The Supreme Artistry of Mosaic Art

Ravenna, Italy

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    Ravenna has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, as eight of its 5th and 6th century monuments have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996. This is why the early Christian monuments of Ravenna are considered to be worldwide treasures: “The site is of outstanding universal value, being of remarkable significance by virtue of the supreme artistry of the mosaic art that the monuments contain, and also because of the crucial evidence that they provide of artistic and religious relationships and contacts at an important period of European cultural history.”
Ravenna, Basilica of San Vitale  



Basilica of San Vitale

Dating from the 6th century, it is one of the most important monuments of early Christian art in Italy. Its construction began under the rule of the Goths in 527 by the Bishop Ecclesius and was finished by Bishop Maximian who consecrated it on May 17, 548 after the Byzantines reconquered the city. The eastern influence has a dominant role: it has no longer a nave and two aisles but a central octagonal plan surmounted by a large cupola. The boldness of the construction and the decorative function of the mosaics complement each other in a marvellous result which is unique in the world. Inside, the eye is attracted by the stupendous mosaic decorations of the apse and the extraordinary representation of the Byzantine imperial couple, Justinian and Theodora with their court. No other mosaic or literary text in the entire Empire of the latter couple managed to reproduce the unity and perfection of style combined with the loftiness of political and religious thought as the series in the apse and presbytery of San Vitale. The celebration of their Empire is not limited only to the two panels of Justinian and Theodora. In the arch of the apse, political and religious dimensions are brought together. In the presbytery the unity of the Church and the Empire, and that of the Empire and the clergy, is illustrated, while above the arch of the apse, between the symbolic cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, a symbolic sun contains the Alpha at its centre, ideologically recalling Christ as the creator of the cosmos and the historical universe.

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

The structure and images of the Mausoleum of Empress Galla Placidia recall the life and death of an imperial princess of the 5th century who was deeply involved in the history of the empire of Theodosius the Great as her father. Daughter, sister, wife and mother of emperors, Galla Placidia reigned the Western Roman Empire and halfway through the 5th century had this small Mausoleum built. The exterior is sober, in contrast with the magnificence of the interior decoration. The countless stars of the cupola make a profound impression on the imagination and sensitivity of visitors to Ravenna. Although similar to the great pagan mausoleums with a central plan, single entrance door, vertex of the roof and external sobriety, the inside of this mausoleum is entirely covered with Christian symbols of immortality and eternal life. For Galla Placidia the glory of the Christian Roman Empire was expressed by the cross, and the mausoleum has the form of a Latin cross, which is the main symbol of the mosaic at the centre of the vault. It is the celestial cross shining among the stars of the sky – the sky of eternal salvation; the sky of the Kingdom of God. The heavenly vault of the great entrance, with its symbols of light, demonstrates well enough the fundamental theme of the concept that the bishop of Ravenna, Petrus Chrysologus, and Galla Placidia held concerning the way towards the prize of eternity for the Christian. 
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, interior    

The Neonian (Catholic) Baptistery

This is the most ancient early Christian monument of Ravenna. The building, ordered by Bishop Neonius, dates to the second half of the 4th century. The interior is decorated with bright mosaics which bear clear signs of Hellenic-Roman influence. Its great value lies in the series of mosaics enriched with marvellous stuccos of the sixteen prophets: the four major and twelve minor prophets. No other baptistery dating from early Christianity can compare with this building in Ravenna in terms of mosaic perfection and structural conservation. The mosaic composition is divided into three distinct zones: a central medallion and two concentric bands. The central medallion depicts the baptism of Christ by John in the river Jordan; the first inner band contains portraits of the twelve apostles in two processions lead by Peter and Paul; the wider outer band, subdivided by large acanthus plants into eight architectural sections with niches containing alternately thrones and altars, alludes to the heavenly city and to the concept of the etimasia or the “preparation of God’s throne of Judgment.”

The Arian Baptistery

Built around the end of the 5th century, when Theodoric ruled and the Arian cult was the official religion of the Court, it has an octogonal plan and contains splendid mosaics from the transition between the 5th and 6th centuries. On the dome there is a beautiful mosaic depicting the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan and the 12 Apostles. According to the Arian doctrine, Christ was the Son of God but retained His human nature. Here the Apostles, holding the crown symbols of martyrdom and triumph, are separated not by candelabra but by palms, to indicate that the scene takes place in Paradise. While in the Neonian Baptistery the twelve Apostles acclaim Christ in the central medallion, here they pay homage to the great jewelled throne, surmounted by the Holy Cross and the purple sudarium, symbols of the Passion and of the physical nature of Jesus, a central belief in the Arian faith.

Ravenna, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, interior with mosaics   



The Archiepiscopal Chapel

Built as a private chapel by Bishop Peter II during the reign of the Ostrogoths, it is the only existing building of worship belonging to the bishop’s palace. It presents a mosaic iconography of great interest. The bishop commissioned the excellent twenty mosaic hexameters of the atrium, and placed Christ the Warrior with the cross on His shoulder over the door. In fact, the Glorification of Christ, whose figure dominates every part of the mosaic decoration, may be interpreted as an anti-Arian element. The representation of Christ the Warrior treading underfoot the beast of Arian heresy is an act of accusation against the then ruling political government of Theodoric, the Arian king. The portraits of the evangelists, apostles and various saints from the East, West and Africa express the unity of faith in the Catholic ecumene of early Christianity before the divisions of the barbarians and Arians. Superb is the decoration of the vault of the vestibule, where in a golden sky, between a sequence of lilies and small roses, images of 101 birds can be seen, some of which can be particularly found in the natural environments of Ravenna. 

The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was built in the 6th century, originally as Theodoric’s palatinate 
church. It is historically the most interesting church in Ravenna, as it in fact represents the synthesis of the Ostrogoth kingdom of Theodoric and the empire of Justinian. The glory and power of the Gothic king is represented in the great panels of the Palatium, with the city of Ravenna and the port as well as featuring the town of Classe. Theodoric exalted the culture of classical Greece and Rome and by placing it side by side with Gothic culture he wanted to demonstrate his royal and political power in union with the power of Christ the King. In the great exposition, between the windows, of the thirty-six figures of prophets, apostles, evangelists, with codices, books and rolls, Theodoric legitimised the prestige of his culture and his power. Later on, Archbishop Agnello modified the mosaics by removing the Arian magistrates and incorporating them into the Catholic tradition with triumphal processions of saints, the three Magi and the saints led emblematically by Saint Martin and Saint Eufemia as they were against Arianism by consecrated religious vocation. 

Theodoric’s Mausoleum

This mysterious building, so described because it has never been fully understood, was built at the behest of the Gothic King Theodoric in A.D. 520 as his own tomb near the barbarian necropolis. It has two storeys, entirely made of Istrian stone, following the most ancient funeral monument models, 

Ravenna, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe  
but monumental in size, by which it represents well the power and spirit of the Ostrogoth king. Its roof is made of a single block of Istrian stone of 10 metres in diameter and weighing 300 tons – probably one of the largest monoliths in the world used as a cupola. A crown of 12 medallions, carved from the same block of the cupola, bears the names of the four evangelists and eight apostles. These forms remind one of a royal crown or even the helmet of a warrior. A large crack visible in the block probably occurred during the placing of the stone, which was almost certainly raised along an inclined plane. According to the legend the cupola was cracked by a divine bolt of lightning that fell on Theodoric seated inside and killed him as a punishment for his crimes, thus the prophecy that predicted his death by a strike of lightning was to come true. The room inside is dimly lit by small windows of which one, in the form of a cross, faces the East. On the upper floor there is a large porphyry sarcophagus which may have contained the remains of Theodoric, but not for long, since they were removed during the Byzantine rule. The decorations in the King’s tomb were gradually stripped off during the course of centuries. 

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe 

Built during the first half of the 6th century, it is the most illustrious place of worship in the Ravennate Church, as it was built on the historical and documentary foundations of the primitive burial place of Apollinare where, on the tomb of the first bishop and martyr, a small basilica-martyrion was  
  built. The Basilica was originally built near the Adriatic shore, but now, due to natural modifications, it is immersed in the countryside, right next to the extensive archaeological area of the ancient port of Classe, home of the Roman fleet, long since interred. The interior presents a surprising scene. The rhythm created by 24 columns of magnificent Greek marble with transverse veins ends in the delicate green of the mosaic meadow, the whiteness of the sheep, the sparkle of the pine-wood of Sant’Apollinare in a single entity of architecture and decoration. In addition to its architectural structure, Sant’Apollinare in Classe is famous for the mosaics of its apse and the marble sarcophagi of archbishops along the side naves. The centre of this ecclesial basilica, which is used to celebrate the Eucharist, is occupied by one of the most splendid theophanies of ancient Christianity, a great symbolic transfiguration occupying the entire basin of the apse in mosaic tiles. The glorious cross of Resurrection stands out in a dominant position and represents Christ himself as the leading person of the Transfiguration, understood as a symbol of Easter, and Easter as an offering, the Eucharist of the Lamb and the Cross: the hand of God receives the Eucharistic sacrifice of the mass. The sacrifice offered for the Church and the community of the faithful by the bishop is set in a beautiful flowering meadow, an idyllic vision of heaven, while the twelve lambs (six on each side) that move towards Apollinare represent the church of Ravenna celebrating mass together.