The Tetrarchs of St. Mark's Cathedral

The Tetrarchs of St. Mark's Cathedral
The Tetrarchs of St. Mark's Cathedral

The well-known sculpture of the Four Tetrarchs is today in the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice, however its origin is much older than the Venetian temple. Throughout the history of art, many artistic objects have been stolen and looted from their place of origin to later be reused in other constructions or end up housed in a museum far from their country of origin. In this sense, the Cathedral of Saint Mark in Venice could be classified as one of those museums or places where you can find disparate works of art that have little to do with the temple itself; thus the christian cathedral is world-renowned for preserving some of the most exquisite pieces of Byzantine art. It was not until the middle of the 20th century that the lost foot of one of the tetrarchs was discovered in the city of Istanbul, among the archaeological remains of the Great Palace of Constantinople. Thus, it was possible to know the remote origin of this sculpture.


The sculpture of the Four Tetrarchs is precisely one of the works looted from the Imperial Palace of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. It is a round bulk sculpture that would date approximately from the 3rd century AD. and that it would be made of red porphyry, a material possibly from the quarries of Egypt. The work is conceived to be placed in a corner so that the four charactersrepresented have been represented forming an angle of ninety degrees.

The work masterfully depicts the political situation of the Lower Empire at the time of Diocletian. After the crisis suffered between the years 235 and 285, the Roman emperor Diocletian decided to appoint Maximilian Caesar and later Augustus, in order to better control the vast territory of his empire. Faced with the imminent threat of the Persians, Diocletian and Maximilian decided to convert their diarchy into a tetrarchy - a government of four - appointing Galerius and Constantius Chlorus as Caesars. Thus, the political and military control of the empire remained in the hands of two augusts and two caesars who helped the former and took over if they perished. It is precisely that fusion of the four leaders into a single power that the artist wanted to represent by placing the figures embracing and merging into one.

The four rulers have been represented practically the same and there is hardly any difference in the faces; They are all represented in military attire - a breastplate on top and the typical Roman skirt - and a cape. Each one holds in his hand his own sword whose handle is aquiliform in a nod to the almighty Zeus, god of the Roman pantheon; while with the other hand that is free, the tetrarchs embrace each other. On their heads they all wear the well-known Pileus Pannonicus, a kind of military cap that had a strong symbolic value. While it is true that the four figures are exactly the samesmall differences still mark the preeminence of the augusts over the caesars, in fact the first are the only ones who appear bearded, while the caesars are beardless.

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