The most ancient liturgical books of the Roman Rite do not have the feast of the Evangelist St Mark which the Church keeps today. This might seem surprising, since there is a very ancient tradition, clearly attested already in the second century, that Mark was a disciple of St Peter, came to Rome with him, and served as his interpreter, and that it was in Rome that he composed his Gospel. However, there is an equally ancient tradition that Mark eventually left Peter and traveled to Alexandria in Egypt, where he established the Church, was martyred in the time of Nero, and buried. Liturgical devotion to the Saints was originally focused on the custom of honoring them at their graves, and the Church of Rome most likely had no feast of St Mark because it did not possess his relics.
These early traditions about St Mark are summarized by St Jerome (345 ca. – 420) in his book “On Illustrious Men” (chapter 8). Here it should be remembered that Jerome was very well informed on the traditions of the church of Rome, where he lived for a time, and served as secretary to a Pope, St Damasus I (366-84).
“Marcus discipulus et interpres Petri, juxta quod Petrum referentem audierat, rogatus Romae a fratribus, breve scripsit Evangelium. Quod cum Petrus audisset, probavit, et Ecclesiis legendum sua auctoritate edidit, sicut Clemens … scribit et Papias Hierapolitanus episcopus. Meminit hujus Marci et Petrus in Epistola prima, sub nomine Babylonis figuraliter Romam significans: Salutat vos quae in Babylone est coelecta, et Marcus filius meus. Assumpto itaque Evangelio quod ipse confecerat, perrexit Aegyptum, et primus Alexandriae Christum annuntians, constituit Ecclesiam, tanta doctrina et vitae continentia, ut omnes sectatores Christi ad exemplum sui cogeret. … Mortuus est autem octavo Neronis anno, et sepultus Alexandriae, succedente sibi Aniano.
(St Peter Preaching, with St Mark in Attendance. Part of the predella of the Linaioli tabernacle, 1433, by Fra Angelico, )
Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, wrote a short gospel at the request of the brethren at Rome, according to what he had heard Peter tell. And when Peter had heard this, he approved it, and published it to the churches to be read by his authority, as Clement (of Alexandria) … and Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, record. Peter also mentions this Mark in his first epistle, figuratively referring to Rome under the name of Babylon: ‘She who is in Babylon elect together with you greets you, as does Mark my son.’ (1 Pet. 5, 13) Therefore, taking the Gospel which he himself had composed, he went to Egypt, and being the first to preach Christ at Alexandria, he established of so great in doctrine and continence of living that it brought all of Christ follower to imitate its example. … He died in the eighth year of Nero and was buried at Alexandria, with Anianus succeeding him.”
The tradition that the four creatures seen by the prophet Ezekiel in the first chapter of his book, a man, a lion, a calf and an eagle, also seen by St John in the fourth chapter of the Apocalypse, symbolically represent the four Evangelists, also goes back to the second century, first attested in the writings of St Irenaeus of Lyon. But the Church Fathers do not entirely agree amongst themselves as to which animal represents which evangelist, and the tradition as we know it today was given its definitive form by St Jerome, in the prologue of his commentary on the Gospel of St Matthew.
“Haec igitur quatuor Evangelia multo ante praedicta, Ezechielis quoque volumen probat, in quo prima visio ita contexitur: Et in medio sicut similitudo quatuor animalium: et vultus eorum facies hominis, et facies leonis, et facies vituli, et facies aquilae. … Secunda Marcum, in quo vox leonis in eremo rugientis auditur: Vox clamantis in deserto, parate viam Domini, rectas facite semitas ejus.
Therefore, the book of Ezekiel also proves that these four Gospels had been predicted much earlier. Its first vision is described as follows: “And in the midst there was a likeness of four animals, and their countenances were the face of a man and the face of a lion and the face of a calf and the face of an eagle.” (1, 5 and 10) … The second (face signifies) Mark, in whom the voice of a lion roaring in the wilderness is heard: ‘A voice of one crying out in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’ (1, 3)”
According to a tradition first attested in the 11th century, in the 820s, two Venetian merchants smuggled the relics of St Mark out of Alexandria and brought them back to their native city, where they have ever since rested under the main altar of the great church dedicated to him. (The story has it that the relics were hidden among packages of pork products, which the Muslim custom inspectors at the port would not touch or even go near.) A later elaboration of this tradition states that before going to Alexandria, St Mark had been sent by St Peter to evangelize the north of Italy, and had founded the see of Aquileia, about 70 miles to the east of Venice. During this trip, while passing along the coast of the lagoon where Venice would be established many centuries later, he heard a voice saying to him, “Pax tibi, Marce, evangelista meus. Hic requiescet corpus tuum. – Peace be to thee, Mark, my evangelist. Here shall rest thy body.” And thus the symbol of Venice has long been a winged lion, representing the city’s patron Saint, holding an open book with these words written on it.
(The emblem of St Mark on the upper part of the façade of his basilica in Venice.)