Saint Mark's lion and doge Foscari on the gate of the Doge's Palace © 2017 When in Venice. All rights reserved.

The Venetian Lion Explained

When visiting Venice, it is hard not to notice the many lions adorning the doors and facades of the buildings, especially around Saint Mark’s Square.

Let’s take a closer look at this symbol of Venice to discover some of the lesser-known aspects of the history of the Serenissima.

Saint Mark’s Lion

The Venetian lion normally has wings, very often holds a book below its paw, and sometimes is completed by a halo around its head. These three elements (wings, book, halo) reveal it as a symbol of Saint Mark the Evangelist, patron saint of the city.

Lion "in moeca" in the carved wooden ceiling of the Scuola Grande di San Marco in Venice

A winged lion representing Saint Mark in the carved wooden ceiling of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, XV century. 

According to a tradition started in the 2nd century AD, each of the four Evangelists is represented by a winged creature: lion, bull, eagle, human. This set of four creatures was also used in relation with the divine presence in the Old Testament.

Also, the lion has been associated with power, courage and strength since ancient times. What better symbol for the prestigious Venetian Republic?

Pax tibi Marce

So, now we know that the book the lion is holding stands for the gospel of Saint Mark.

Have you tried to read the Latin sentence written in it?

golden Venetian lion

Winged lion on the Scalea Reale (1850), the royal barge used by the King of Italy. On display in the Padiglione delle Navi of the Museo Storico Navale. 

It says “Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus”, which translates as “Peace to you Mark, my evangelist”. According to legend, while Saint Mark was visiting the Venetian lagoon in the 1st century AD, a storm put him in danger, but an angel appeared to him and reassured the saint with those words.

Sometimes, a different phrase is written in the book: for example, the paintings of lions displayed in some government offices contained credos specific to the work of the magistrates there.

banner with a winged lion holding the sign "no se toca" at the Rialto market in Venice

The banner with the lion in the Rialto market

If you are strolling through the Rialto market, on the other hand, you will notice a banner with an angry lion holding a book with the inscription Rialto no se toca(“Don’t touch the Rialto market!”). It was placed there by the fishmongers in 2011 when the local municipality proposed moving the wholesale fish market farther from the city. This would have made it too long and expensive for them to carry the fish to Rialto, and thus caused the death of the local market. Luckily, the lion and the protests were strong enough to make the authorities change their minds!

The Venetian Flag

The winged lion also appears in gold on a red background on the flag of Venice.

flag of Venice showing the winged lion of Saint Mark

A version of the Venetian flag hanging from a balcony 

The relics of Saint Mark arrived in the lagoon in the early 9th century, and the first representations of the lion as his symbol in Venice date to the 12th century. Yet, it was not until the 1260s that a lion appeared on the Venetian flag.
Why did it take so long? An interesting hypothesis is that Venetians decided to use the lion after the fall of the Latin Empire (1261) when Egypt became their main commercial partner and the striding lion was on the shield of Sultan Baybars. It was therefore a symbol of new alliances after the war with the Byzantine Empire.

Famous Lions

It is definitely impossible to count how many lions there are in Venice: you can find them everywhere, from the top of bell towers to doorknockers!

Some of them, anyway, have become real icons of the city, like the one on the top of the column next to the Doge’s Palace.
This strange bronze sculpture, originally gilded, might date back to the 4th century BC. It arrived in Venice from Constantinople or another Middle Eastern region, and has stood on the column since the 12th century. So old, and yet so modern: its unique profile has become the symbol of the Venice Biennale and the shape of the Golden Lion Prize for the Venice Film Festival!

original versioni of the lion on the column of Piazzetta San Marco, according to Meraviglie di Venezia

The original appearance of the lion on top of the column, according to Meraviglie di Venezia

Other lions have arrived in Venice from distant lands carrying with them stories that remained hidden for centuries.

If you get to the Arsenale, the former shipyard, have a look at the big statue of a lion to the left side of the gate. If you look carefully on the two sides of the lion, you can see some long inscriptions carved on the white stone: the words are in the Runic alphabet used by ancient Scandinavian people. The statue of the lion was originally in Athens and was there when, in the 11th century, an army of Norwegian mercenaries was sent by the Byzantine emperor to put down an insurrection. The successful deeds of the soldiers were recorded on the surface of the lion.  The statue was taken from Athens and placed in front of the gate of the Arsenale in 1687, following the Venetian conquest of the Peloponnesus.

the main gate of the Arsenale of Venice

The entrance of the Arsenale. The lion with the Runic inscription is the one to the left side of the gate.

 

Are you curious to find out more about Venice and its lions? Let’s take a stroll together!