Ravenna, 'Mausoleum' of Galla Placidia

Era 5AD
Location Via San Vitale, 17, 48121 Ravenna RA, Italy

The so-called ‘Mausoleum’ of Galla Placidia is a small (E-W 3.4 x 10.2m; N-S 3.4 x 11.9) cross-shaped building which was originally attached to the southern end of the narthex of the church of S Croce in Ravenna (the church has long since disappeared). The building is dated perhaps to c430-50. It was almost certainly not Galla Placidia’s burial place, though it could well have served someone as a mausoleum. It’s likely it was built as a martyrium (a place for martyrs’ relics) or a private chapel.

Its mosaic decoration is spectacular, complex and highly illusionistic. Above the door, a lunette mosaic depicts the Good Shepherd, Christ, young and beardless, holding a cross, with his sheep scattered around him; above the altar, opposite it, the mosaic shows a cupboard holding four gospel books (perhaps representing the evangelists, similar to the depiction of the Apostles at S Giovanni Evangelista) and an unnamed saint, perhaps Laurence, perhaps Vincent, robes fluttering as he rushes towards the griddle on which he was martyred. In the other lunettes, deer drink from the fountain of life on a blue acanthus-scrolled background.

The vaulting of the north and south arms of the building is decorated with a geometric, but non-compartmentalised, design of large and small rosettes; those of the east and west arms with a vine motif growing from an acanthus, with a Chi-Rho (the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek, XP) contained in a wreath at the crown of the vault. A series of different borders are used on the arches supporting the central tower, including a sort of ‘fish scale’ pattern (north and south), a three-dimensional meander design (east) and a garland of fruits and plants (west). Eight figures, perhaps apostles or prophets stand in the dome, which rises up in a dizzying spiral of gold stars on a midnight blue background. These stars are crazy. They radiate in concentric circles, sized so that they create an illusion of the ceiling being higher than it is and of the cross located over the circle of stars appearing closer to the viewer. The ever-popular four Creatures of the Apocalypse, also known as the symbols of the evangelists (Matthew – man; Mark – lion; Luke – ox; John – eagle) occupy the four lowest corners.

The designs are stunning and brilliantly executed, with a lavish use of colour and glass. The precise meaning of the mosaics is lost, but they call to mind Christ as saviour. The cross echoes throughout the building both in the shape of the mausoleum and in the reiteration of the image; the space serves as an evocation of heaven as a place for prayer and ritual, and of the cosmic order, hinting at the Second Coming. An individual image of an individual saint serves as a central point of focus for the programme: the saint in the lunette facing the entrance, perhaps the saint to whom the building was dedicated; perhaps pictured because his relics were contained in the building; presumably serving as some sort of devotional focus.


Galla Placidia was a remarkable woman. She was the daughter of Emperor Theodosios I. When Rome was sacked by the Goths in 410, she was kidnapped and married to Ataulf, brother-in-law and successor to the Gothic king Alaric. She was eventually ransomed and returned to Rome, and married off by her brother, the emperor in the west, Honorius, to the patrician Flavius Constantius, his right-hand man and co-emperor between 417 and 422. After Honorius’s death, she ruled as regent for her son by Constantius, Valentinian III.

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