A project to clean and conserve three reliefs and a holy water stoup in the Cappella Zen at the south east corner of the Basilica di San Marco is currently under way. It is part of a wider programme of restoration of the whole of the chapel and the Baptistery being undertaken by the Basilica’s conservation department, in preparation for re-opening to the public after many years’ closure.
Unlike a conventional side chapel, the Cappella Zen is in fact a 1521 conversion of an entrance from the Piazzetta into the Narthex and the Baptistery.
Work on one relief showing the Archangel, which is Byzantine, has been completed, as has the scene in two registers showing the Nativity and the Flight into Egypt. The latter is illustrated here at the stage when a cleansing poultice has been applied to the ox’s face to remove greasy deposits. It is not known for certain whether this relief is Western in origin or Byzantine.
The third relief a Byzantine 12th century Madonna and Child will now be removed from its Renaissance altar frame for cleaning and desalination before being put back over a new lead lining to prevent further transmission of salt-laden moisture from the wall behind.
Like the Archangel it was brought to Venice following the siege and capture of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. A French pilgrim Jean de Tournai, visiting the Basilica in 1487, wrote “Under the portal of this Church there is an image of Nôtre Dame, which is made and sculpted from the stone which Moses struck with his rod in the desert, from which water issued miraculously”.
The holy water stoup is late Renaissance in date and decorated with angel heads and garlands.
Cardinal Giovanni Battista Zen died in 1501 leaving a great deal of money to the Republic with the stipulation that his tomb with a bronze effigy of himself should be placed in the Basilica itself. The proposal was met with implacable opposition as there was no tradition of burials – not even of Doges – inside San Marco. Eventually a compromise was found whereby a funerary chapel was accommodated just outside the Basilica proper in the Narthex – the covered entrance gallery that runs the width of the Basilica.