that Marco, before going to Alexandria, would have been to Aquileia (of which some want him bishop). Starting from this place, he stops in the Venetian lagoon to rest (just where today stands the church of San Francesco della Vigna, behind which there is still a small chapel in memory of the event, today transformed into a warehouse…). During the night spent there, an angel appears to him who predicts that in those islands there would be extraordinary inhabitants, devoted to him, and that his bones here would have found rest, and greets him in the name of Christ, with the famous phrase:”Pax tibi Marce evangelista meus”. These are the words that appear on the winged lion’s open book. The existence of the word “pax” leads to the closure of the book in case of war.
St Mark is often identified by historians in the Gospel, at the time of Jesus’ arrest, in the boy who was following him “wrapped only in a linen cloth. They tried to grab him, but let him drop the cloth and flee away naked”.