Ravenna – the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

This squat building sits right next door to the much bigger and grander Church of San Vitale. Built of red brick, like all of Ravenna’s main churches, in the shape of a Latin cross, it gives no hint of its stunning mosaic-covered interior. Called the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia it was built in the middle of the 5th century AD and was originally attached to the portico of Church of Santa Croce whose bell tower can be seen in the background of the picture. The portico was removed in the early 17th century to make way for a road that now separates the two buildings.

Galla Placidia was the daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I and the mother of the emperor Valentinian III, acting for a several years as his regent. She died in 450 and was buried near the original Basilica of St Peter in Rome, not in this little church. Perhaps the church was used initially by the family as a memorial chapel in her name.

It takes a little while for your eyes to adjust to the dark interior  after the blinding Italian sunshine and then the first thing that strikes you is the richness of the colours in the mosaics; deep blue, gold, red and green. The unifying theme of the mosaics is salvation through Christ and eternal life. The main mosaic in the lunette facing the entrance depicts the martyrdom of St Lawrence:

The saint is shown carrying a martyr’s cross in one hand and an open gospel codex in the other

as he makes his way towards the gridiron, the instrument of his martyrdom, in the centre of the picture with the fire already burning beneath it:

To the left of the mosaic is an open cupboard ho;ding copies of the Gospels:

As a bookbinder, there are two things of particular note in this mosaic. The depiction of the books in this mosaic is rare visual evidence of codices with front flaps and leather ties, a distinctive form of eastern Mediterranean binding. Secondly, it is also rare to see books displayed on the shelves of a cupboard, with their fore edges facing out, exactly how books were stored on shelves in libraries in the medieval period.

The ceiling is covered with crosses in roundels against a rich deep blue and gold background, depicting the heavens. I can’t convey the impression they made in a single picture but they made me gasp when I looked up:

In the dome, where in later Byzantine churches you would expect to see the Pantokrator, is a simple cross against the rich colour of the sky. Symbolic representations of the four Evangelists are shown in the corners:

There are also depictions of the Apostles with doves and a fountain. The tops of the lunettes of the Apostles contain a shell design, sometimes found on Greek grave steles, symbolically signifying death. It also features in the famous mosaic of Theodora in the neighbouring church of San Vitale, perhaps indicating that the mosaic was completed after her death.

Two lunettes (only one included here) show deer by a pool with vegetal motifs, one said to represent spring, the other summer.

The detail of the glass tesserae mosaics is very rich and clearly required craftsmanship of the first order at a cost that could only be afforded by an Imperial family. It would be interesting to know where the craftsman came from.


These geometric patterns struck me having a very modern look:

There’s also a rich vein of vegetal motifs in the mosaics:

In the lunette over the entrance is a depiction of a beardless Christ as the Good Shepherd surrounded by the souls of the righteous, symbolised by sheep . I like the way the artists have shown all the sheep with their heads turned to look at Christ.

In the three niches at the intersections of the Latin cross are large marble sarcophagi. this one was claimed to be that of Galla Placidia:

and the other two were thought be be of Constantius and Honorius, though this may well just be myth:

The alabaster windows are not original but were a gift of Victor Emmanuel III in 1909.

One final feature to note is the pine cone on thew top of the church, another indication of a funerary monument.

Finally as you leave the grounds of the church there are two sarcophagi with similar Christian motifs to those inside the mausoleum.

7 thoughts on “Ravenna – the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

  1. Pingback: Ravenna – the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia | Byzantine Blog

  2. Hello, Peter,
    Very good text and photos. Thank you.
    I like to read about the presence of Byzantium in Italy.
    Cheers,
    Cesar Barroso

  3. Pingback: Ravenna – the Church of San Vitale | wordscene

  4. Thanks for the info about book binding in the fifth century. How did anyone ever find books if they were all stored in this way in medieval libraries

    • Hi Judith,
      Good question!

      Books in chained libraries were attached by their front boards rather than their spines to avoid weakening the spines. A list of book titles and their locations on the shelves was posted at the end of each bay of bookshelves to make it easier for a reader to find them. Over time it became more common to write an abbreviated form of the book title on the fore edge. Putting the titles of books on spines did not start until the late 1500s in England and it was not common practice for c.100 years after that.

      Eastern Mediterranean books in the Middle Byzantine period onwards are distinguished by the raised endbands of their bindings at head and tail. My understanding is that these books tended to be stored in wooden chests on their fore edge and the raised bands made it easier to pull the books out of the chests by holding on to the head and tail bands.

      The classic text on medieval bindings (inc Eastern Mediterranean) is J. Szirmai’s The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding. There’s also an excellent book by Georgios Boudalis, Head of Book Conservation at the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki on The Codex and Craft in Late Antiquity.

      I very much enjoyed your book ‘Byzantium – the surprising life of a medieval empire’ (I read your chapter on Ravenna several times before making my visit) and am looking forward to reading your book on Ravenna that was published this week. I hope it’s a great success!

      I have also just done a blog post on San Vitale (https://wordscene.wordpress.com/2020/08/28/ravenna-the-church-of-san-vitale/) and will gradually follow up on the other sites in Ravenna I visited and photographed last year.

      Best,
      Peter

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