Columns of the Ciborium, San Marco, Descent into Hell Detail
Cioffi, Paul L., 1928-2004
Christ descends into Limbo to liberate the souls of the just from the captivity of death (See 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6). This iconography is also known as the harrowing of Hell. This relief carving is a detail of one of the four alabaster columns supporting the ciborium over the main altar of San Marco Basilica. Each of the four columns is divided into nine horizontal bands; each band has nine small niches (a grand total of 324 niches) populated with figures that recount 108 episodes from the lives of Jesus Christ and his mother Mary drawn from the canonical Gospels-especially those of Luke and John, the apocryphal gospels of James and Nicodemus, and the Byzantine cycle of "twelve festivals" (Dodekaortion). The four columns were probably brought to Venice from Constantinople sometime after 1204 when leaders of the Fourth Crusade sacked the capitol of the Byzantine Empire. They were installed in their present location during the first half of the 13th C. (ca. 1220s). Although differences in workmanship indicate that two of the columns were executed by a master carver and two by the master's assistants, all four columns appear to have come from the same Byzantine workshop. That the Crucifixion scene portrays Christ as the Mystic Lamb (not shown) suggests the columns were fashioned before this symbol was forbidden by the Trullan Council of 692. Stylistic comparisons with Eastern Empire ivories and with extant examples of other 6th C. sculpture of Istanbul date the column carvings to the reign of emperor Anastasius I (491-518). The Latin inscriptions carved on the blank bands between the bands of niches, meant to describe adjacent scenes, were added only after the columns were arranged as the ciborium supports in Venice. ca. August 1981
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