The imposing St Mark Preaching in Alexandria is an impressive oil on canvas painting, no less than 347 × 770 cm in size. It was commissioned by the influential Scuola Grande di San Marco in Venice as part of a restoration project after fire had destroyed their hall in 1485. The painter Gentile Bellini was awarded the commission in 1504, having completed the Procession in the Piazza San Marco in 1496 for another of the powerful Venetian confraternities, the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista.
There are clear parallels between the two compositions. Although one is set in the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria, famed for its learning, it is the Alexandria of Gentile Bellini's imagination, and his vision of the celebrated Egyptian city included an image of the Basilica of San Marco in the background just as it appeared in his Procession. It makes a potent political and economic statement about Venice and its patron, Saint Mark, who was also the founder of the Church of Alexandria. Indeed, Mark had died violently in that city while attempting to convert the pagans from their ancient religion.
It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that this image suggests a conciliation between cultures, rather than a confrontation. Saint Mark preaches from the left of the scene, with members of the San Marco confraternity behind him. Before him is a group of mysteriously white-veiled Arab women, with robed and turbaned men to the right of the scene. The basilica is surrounded by high-walled buildings and minarets. Camels and a giraffe are further exotic elements that remind the viewer that this is an Egyptian city. It is a composed and serene image, without conflict, hinting at the potential for peace brought about through trade contacts between Venice and its Muslim neighbours.
A previous version of Saint Mark preaching in Alexandria had been painted in the 1490s by Giovanni Mansueti and Cima da Conegliano, working under a commission from the silk-weavers guild. The Orientalising theme continued after Gentile Bellini's death. It fell to his brother Giovanni to complete the massive work of art, while Mansueti created three more paintings with similar Orientalist themes for the Scuola di San Marco in the early decades of the 16th century. The Bellini brothers' mesmerising painting was later placed in the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.