Ravenna’s Byzantine Treasures: Mosaics in San Vitale

Summary

  • Famous 6th century mosaics in the church of San Vitale.
  • Depictions of the Byzantine Emperor and Empress in full regalia.
  • Legacies of religious and political turmoil in Ravenna.
  • Evidence of luxurious fashion and textiles worn by the Byzantine imperial court.
  • San Vitale today.

Changes in Ravenna

Built in the first half of the 6th century CE, the octagon-shaped church of San Vitale memorializes a time of transition for Ravenna. Once capital of the western Roman Empire, the northern Adriatic port city of Ravenna came under Ostrogothic rule after the fall of the said empire.  The Ostrogothic king, Theodoric the Great (454-526), made Ravenna his capital, and the Ostrogoths commissioned several large churches there. However, the Ostrogoths practiced Arianism1, a form of Christianity seen as heretical (incorrect in its doctrine) by the Roman-based church because it assigned Christ a subordinate status to God.

In 540, however, General Belisarius conquered Ravenna for the Byzantines under orders from Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 CE). Considering himself a sort of hybrid between a Roman emperor and a pope, Justinian was fixated on spiritually and politically unifying former Roman territories. He saw retaking Ravenna both as reclaiming a piece of territory that rightfully belonged to his empire and as overthrowing a dangerously incorrect religious sect. Unlike the Ostrogoths, who had remained relatively tolerant of Orthodox worship, the Byzantines quickly stamped out Arianism and adapted Arian churches for Orthodoxy.

San Vitale

San Vitale Interior

Inside San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. Photo by Username.Ruge via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Built c. 526-540, San Vitale was begun under Ostrogothic rule but consecrated in Byzantine Ravenna. It was not a royal commission; a wealthy citizen paid for its construction instead. San Vitale is an unusual church, with an octagonal shape as opposed to the typical rectangular basilica. It has a central vessel with an apse, an ambulatory gallery all the way around, and a smaller octagon above. Each facet of the octagon gently curves, bringing dimension and liveliness to the overall effect. Elaborately carved column capitals, marble revetments, and mosaics on gold backgrounds decorate the interior, as do a series of later Baroque mural paintings. The greatest concentration of San Vitale mosaics appears in the apse and around the triumphal arch leading into it.

The Justinian and Theodora Mosaics

The Emperor and Empress depicted in the most famous San Vitale mosaics, Justinian I and Theodora, were complicated and even contradictory figures. They are most remembered today for commissioning world-class art and architecture on a grand scale, including the famous church of Hagia Sophia in their capital city of Constantinople.

Justinian was an ambitious emperor who placed a huge emphasis on standardizing Orthodox Christianity and reclaiming the territories of the ancient Roman Empire. He was responsible for a much-needed overhaul of the legal system, but he also instructed his soldiers to violently put down the Nika riot in Constantinople. Theodora was one of the most powerful women in Byzantine history. A former actress, she was definitely from a lower-class background and may have once been a prostitute. The fact that the Empress had such humble origins displeased some Byzantines, but this did not diminish Theodora’s obvious power. She was a particularly strong advocate for women in the empire.

Justinian and His Retinue San Vitale

Emperor Justinian and His Retinue mosaic, San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. Photo by Roger Culos via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The Justinian and Theodora mosaics inhabit the apse, the most sacred part of the church usually only populated by religious imagery. This certainly makes a bold statement! Both Emperor and Empress appear to take part in a religious procession, which perhaps explains or justifies this positioning.

Justinian

Justinian and his retinue appear on the left (when facing the altar). The Emperor is in full imperial garb and carries a paten, the vessel used to hold the consecrated Eucharistic bread at Mass. He stands in a group of clergymen, courtiers, and soldiers. Just beside him appears Maximianus, the Bishop of Ravenna who consecrated the church, identified by an inscription. The Bishop holds a jeweled cross, while the priests next to him carry an equally-ornate Gospel book and an incense burner. Belisarius, the general who conquered Ravenna, is standing next to Justinian on the other side.

Depending on how you look, either the Emperor or the Bishop can seem to stand in front of the other (Justinian’s shoulder is in front, but so is Maximianus’ foot). Scholars have interpreted this as referencing the tension caused by Justinian’s desire for spiritual, as well as temporal, power. The key figures in this panel have individualized facial features, as though they were meant to be recognized by viewers. These portrait-like representations are not necessarily flattering. Evidence suggests that Maximianus’ name and face are later editions, supplanting an image of an earlier Bishop of Ravenna.

Theodora

A similar mosaic panel on the other side of the apse depicts Theodora and her retinue of male and female courtiers. Elaborately dressed, she carries the chalice for the Eucharistic wine. The women that accompany her, including one who may represent Belisarius’ wife Antonina, also wear rich and elegant clothing. Unlike the Justinian mosaic, which appears on a solid gold background, Theodora’s group stands in front of an architectural niche. There is a fountain to the left side of the composition, and one of the male courtiers holds back a curtain so she can pass through. Both Justinian and Theodora appear with halos, usually taken to refer to their supposed divine right to rule, rather than to any claims of sainthood.

Although the Justinian and Theodora mosaics depict a type of Eucharistic procession that might have actually occurred, they do not recount a real event. The imperial couple never visited Ravenna at all, never mind participated in a procession at San Vitale. A more likely explanation would be that they wanted to remind the people of Ravenna who was in charge now. These mosaics assert the Emperor and Empress’ political power and religious importance despite the geographical distance from their new territory.

Power and Fashion

Theodora and Her Retinue San Vitale

Empress Theodora and Her Retinue mosaic, San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. Photo by Following Hadrian via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The San Vitale mosaics give us an unrivaled glimpse into the sumptuous clothing of the Byzantine imperial court. Though not only evidence of Byzantine fashion, these mosaics give vivid immediacy to these ancient jewels and textiles. Just look at the luxurious fabrics on the female members of the procession!

Both Justinian and Theodora wear the purple chlamys, a Greek-style cloak associated with high status and leadership. The Byzantines associated the color purple with royalty (some Byzantine Emperors even purchased manuscripts written and illuminated on purple parchment). Justinian and the male courtiers also each wear a tablion, that wide band of contrasting fabric that comes across the right sides of their garments. Justinian is richly decorated on gold ground.

Theodora does not wear a tablion, but she does have a wide band of decoration at the bottom of her chlamys. It seems to depict the visit of the three Magi to the infant Christ, a fitting motif for a mosaic depicting a royal gift-bearing procession. Theodora also has elaborate gold decoration on the bottom of her gunna (gown) that peeks out from beneath. Both Emperor and Empress wear a jeweled crown called a stemma. Theodora’s also has strings of hanging pearls and jewels called prependoulia and an embellished collar called a maniakis.

Other San Vitale Mosaics

San Vitale Isaac

The Sacrifice of Isaac mosaic, San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. Photo by Angel de los Rios via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The San Vitale mosaics are not limited to the Justinian and Theodora panels. In fact, the church abounds in mosaic decoration of various sorts, both figurative Bible imagery and foliate scenery. Themes of Christ’s salvation dominate. A mosaic in the apse depicts Christ sitting on the globe of the world, with the four rivers of Paradise flowing at his feet.

Figures flank him on both sides. On Christ’s right (our left as viewers) is the figure of Saint Vitus, dressed in elaborate Byzantine textiles. Saint Vitus, to whom the church was dedicated, was an early Christian martyr associated with Ravenna. He receives a gold and gemstone crown from Christ.

On Christ’s left is the figure of Bishop Ecclesius, the man responsible for the first phases of the church’s construction. He presents a model of the church to Christ. It was common in the Middle Ages to show the church’s patron offering a miniature version of that church to Christ or another holy figure as a sign of devotion. Two angels act as intermediaries, seeming to lead these mortal figures forward and introduce them to Christ.

Iconography of Christ

As one would expect in a church, the apse mosaic is only one of several at San Vitale to feature or reference Christ. At the center of the groin vault near the apse appears an image of the Lamb of God, a haloed sheep that references Christ’s sacrifice. An image of Christ – an older, bearded Christ compared to the smooth-faced one in the apse – also appears in the apex of the arch separating the apse from the church’s main vessel. The rest of that arch includes roundels depicting the Apostles and other holy figures.

Other mosaic scenes come from the Old and New Testaments, particularly events theologically connected to the sacrifice of Christ. This iconographic focus makes sense given the building’s historical context. While San Vitale’s structure may have begun under the Arian Ostrogoths, the mosaics came about during the later, Byzantine phase of construction. Having recently subjugated a rival theology that didn’t give Christ his proper importance, the now-dominant Byzantine Orthodox faith naturally wanted to emphasize the supremacy of its theological point of view.

San Vitale Today

San Vitale apse mosaics

San Vitale mosaics in the apse, Ravenna, Italy. Photo by Brad Hostetler via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

The San Vitale mosaics are some of the most famous, vibrant, and complete of all surviving medieval European mosaics. A millennium and a half after their creation, they continue to bring the luxury, theatre, and grandeur of the Byzantine imperial court to life for us today. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, San Vitale is open to visitors, alongside the many other monuments of early Christian Ravenna.

Bibliography

1.

Cormack, Robin. Byzantine Art, London: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 54-62.

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