The Dome of Creation

A visual text

GENERAL INTRODUCTION TO THE DOME OF CREATION

Located in the atrium of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, the “Dome of Creation’’ tells the story from the Bible’s Liber Genesis. It is divided into three concentric circles running around a central medallion, all decorated with mosaic technique.The circles are divided in turns into panels which show twenty-six miniatures from the illuminated manuscript known as Cotton Genesis. The panels of the inner circle represent the following scenes: the Spirit of God hovering on the waters, the division of light from darkness, the creation of the firmament, the separation of earth from water, the creation of plants.

The Dome of Creation

The panels of the middle circle represent the creation of the Moon and the Sun, of birds and fishes, the creation of land animals, of man, the blessing on the seventh day, the infusion of the soul in Adam, God letting Adam enter the Garden of Eden. The panels of the outer circle represent Adam giving names to animals, the creation of Eve, God introducing Eve to Adam, the temptation of Eve, Eve taking the forbidden fruit and giving it to Adam, Eve and Adam covering themselves with leaves, Adam and Eve hiding from God, the denial of guilt, the punishment of Adam and the curse of the snake, the dressing of Adam and Eve, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the condemnation to labour. The Latin captions above the scenes provide an explanation of their contents. The central medallion is decorated with a peacock motif (an opus pavonaceum) dotted with stars. One of the most interesting features of the inner circle of the dome is the representation of the Beardless Christ, after the ancient Apollonian model. This one differs from the iconography of Christ Pantocrator, also present in the Basilica, where Christ appears with a beard, seated on a throne in the act of blessing, holding the Holy Scriptures, according to the traditional Greek scheme.

  • 828 AD
    The first church dedicated to St. Mark was built next to the Doge’s Palace in 828 to honour the relics of St. Mark
  • 829 AD
    Moving of St. Mark’s body from Alexandria of Egypt to Venice (Doge Giustiniano Partecipazio).
  • 832-978 AD
    The original Basilica was soon replaced by a new one which was built in 832 in the present location. It, however, was burnt down during a revolt in 976 and was rebuilt in 978 by Doge Pietro I Orseolo.
  • 1063-1094 AD
    Construction and consecration of the present Basilica. The legend says that St. Mark’s body was found in a pillar the same year.
  • 1071-1084 AD
    Beginning of the mosaic decoration.
  • 1204 AD
    Fourth Crusade and transfer in the Basilica of marbles and works of art brought to Venice after the conquest of Constantinople: four hors- es, the icon of the Virgin of Nicopeia, glazes of the golden altarpiece, reliquar- ies, crosses, chalices, patens, which today are all part of the treasure (Doge Enrico Dandolo).
  • 1215-1280 AD
    Making of the mosaic decorations of the Dome of Creation
  • End of 12th century and beginning of 13th century
    Gothic decoration of the façade with cusps, niches, sculptures of angels and saints.
  • 1419 AD
    Fire on the front roof of the Basilica.
  • 1200-1529 AD
    MVarious decorative / architectural works in different parts of the Basilica.
  • 1617 AD
    Placement of the altar of Nicopeia and of the altar of the Blessed Sacrament.
  • 1797 AD
    Fall of the Republic of Venice.
  • 1807 AD
    The Basilica became the seat of the patriarch of Venice, which had until then been in San Pietro a Castello.

THE CREATION

Bible, Genesis (1-3)

In p(rin)cipio creavit d(eu)s celum e(t) tera(m) sp(iritu)s d(e)i ferebat(ur) sup(er) aquas luce(m) die(m) e(t) tenebras nocte(m) fiat fi(r)mam(en)tu(m) in medio aquaru(m) fia(n)t luminaria i(n) fir(ma)me(n)to celi dixit ecia(m) d(eu)s p(ro)duca(n)t aq(u)e reptile a(n)i(m)e vive(n)tis et volatile sup(er) t(e)ra(m) ium(en)ta et o(mn)ia reptilia t(e) re i(n) g(e)n(er)e suo faciam(us) ho(m)i(n) em ad imagine(m) et similitudine(m) n(os) tra(m) et b(e)n(e)dix(it) diei sept(im)o (et) i(n)spiravit i(n) facie(m) ei(us) spiraculu(m) vite ecia(m) vite i(n) medio p(ar)adis li- gnu(mque) siencie boni Apellavitq(ue) ada(m) no(min)ib(us) suis cu(ncta) ani(m)a(n)cia cu(mque) obdor- misset tulit una(m) de costis ei(us) (et) re- plevit carne(m) p(ro) ea (et) dux(it) e adam (eam ad adam) hic serpens loquitur eve (et) decipit eam hic eva accipit pomu(m) (et) dat viro suo hic adam et eva cooperiu(n)t se foliis hi(c) d(omi)n(u)s vocat ada(m) (et) eva(m) late(n)tes p(ost) arbores hi(c) d(o- mi)n(u)s i(n)cr(e)pat ada(m) ip(s)e mostrat uxore(m) fuisse c(aus)am hi(c) d(omi)n(u) s maledic(it) s(er)pe(n)ti cu(m) ada(m) (et) eva an(te) se existe(n)ti(bus) hic d(omi)n(u) s vestit adam et eva(m) hic expellit eos de pa- radiso hic incipiu(n)t laborare hic ardent cherubin cristi flama(t)a calore sempre et eterni solis radiata intore (nitore) mistica stant cherubi(n) alas mo(n)strancia senas que dominu(m) lauda(n)t voces pro- mendo serenas

In the beginning God created the sky and the earth. God’s Spirit swept over the waters and He called “day” the light and “night” the dark. “Let the sky be among waters”.“Let bright lights shine in the sky.” God than said: “Let the water fill with living creatures and let birds fly over the earth”. And He made livestock, every kind of farm animal, and every reptile as its type. “Let us make the human being in our image and likeness.” And He consecrated the seventh day. And to his face He blew the breath of life. He sat down in the middle of the Garden of Eden the “tree of life” and the “tree of knowledge of Good and Evil”. So Adam gave names to all the livestock. And after he fell asleep, God removed one of his ribs and closed the flesh again in its place. And brought it to Adam. Here the snake talks to Eve and cheats her. Here Eve takes the fruit and gives it to her man. Here Adam and Eve cover themselves with leaves. Here God calls Adam and Eve who hide themselves behind the trees. Here God scolds Adam. He accuses the woman of being the cause. Here God curses the snake with Adam and Eve who is in front of him. Here God clothes Adam and Eve. Here he sends then out of Eden. Here they start to work with strain. Here burn the Cherubim fired with Christ’s heat and always radiating the light of the eternal sun. Here are the mystic Cherubim with their six wings, praising God and singing to him with clear voices.

The Latin text is essentially made of short sentences which describe the pictures, with no punc- tuation but with frequent abbreviations. Some of the abbreviations are highlighted as well by a dash above the words.

The Dome of Creation

Words’ desinences are generally removed, but sometimes also some central syllables are missing. The style is simple because there are few subordinate clauses and the vocabulary is made of com- mon words, most of which are used more than once. The subject in sentences tends to be always the same, so it is not difficult to understand the actions narrated. The text does not coincide perfectly with the original biblical

CREATION OF FISH

The scene is realised in the median circle and it takes place on the fifth day. The setting can be considered realistic because the birds are represented in the sky and the fish in the sea, their natural environment; moreover, the fact that both species are moving accentuates realism. In the representation of the waters, the movement is rendered by the waves, painted in a differ- ent color than the sea. The sea monster, Leviathan, appears several times in the Bible. It is represented in the center of the scene with its open mouth, teeth in sight, and an expression which arouses fear; its sizes are significantly greater than those of other fish. The monster represents the violence triggered by the sea. In the scene most of the birds are shown in flight: among them we can distinguish, for example, the duck, the crane, the goose and the pelican. Some of these animals have a symbolic meaning; for instance, the crane is the symbol of the good against the evil, Jesus fighting against the Devil. Moreover the pelican which, according to the legend, rips his breast with the beak in order to feed the offspring, symbolizes an act of absolute love and devotion, which refers to the sacrifice of Christ.

Die Shöpfung by F.J.Haydn Recitativo, Raphael Die Shöpfung by F.J.Haydn, Gabriel Aria Die Shöpfung by F.J.Haydn Recitativo, Gabriel

CREATION OF TERRESTRIAL ANIMALS

The scene is depicted in the second circle of the dome and it takes place on the sixth day. Christ is represented beardless and standing. One of his hands is extended to the animals, bless- ing them, while the other one holds the ferula. Christ wears a white tunic with a golden cape. There we can notice the drapery of the dresses, which is obtained with the chiaroscuro effect. The movements and the figures though appear still rigid and plastic. There are twelve pairs of animals: lions, horses, bears, dromedaries, tauruses, wild boars, goats, donkeys, deers, hares, elephants, and leopards. They are irregularly located in space without any perspective referement.

Die Shöpfung by F.J.Haydn Recitativo, Raphael

CREATION OF MAN FROM MUD

The scene is depicted on the second circle of the dome and, like the previous scene (“Creation of Animals”), takes place during the sixth day of creation. In this scene there are six angels in the background (meaning in fact the sixth day), and God is represented on the left. The background is all made of golden tesserae, except from the base in green. God is portrayed as a young man sitting on a throne, who is trying to make a human shape from clay. His face, as most of Byzantine pieces of art, is not very expressive but it is similar to the face of the man (in fact, according to Genesis, “God created man in his own image”). In this case, gestures are not stressed because God is handling clay, and the clothing is a simple white tunic covered with a golden cape; he is wearing sandals and a round golden crown, so it is easier to distinguish him from angels. Except from the one right behind God’s throne, all angels are slightly inclined to the left, as their heads are looking towards God. Angels are all looking at God’s work, they are wearing very light tunics (white with some green and light blue nuances) and are characterized by a static face, similar to God’s face. The first angel on the left and the last one on the right turn their hands toward God, while the others keep their left hands on their chests. Man is still greyish because, in this scene, he is only a shape of clay; his face is similar to God and the angels’ ones, but his features are a bit coarser. He is shorter and stockier than the angels because the scene shows a defined hierarchy in sizes: God is the most stately character and his importance is evident, even if he is sitting; on the con- trary, man is slightly smaller, showing that he is less important.

Die Shöpfung by F.J.Haydn Recitativo, Uriel

INFUSION OF THE VITAL BREATH

The scene which represents God infusing the vital breath into the human being is located in the third circle from the central medallion. This moment of the creation takes place on the seventh day but, according to the representation, it follows a narrative pause. In this interposed scene, God consecrates the seventh day, represented as an angel. In the infusion scene there are three characters: Adam, who always represents the whole human- ity, God and a small winged human figure, which is the vital breath. The general setting is not defined in detail because, except for the mainland, there are no deco- rations on the golden background which occupies two thirds of the whole scene. Christ is represented frontally and his face is turned to the centre of the scene. In the centre of the picture there is God’s hand carrying the vital breath. Christ’s pose is not very different from the previous scene (where he’s sitting on the throne), except for his right arm moving towards the human being which gives dynamism to the representation. Christ’s face appears serious and majestic due to the importance of the gift he’s going to give to man but which is still in his hand. Thus, the hand is given a prominent position in the scene, being also bigger than normal hands. Christ is dressed in a white vest and a majestic golden cloak. The use of golden color comes from the Oriental Byzantine tradition which can be found in all the mosaics of St. Mark’s Basilica. Another Byzantine feature in this scene is related to the iconography of Christ: he’s beardless, sitting on the throne with firm majesty, dressed in royal clothes. Since man has received life, his skin is no longer dark but white-coloured. White is a symbolic colour representing the purity of God, who is always depicted white. The human naked body is represented with a realistic anatomy, except for proportions. His left hand, located under Christ’s one in the act of receiving the spirit, looks bigger than the other parts of the body. Man has a serious expression and seems afraid of God while standing in front of Him, his face is gloomy and looking down, showing a marked lateral shadow. The third figure is the symbolic representation of life. It has human features and is naked as Adam because it is going to be given to the humans but, since it comes from God, it is winged as the angels. It is smaller than God and Adam (created in His image and likeness) because it is a part of the divine the human beings will have inside them.

Die Shöpfung by F.J.Haydn Aria, Uriel

MAN GIVES NAMES TO ANIMALS

The scene is a panel in the fourth and last circle, which represents a moment of the sixth day of creation. The figures represented are those of Christ, man and seven pairs of animals irreg- ularly located in space without perspective: lions, dogs, horses, bears, dromedaries, hedgehogs and leopards. The scene is set in the Garden of Eden and appears flat, static and unrealistic, emphasized by the golden background. Christ is represented on a throne with a serious expression. He has a stiff and solemn position and his right arm is lifted up in sign both of command and blessing. He is dressed in a fine white cloth with a gold cloak, around his head there is a golden halo in the shape of a white Greek cross. This figure is reminiscent of Byzantine art, both for the use of gold and for the iconography of the Beardless Christ. The face of Christ is similar to the face of man because, as in the Scriptures: “Let us create man in our image and likeness”. Man is naked and his skin is almost white, indicating the end of his transformation from mud. He is standing in front of Christ, looking up at him as waiting for command or advice, petting the head of one of the two lions. His body has neither realistic proportions nor perspective depth, as is typical of Byzantine art. The characters’ proportions in the scene have a hierarchical meaning: Christ and man are bigger than the animals, being more important because, as God says in Genesis: “Let man have rule over all the creatures”.

Die Shöpfung by F.J.Haydn Recitativo, Adam