Editor’s Note: During July Venetian Red continues to post on topics of interest in Italy.
By LIZ HAGER
To stand in the presbytery of San Vitale in Ravenna is to be struck nearly dumb by the basilica’s dazzling mosaic program. Narrative compositions complemented by decorative motifs cover literally every square centimeter of the surrounding walls. Individual tesserae—in shades of turquoise, green, red, brown, black, white, and of course gold, glittering gold—skillfully placed, create a riot of color that magically blends into a gorgeous chromatic harmony.
The sheer physical grandeur of the space and its uncompromising sensuality is almost overwhelming. It’s an exquisite feast for the eyes; they strain to take in all the heavenly morsels.
But oh the morsels! The side walls of the presbytery contain Old Testament stories of sacrifice—on the one wall, Abel sacrificing a lamb paired with Melchesidek offering bread and wine; on the other, Abraham visited by angels in the valley of Mambre with the Sacrifice of Isaac. Each lunette created by these scenes is crowned by a pair of angels, holding a medallion with a cross and depictions of Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles with their animal symbols. The narrative program soars skyward to the cross-ribbed vault of the presbytery, which contains paradisiacal scenes of fruits, flowers, birds and angels. Appropriately, the four wedges of the vault converge in the center in a crown that encircles the Lamb of God.
The apse feature perhaps the most famous panels in San Vitale—on the left, Emperor Justinian with court and church officials; on the right, Empress Theodora, looking all the world like a goddess, surrounded by her court. Between them, a clean-shaven Christ the Redeemer sits with open arms majestically facing the congregation, flanked by San Vitale (accepting the martyr’s crown) and Bishop Ecclesius (who began construction of the church in 526) holding a model of the church in his hands.
Inside the triumphal arch that separates the presbytery from the octagon-shaped nave are 15 mosaic medallions—12 apostles and the two sons of San Vitale rise along the arch to meet Jesus Christ.
The artisans of San Vitale didn’t stop at the walls. The Byzantine-styled column capitals as picturesque as anything Romanesque, featuring crosses, vegetation and peacocks (the latter being references to Paradise). The floors too are covered with wonderful, though less colorful designs, inspired by Roman mosaics.
The mosaic program at San Vitale was meant to convey a single idea—the redemption of mankind by Christ. One cannot help but believe that Bishops Ecclesius and Maximian intended this awe-inspiring experience. Perhaps they reasoned that, if the attention of their congregation were to wander during a service, it should come to rest on instructive scenes of miraculous beauty. Thus, the mosaics of San Vitale served many purposes—they were a reminder to the 6th century world of the meaning of the Eucharistic rite, the glory of a newly-sanctioned religion, and of the idea that beauty is created by man in service of the divine. Today, whether enjoyed within a religious or secular context, the art here is among the most beautiful on any wall in Italy.
Amazingly, San Vitale is just one of the eight similar buildings in Ravenna, many of which also house some of the best-preserved Byzantine style mosaics outside present-day Istanbul. The group also includes the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, the Arian Baptistery, the Neonian Baptistery, the Archiepiscopal Chapel, the Mausoleum of Theodoric, and the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe. Citing “outstanding universal value” UNESCO designated the group a World Heritage Site in 1996.
The Good Shepherd, ca. 417
Mosaics, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna
(Photo © Ancient Mosaics)
Dome Mosaic, ca. 417
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna
(Photo © Breic, Flickr)
Not only are the mosaics an artistic treasure, but they have historical significance as well. Three people responsible for the buildings—Emperor Justinian I, Galla Placidia, and Theodoric the Great—were key players in the drama that was the decline of the Roman Empire.
Ravenna and the Decline of the Roman Empire
Though Gibbon puts the fall of the Roman Empire at 476, in many ways the Empire was already declining by the reign of Diocletian (284-305 CE). The Emperor divided the by-then unwieldy empire into a tetrarchy, ruled by himself and three subordinates. This only served to further destabilized the empire, making it actually harder to manage. Though largely a tolerant ruler, Diocletian nonetheless was persuaded to wage a series of horrific persecution campaigns against the Christians that lasted from 303-311.
On the heals Diocletian’s abdication (305 CE) and dissolution of the Tetrarchy, the new Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity (311) and proclaimed tolerance against the religion in his 313 Edict of Milan. Additionally, as a strategic move, he established his power base on shores of the Bosphorus, building a new city on the ruins of an old, Byzantium. And though in the 4th and 5th centuries Rome was still the seat power for the Western half of the Empire, she competed openly with factions ruling in Constantinople.
Though historians now dispute the notion that Ravenna was ever the capital of the Western Roman Empire, there is no argument about her military importance in the 4th and 5th centuries as the first line of defence against invading Goths or about her administrative importance as conduit between Rome and Constantinople.
The Goths—divided into two main tribes, Visigoths and Ostrogoths—repeated attacked the Roman Empire in the 4th century. Forces led by Visigoth Alaric I finally succeeded in sacking Rome in 410 CE.
Ravenna Sidebar: Whether she went willingly or not, Galla Placidia—daughter of Emperor Theodosius I and sister to the then current Emperor Honorius—left Rome with the Goths. Alaric died shortly thereafter. His brother-in-law Ataulf succeeded him and married Galla Placidia in 414 in an attempt to strengthen alliances in the Empire. Ataulf was killed a few years later, the Goths surrendered, and Galla Placidia returned to Rome as part of the treaty. Her brother, Emperor Honorius, then forced her into marriage to co-Emperor Constantius III in 417. She was soon widowed. A devout Christian, Galla Placidia committed herself thereafter to building churches in Rome, Ravenna and Jerusalem, while exercising the duties of Regent (until her son Valentine III reached his 18th birthday).
The final blows were dealt in 476 when Romulus Augustus was deposed and exiled by Odoacer, a Germanic chieftain. Julius Nepos, the legitimate emperor recognized by the Eastern Empire (i.e. Byzantine) continued to live in Dalmatia until he was assassinated in 480. The Western Roman Empire continued under Ostrogothic rule until Theodoric the Great was defeated by the forces of the Byzantine forces in 554, led by Justinian I.
Ravenna Sidebar: Justinian (reign 527–65) took a leading role in shaping church policy. As an adamant defender of Christian Orthodoxy, he attempted to rid the Empire of the last vestiges of paganism and opposed competing Christian sects, including the Arians and the Monophysites.Justinian’s reign is further distinguished by an exceptional record of architectural and artistic patronage and production in Constantinople and beyond, including most famously Hagia Sofia.
In 540, the Byzantine general Belisarius conquered Ravenna, a critical step in Justinian’s campaign to reclaim Italy from the Ostrogoths. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the Ravenna Bishops must have been thankful that their city had fellow Christian protectors. It is clear that various buildings received his indirect patronage (for propagandistic purposes?) or perhaps curried his favor. The portraits of him in San Vitale and Sant’Apollinare Nuovo tell us so.
With Justinian, the Byzantines had effectively became the Roman Empire. While Byzantine emperors never gave up the idea of reconquering Rome, as the centuries wore on, the Byzantine Empire declined in political influence and became more isolated from Europe. Still, as the mosaics in Ravenna remind us, at one time their power reached the glittering heights.