The Pala Feriale by Paolo Veneziano
Excerpted from the 1995 Save Venice Journal
The so-called Pala feriale, or “weekday altarpiece”, of the Basilica of San Marco was signed by Paolo da Venezia and his sons, Luca and Giovanni, on 22 April 1345 (“Magister Paulus cum Luca et Joanne filiis suis pinxerunt hoc opus/ MCCCXLV mensis aprilis die XXII”). Painted as a cover for the Pala d’oro, which was then (as now) displayed to the congregation only on feast days, the altarpiece was commissioned by Doge Andrea Dandolo (1343-54), who also funded the restoration of the Pala itself.
The altarpiece is divided into two registers. Above, the painters represented half-length figures of the crucified Christ, flanked by the Virgin Mary and Saints Mark, Theodore, John the Evangelist, Peter, and Nicholas of Bari. Below, seven episodes of St. Mark’s life are illustrated: Saint Peter consecrating Saint Mark as bishop; Saint Mark curing the shoemaker, Anianus; the apparition of Christ to the imprisoned St. Mark; the saint’s martyrdom; St. Mark saving the ship from the storm during the passage to Venice; the apparition of the saint’s body in his basilica; and pilgrims at his tomb.
Overall, as one might expect, the Pala feriale refers to the Pala d’oro, both for the structure or format and for the subjects represented. In the Pala d’oro, however, we see full-length figures of various sizes in the lower zones, and small narrative scenes in the upper registers and also at the sides. Simplifying the format of the Pala d’oro, Paolo also simplified its symbolism, or rather, he distilled it, because while the Pala d’oro emphasizes the figure of the Savior and the cycles of his life, with a briefer and smaller cycle devoted to St. Mark, the Pala feriale illustrates St. Mark’s life and the figure of the dead Christ. Finally, the seven narratives of St. Mark’s life derive almost literally from the text of The Golden Legendby the great Dominican hagiographer, Jacobus da Voragine, and follow his chronological order rather than the sequence of the Pala d’oro.
Notwithstanding the divisions of the frame, which unfortunately has been lost, the saints of the Pala feriale are united psychologically in their compassion for the crucified Christ. Likewise, the individual chapters unite in the narrative cycle, with the divisions of the frame functioning to punctuate the episodes as commas rather than periods. Paolo enhances the psychological and dramatic unity of the scenes by means of the gazes, postures, and grouping of his actors and by means of the spatial perspective of his architectural settings. With these various devices, he encourages the observer to read the Pala feriale from left to right as though it were a written text which has a beginning, a central climactic moment, and a denouement. In the upper register, this means that none of the sacred figures is situated symmetrically in his space with the exception of Christ crucified, central in the central compartment. In the lower register, the central event of the cycle is the saint’s martyrdom – given further emphasis by the representation of the crucified Christ directly above in the upper register. Paolo thus unites the two registers vertically, thematically and visually, along the central axis. We understand that the sacrifice of the Savior is renewed in the martyrdom of his saint.
In the Pala feriale, as elsewhere in 14C Italian art, the sacred beings are depicted with a more conservative and Byzantinizing style, intended precisely to express the fact that they are above and beyond daily reality. The narratives, on the contrary, which represent events that occurred in our world, are for that very reason represented with a naturalistic style appropriate to the recording of history and calculated to convince the beholder of their authenticity. The narrative scenes may be small in dimensions, but they are monumental in conception. This cycle signals the beginning of the Venetian school of history painting, which culminates in the 15C with Gentile Bellini and Carpaccio.
In the second scene, for example, Mark cures Anianus, the Alexandrian shoemaker who wounded his hand as he was repairing the saint’s sandal. Like the shoes of a modern tourist at the beginning of a trip, Mark’s shoe fell apart (as Paolo shows us) when he had just arrived in Alexandria, but this misfortune was actually a blessing in disguise. According to Voragine’s text, when the cobbler’s needle stabbed his hand instead of the shoe, he cried out: “One is God!” thus inviting both a miraculous cure and a theological discourse with his saintly customer. After this conversation, Anianus became St. Mark’s first convert in Alexandria.
Only three figures are present here – the shoemaker, Mark, and the saint’s anonymous colleague – but Paolo has elaborated on the details of the scene to convince us of its actuality. Since Mark has just landed, we see the prow of his ship in the port, with its sails folded and its cables stretched taut by the anchor. The obelisk (perhaps representing the famous lighthouse of Alexandria) shows us that we are in Egypt, even though the shoemaker’s shop seems a fantastic version of 14C Venetian architecture. Paolo shows us the cobbler’s bloodied hand and the needle with which he unintentionally inflicted the wound. In the upper register, as we have seen, St. Mark seems to preach to us, even as he addresses the newly converted shoemaker. Perhaps Paolo wished to suggest that we too, the contemporary congregation, have need of the saint’s lesson and that Mark will effect this (re)conversion here as he did in Egypt.
Similarly compelling is Paolo’s narration of the voyage to Venice. Voragine explains and Paolo illustrates how, “one night when the ships were scudding before a high wind and the seamen, shaken by the violence of the storm…had no idea where they were headed, Saint Mark appeared to a monk who was guarding his body and said: ‘Tell them to lower the sails quickly, because they are not far from land!’ The sails came down, and at dawn all saw that they were lying close to an island”. The swelling sails and flying banner suggest the gale winds of the storm that would have led the ship onto the rocks. Paolo exploits the forms and oscillating patterns of black and white of these fabrics to underline the sense of drama, thus animating his beautiful but static model, the Pala d’oro enamel. A sailor clings to the casket that contains the saint’s body, either to hold himself steady or to see that it does not fall overboard. Paolo opens the chest slightly to show us its precious contents. In contrast to his representation of the saint’s body, he specifies the supernatural and visional character of the Mark who appears at the helm, with rays of golden light emanating from his figure and a mantle modeled with gold striations (such as are used for the Christ in a preceding episode).
The Venetians had interred Saint Mark’s body in a column of his church, as Voragine recounts. It seems most likely that the relics were destroyed during the subsequent reconstruction of the Basilica, but this would have been an unacceptable admission for the official historiography of the Venetian Republic. Voragine repeats the explanation concocted by the Venetians themselves, a literary topos of hagiography. Voragine tells us that few people knew where the saint’s relics had been concealed, and when all those individuals had died, “there was no one who…could give any clue as to their whereabouts. This caused much lamentation in the church. A feeling of desolation spread among the faithful, and a cloud of grief hung over all…” Saint Mark intervened once again, and “in full sight and to the wonderment of all, the stones bounced out of the column and the casket that hid the saint’s body was visible”. To make matters explicit, Paolo shows us the Basilica itself, not a literal portrait but an epitome of its primary characteristics: a golden dome, round arches on slender columns, and the paneling of the semi-precious stones, porphyry and serpentine. Among the witnesses, we recognize the Doge, who must be Ordelaffo Falier, because the rediscovery of the saint’s body occurred during his dogate (1102-1118). Even though the ducal vestments had changed only slightly between Falier’s time and Dandolo’s, they had nonetheless changed somewhat, and the Doge of the altarpiece is gowned according to more recent precepts of ducal fashion, including the ermine mantle, the so-called bavero. Falier never wore such a mantle, but his successor and the patron of the Pala, Andrea Dandolo, did, as we see in the figure of the Doge in the altarpiece. The Doge in the altarpiece is presumably a portrait of Andrea Dandolo cast in the historical role of his predecessor.
The final chapter of the Pala feriale shows us hopeful pilgrims gathered at the saint’s tomb, which is represented as a sarcophagus beneath a baldachino or canopy, recalling the high altar of San Marco itself. Among the pilgrims, at least one figure is characterized as a prisoner, while others are shown as cripples, possessed, and other tormented souls – recalling the traditional assortment of pilgrims in medieval scenes of the faithful at saints’ tombs. One elegant figure stands apart from the others, however, seeming more a witness than a supplicant. Perhaps he too may have a specific identity. Alternately, it may be that Paolo da Venezia intended only to suggest that the saint’s intermediation is not limited to the unfortunate. Such reassurance might have seemed particularly appropriate in the ducal Basilica of an oligarchy. In any case, the faithful pilgrims at the tomb bear witness to the fact that Saint Mark is truly here, and that he continues to intervene for his people.