Arts Arts & Books

Places, people and ancient instability

St Luke painting the Virgin (1532) by Maarten van Heemskerck

Lucien de Guise on a biography that also serves as a richly illustrated travelogue

St Mark the Evangelist
By Serena Fass, Filament Publishing
(distributed by Aid to the Church in Need UK), 315pp, £25/$30

Serena Fass is a remarkable figure in the field of Christian studies. Despite being 80 years old, this unstuffy non-academic keeps on writing. In the past few years she has produced books on St Thomas, the Magi, and the Cross. Her latest is St Mark the Evangelist, and we can expect the Flight into Egypt very soon.

All the books have elements in common. As a veteran travel specialist, the author gives geographical context to names that appear in the Bible and countless written sources on matters relating to the Middle East. She is an expert on that troubled part of the world and even more of a specialist on Venice, which is handy as St Mark straddled these two worlds.

Not that this happened in his lifetime. Rome, Alexandria and the Holy Land were his regular haunts; it was only eight centuries after his death that he became identified with Venice. Relic robbers were responsible for the change of location for his earthly remains, most of which now reside in St Mark’s Basilica. The Venetians are unlikely ever to give these up to Alexandria, the resting place of his head.

St Mark’s life is at least as fascinating as the fate of his corpse. Fass gives the full story, from his roots in Libya to his grim martyrdom in Egypt. It is generally assumed that his Gospel was the earliest of the four Evangelists’ works. It is certainly very concerned with St Peter. This is a detail that might excite Catholics more than most, but Fass’s commitment to ecumenism precludes too close an analysis of how Rome came to dominate the Christian world.

Instead, she is absorbed in the “Churches of the East”. These receive little attention elsewhere, unless there has been some terrorist outrage committed against them. The Coptic Orthodox Church gets the most coverage, not surprisingly as St Mark is considered to be its first patriarch. It’s a relief to find that in 1968 Pope Paul VI repatriated a relic of St Mark to Coptic Pope Cyril VI.

This book is ideal for readers who want to understand the connection between the early Christian churches. There are abundant photographs – a lifetime of travel has produced some remarkable visual dividends.

All of Fass’s books are not only written and mainly photographed by her; she also edits, designs and distributes them. It’s an extraordinary achievement, with occasional typos made up for by an irrepressible passion and sense of engagement with the subject.

Most of the writing is, in fact, other people’s. There are numerous quotations taken from the Bible and authorities from all eras. These are livelier than might be expected. The 10th-century Bishop Severus records what St Mark was up against when the Holy Spirit sent him to Alexandria: “And they had many temples to their contemptible gods, whom they ministered to in every place, and served with every iniquity and magical act.”

Fass keeps up a commentary that connects relevant quotes and then adds photographs to illustrate further. The author’s commitment to Christianity doesn’t overwhelm her fact-finding capabilities; she lets us know when a story is a Venetian fabrication rather than an eternal verity. There is a questing historian eager to get out. In the meantime, the reader is presented with numerous written sources that build into a coherent story.

A contemporary touch is added by the commentaries of leading living figures.
The star of this selection is Archbishop Angaelos, of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of London, who gives a fascinating perspective on early traditions that remain precious to those in this pioneering branch of Christianity.

St Mark’s achievements should fascinate all Christians. As a first-hand recorder of pronouncements by St Peter, he breathes the original message of Jesus. It seems almost improbable that all of this was happening in Rome so soon after Christ’s death, but it is authentic history. The execution of the first pope was a real event. The Evangelist escaped the fate of his mentor while many other Christians did not. The feeding to the lions actually happened, and Nero seems to have been as deranged as his reputation suggests.

Fass’s work is about places as well as people. By understanding the locations better, we join the author on her never-ending travels, on many of which she was accompanied by John Julius Norwich. The recently deceased historian also emphasised the importance of location. As he wrote in this book’s introduction soon before his death: “Serena knows both Venice and Jerusalem like the back of her hand.”

With the current instability in the Middle East, Fass’s lavishly illustrated books are as close as the less intrepid of us will get to following the proselytising path of the peripatetic St Mark the Evangelist.