Ravenna, S Vitale

Era 6AD
Location Via San Vitale, 17, 48121 Ravenna RA, Italy

S Vitale – probably the best-known of the churches of Ravenna. Its architecture is unusual: the building is octagonal in shape, with a dome, an ambulatory, a passage, forming an outer shell, a high presbytery with an apse and galleries on seven of the eight sides. All seven exterior walls have doors. Where the idea came from is unclear – possibly Constantinople, but I’m tempted to point out the number of octagonal baptisteries in Italy in the fourth to sixth centuries (including two in Ravenna). Vitalis was a Milanese saint and the establishment of his cult in Ravenna was part of a deliberate and successful attempt to take him away from Milan and to assert Ravenna’s standing: the architectural associations that can be made between his church in Ravenna and S Lorenzo in Milan were surely not accidental. The church of S Vitale was certainly important, but was a bishop’s church, not an imperial church and not the cathedral church of the city.

It was begun by Bishop Ecclesius, worked on by Bishop Victor, and completed by Bishop Maximian (546-57), who took much of the credit. Maximian was the first archbishop of the city, a promotion given by the Byzantine emperor Justinian as a reward for Maximian’s support of Byzantium.

The church itself was grandly and expensively furnished with marbles, opus sectile, stucco, a decorated floor and mosaics. The original mosaic programme was extensive. Although mosaics now survive only in the presbytery and apse, there were other mosaics in the narthex (from where silver tesserae survive) and in the domes of the round chapels flanking the apse. There may also have been mosaics in the central dome: there seems no reason why there should not have been, since domes were frequently mosaicked.

The mosaics that survive offer a schema that can be understood both in its parts and as a whole narrative. In the apse, a beardless Christ, wearing a purple robe, is enthroned on a blue globe, the world itself. He holds a scroll with the seven seals in his left hand, signalling the Second Coming and the Last Judgement, and stretches out his right holding with a crown of victory towards S Vitalis himself, who is ushered in by an angel. Sausage-shaped red and blue clouds hover in a gold background above Christ’s head. On Christ’s left, another angel brings forward Bishop Ecclesius, who holds a model of this, his church. The upper lunette of the Triumphal arch is filled with vines scrolling from baskets and kantharoi. Below, two angels support a globe of rayed light; to left and right, cypress trees and then Jerusalem and Bethlehem, below which are two palm trees are shown. Much of this evokes images found in mosaics in churches in Rome from the period – the coloured clouds, the sacred cities, the presence of the donor and name-saint, Christ seated on the globe of the world. The mosaic hits various eschatological themes and underlines human connections through the presence of a human donor.

Local emphasis was achieved most overtly through two panels lower down on the walls of the apse that depict a Byzantine emperor and empress. On the north wall of the apse, Christ’s right hand side, one tableau shows an emperor with his retinue of soldiers, aristocrats and churchmen, one of whom is labelled as Bishop Maximian himself. On the opposite wall, to Christ’s left, the other depicts an empress in a heavy purple robe embroidered in gold and with the Magi shown on the hem. She is positioned under an elaborate niche and appears to be about to sweep past a fountain and through a curtained doorway, held open by one of two beardless men in aristocratic dress. To the empress’ right stands a retinue of women.

A great deal has been written about these two panels. Because the bishop is identified as Maximian, then the unnamed emperor must be Justinian and the empress his wife, Theodora, who may well have been dead when the mosaic was made. But these are not portrait likenesses of the couple: neither visited Ravenna to pose for pictures, and who knows whether the mosaicists had ever seen them. Rather, an emperor is shown with the three elements that made up his power: senate/aristocrats; army; church, and in her dress and pose, an empress is depicted as supra-human but in her proper place as a woman. Efforts have been made to identify other figures in the mosaic, generally based on finding named individuals of the appropriate age in textual sources; and although people such as Belisarius, his wife Antonina and their daughter Ioannina may have been identifiable in the panels to their contemporaries in the 540s and 550s, the lack of names on the mosaic means that we cannot be certain they were depicted.

Despite the central import of the image as a representation of imperial Byzantine power and authority, there was also clearly a local political dimension to the images, for they make the role of Bishop Maximian as Justinian’s man in Ravenna very obvious. Maximian’s task seems to have been to defame previous rulers and praise new ones, to rewrite history by erasing both the Goths and their shameful Arianism. In the Justinian panel here, a statement about local and imperial prestige is also visible, as Bishop Maximian juggles for position with the emperor. His feet stand ahead of Justinian’s, but his body is overlapped by the emperor’s arm.

The political was also religious. The panels underline the piety of the Orthodox emperor by showing him holding a paten, the dish used for communion, and his empress clasping the communion chalice, giving both a place in the liturgical celebrations that would have taken place next to the panels and under the eyes of Christ in the apse. This Eucharistic theme, which is also one of salvation, is maintained by the mosaics of the presbytery wall which depict Old Testament scenes foreshadowing New Testament events, the Old Law replaced by the New. Abraham entertaining angels unaware (an allegory of the Trinity) and Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son, Isaac (a foreshadowing of God’s offering of his own son, Christ) appear on Justinian’s side, flanked by Jeremiah and Moses receiving the Old Law. On the empress’s side, the sacrifices of Abel and Melchizedek (again, both images invoking Christ and the Eucharist) are depicted, flanked by Isaiah and Moses with the Burning Bush. Higher on these two walls are the evangelists, John and Luke above Abraham; Matthew and Mark above Abel and Melchisedek, authors of the new covenant, writing it down for dear life, and encouraged by their symbols, which are also the creatures of the apocalypse. On the inner face of the sanctuary arch, roundels of saints rise to meet Christ (in bust form) in the centre.

The programme supports a variety of readings: it illustrates the Old Law superseded by the New; it carries liturgical Eucharistic meanings; it displays sixth-century political (the imperial panels, most obviously, but in details such as Moses as a model for the emperor or the bishop) and theological currents (a perceived emphasis on the number three can be interpreted as an Orthodox Trinitarian statement against heretical Arian beliefs). It is a local statement about Maximian rather than an imperial reflection on Justinian. But the overarching theme is one of the righteous making their offerings to God and being welcomed by Christ.


Spot the terrapin or turtle being threatened by an egret. I once spent a huge amount of time with a group of students in S Apollinare in Classe looking for it there.

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