The Baptistry of Neon in Ravenna

Dating from the late 4th to early 5th century, the Baptistry of Neon is claimed to be one of the oldest monuments in Ravenna. One again from the outside this small octagonal structure, built in the familiar red brick common to all of the Ravenna churches, is underwhelming. But inside the variety and richness of the mosaics is stunning.

The centre piece is the dome, very similar to that of the Arian Baptistry, which depicts Christ’s baptism in the Jordan.

On this occasion the figure of Christ is closer to the standard iconographic portrayal, with long hair, beard and moustache. To Christ’s left stands the pagan symbol of the River Jordan, an old man holding a cloth for Christ to dry himself on and a reed. Around this central scene is a procession of Apostles carrying martyrs’ crowns:

On the next level down are a series of almost tromp l’oeil structures featuring altars:

There is an incredibly rich variety of vegetal motifs throughout the mosaics:

I was fascinated to see the use of marble revetments, similar to those found in San Vitale:

In the squinches are simple depictions of saints on richly gilded backgrounds:

At ground level are a series of alcoves with richly decorated arches:

At the level of the windows are another series of depictions of saints and prophets, executed in a limited range of styles in marble relief:

The floor of the Baptistry is occupied by a large but simple marble font:

The Arian Baptistry in Ravenna

The Arian Baptistry is a small building in a courtyard near the Church of the Holy Spirit in Ravenna. It was built in the early 6th century by Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths who made Ravenna his capital after conquering much of Italy.

At one time the the whole of the interior must have been decorated with mosaics and frescoes. Many tons of tesserae were found underneath the baptistry after damage to the building during the last war. Today though the only part of the interior that is decorated is the dome and it is truly magnificent.

The central roundel of the dome mosaic depicts a beardless Christ standing naked in the River Jordan. On the right, standing on a rock is John the Baptist, holding a shepherd’s crook in his left hand and touching Christ’s head in blessing with his right hand. Over Christ’s head is a dove releasing a spray of water or pouring out the Holy Spirit on him.

Seated on the left of Christ is an old man, holding a reed (?) in his right hand, personifying the River Jordan. Next to him is an upturned water vessel and a pair of red crab claws pop out rather incongruously from behind the top of his head. He is a very pagan looking figure in an otherwise Christian iconographic setting.

Surrounding the roundel of Christ’s baptism is a procession of the Apostles, six moving clockwise and six anticlockwise. Both sets of Apostles are processing towards the throne of God, not occupied by a figure, but draped with a white garment (possibly a symbol of Christ’s suffering). On the throne lies a purple cushion surmounted by a cross also hung with a purple cloth.

All but two of the Apostles carry a crown of martyrdom in their cloth-covered hands, a sign of reverence.It is also a reference to the Byzantine court when servants used cloths to cover their hands as a sign of respect to the Emperors when presenting them with things.

The Apostles are separated by date palms, each slightly different from each other in design.

At the head of the two processions are St Paul on the left (not one of the original Apostles, but considered by the Church to be an equal of the Apostles) holding not a crown but two scrolls representing his epistles. On the right stands St Peter holding the keys of the Kingdom.

As I looked at the dome, I wondered how this mosaic expressed an Arian view of Christianity. Before the elaboration of the theology of the Trinity, Arius a 3rd -4th century priest in Alexandria developed the idea that Christ had been created by the Father and was therefore not co-eternal with him. Although it was condemned as heresy by the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, Arianism had a strong hold over the church and it was this sect of the church into which Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths was baptised.

I still cannot see how this belief is translated into the iconography.

To illustrate the lengths to which I go to get the right shots for this blog, I had to lay down on the floor of the baptistry to try and get the dome into my camera’s frame. This caused much amusement to some Italian visitors who passed me their cameras to take photos for them while I was down there. Jumping up unaided, I made a little bow of appreciation when they cheered me spontaneously.

Ravenna – the Church of San Vitale

The Church of San Vitale, right next to the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia that I blogged about in my last post, has some of the most famous mosaics in Ravenna, its depictions of Justinian and Theodora frequently featuring in books about Byzantium.

The church is dedicated to a local saint, St Vitalis, allegedly martyred on this very spot by being thrown into a well. Building started in 525 AD under Bishop Ecclesius and it was consecrated in 546/7 by Bishop Maximianus. Both bishops feature prominently in its mosaics. The work was part funded by a Ravenna goldsmith called Julianus: judging by the size of the church and craftsmanship of the mosaics he must have been fabulously wealthy. It was also a project with Byzantine Imperial support designed to make a political and religious statement. It emphasised the restoration of Imperial control over Italy, finally secured by Justinian in 553, and the triumph of Orthodoxy over the Arianism of the Goths, whom Justinian defeated.

On entering this octagonal-shaped church, the first big surprise is that only the apse and the part of the nave nearest the altar are decorated with mosaics. The rest of the church is either plain or decorated with eighteenth century frescoes totally outclassed by the original mosaics. It gives the church an unfinished look as if the sponsors ran out of money part way through the building work. As I approached the altar, I was overwhelmed by the rich colours of the stunning mosaics: golds, reds, greens and blues.

In the tympanum of the apse is a wonderful mosaic of Christ Pantokrator. Above it are two angels holding what looks like a Chi Rho, symbolising both Christ’s resurrection and Byzantine Imperial power. On either side of the angels are walled cities, Jerusalem on the left and Bethlehem on the right.

A clean shaven Christ in Imperial purple robes is seated on a throne with the earth as his footstool, holding the gospels. Two archangels stand on either side of him and in his right hand he holds out a martyr’s crown to St Vitalis whose outstretched hands are covered as a sign of respect to receive it:

I love the little detail of the coloured feathery clouds over their heads.  To Christ’s left stands Bishops Eclesius of Ravenna, the initiator of the building, offering a model of this church to him:

In the dome above the apse is the lamb (looking a bit like a horse) of God in a roundel supported by four archangels standing on globes against a background of animal and vegetal motifs.

On either side of the apse are scenes from the Old Testament and depictions of the Prophets:

The detail and richness of the decoration is stunning, as in this shot of the upper ambulatory, the gallery where women were allowed to worship. This also features the shell motif that occurs throughout the church notably, as I will describe later, in the depiction of the Empress Theodora.

Here is the simple marble altar table, with rather horse-like sheep again on either side of the cross.

Behind the altar and set into the wall of the apse is a marble seat meant presumably for the bishop.

Lining the walls of the apse behind the altar are these wonderful marble and porphyry revetments that remind me of Haghia Sophia that was being built at around the same time. Perhaps they shared the same craftsmen.

There are many similar marble revetments around the church’s walls, some looking like stone Rorschach tests:

So to the Imperial mosaic panels themselves, quite difficult to see and photograph straight on owing to their position and the fact that entrance to the apse is roped off. First, here’s the Justinian panel:

Justinian is flanked on either side by the two great powers and supports of his reign, the church and the army. On his left are representatives of the Church, including in the most prominent position, Maximianus, Bishop of Ravenna, holding a jewelled cross. Next to him are two priests, one carrying a gold and jewel-encrusted gospel book and the other a censer:

Justinian’s body seems to hover in the air (more evident when you are actually looking at the mosaics rather than at these photographs), indicating his status as Emperor and also as God’s representative on earth. To his right are two high ranking courtiers and a group of soldiers carrying spears and shields:

The Emperor is wearing Imperial purple robes, crown, pearl pendilia, an elaborate tunic fastening on his right shoulder and he is carrying an offertory basket. His realistically depicted face is solemn and his eyes, like that of all the figures in the mosaic, stare out like those in icons, as if fixed on eternity.

On the opposite wall is the mosaic of Justinian’s wife, the Empress Theodora:

She too is flanked by two groups of attendants, on her left a group of noble female courtiers distinguished by the rich variety of the designs of their dresses:

On her right are two courtiers, one of whom is mysteriously pushing back a curtain onto a pitch black scene. In front of the curtain is a fountain, symbolising eternal life:

The Empress wears a lavish Imperial crown with pendilia and a pearl necklace. Above her is that shell motif again. Often the shell symbolises death, a motif that figures on grave steles for example, and some have seen a hint in it of Theodora’s death. She died, however in 548, a year after the consecration of San Vitale, so that does not quite fit. As with the figure of Justinian, the Empress seems to float slightly above her followers, but noticeably not as much as her husband. The hem of her purple cloak carries a depiction of the Three Kings, picked out in white and gold, bearing their gifts to offer to the infant Christ.

It is interesting that Justinian and Theodora are both depicted with haloes, though they were not made Orthodox saints until much later.

The floor has some interesting Roman mosaics:

And in front of the altar area is a very interesting marble labyrinth floor, complete with directional arrows that must surely be medieval.Another marble design on the floor reminds me a bit of one in Haghia Sophia which indicated the position of the Emperor’s throne:

Finally on matters flooring related, here are some repetitions of the shell motif:

One oddity of this church is this huge baptismal pool on the side opposite the apse:

Under the central octagonal dome is this monstrous eighteenth century Baroque painting, looking completely out of place:


and here are some of the arches of the ambulatory beneath the octagonal dome:

Finally there are several stone sarcophagi inside the church with interesting iconography:

A side panel of the sarcophagus above shows Christ raising Lazarus:

This one shows the Three Kings again offering their gifts to Mary and the infant Jesus.

I am not sure what this end panel depicts: Daniel in the lions’ den?

This was undoubtedly the highlight of my trip to Ravenna and one of the most interesting Byzantine sites I have visited. It is a remarkable church containing some of the highest quality mosaics I have ever seen. I can see why they are endlessly reproduced.

 

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.

Encountering Caravaggio in Sicily

The Piazza del Duomo in Siracusa is ringed with beautiful buildings, but the Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia isn’t one of them. Both inside and outside it is a dull piece of architecture, but the architecture is not the reason why it attracts visitors. Its claim on the attention is a painting by Caravaggio that hangs behind the altar which depicts the Burial of Santa Lucia.

The painter came to Sicily in 1608, having left Rome after murdering a high ranking cleric. Initially he went to Malta where he heard about a commission for a church in Siracusa: an altarpiece depicting Santa Lucia, the patron saint of Sicily, who was martyred in the early 4th century during the Diocletian persecutions.

Caravaggio decided to depict the saint’s burial, rather than a glorification of her death and dashed it off in 1-2 months before leaving Sicily in a hurry. Caravaggio painted straight onto the canvas without drawing it out first. It is a very strange painting.Image result for caravaggio burial of st lucia

It’s not clear from the cropped image above but the burial scene only occupies the bottom one third of the canvas. The top two thirds is empty because it just shows the blank wall of the crypt in which Santa Lucia is being buried.

You have to look hard to make out the subject of the painting. St Lucia is a frail, grey body lying on the floor of the crypt, almost as if she is already turning into the colour of stone. Behind her stands a sorrowful young man with a crimson cloth round his neck which points down at the saint’s lifeless body. To the right of the canvas a bishop, distinguished by his white mitre and crozier, raises his hand in blessing. There’s a small cast of mourners, mainly ordinary people and a soldier in a shiny cuirass. The faces of the bishop and soldier are not clearly depicted, almost as if they were painted in great haste, whereas the group of three characters in the centre of the centre of the picture is well lit and clearly painted.

However what frames a the picture are the two muscular gravediggers who, in a dislocation of perspective, almost appear outside of the scene and not related to it. They dominate the painting, particularly the gravedigger on the right whose white backside reflecting the light is the brightest part of the painting. This is echoed by the bright reflection on the shoulder of the gravedigger in the lefthand side. Could the gravedigger on the right represent Caravaggio’s attitude and be mooning at the Church?

Another oddity is the restricted colour palette that Caravaggio uses generally (and not just in this painting): shades of brown, with the exceptions being crimson and white. Everything is very muted and almost understated.

Apparently the Church didn’t like the painting and wanted him to fill in the empty space in the top two thirds, for example with angels. Caravaggio is alleged to have told them that he couldn’t do this as he had never seen an angel (though he did include them in some of his other paintings). I wonder (without any evidence) whether he was an atheist who just used the church to make a living. Or am I just trying to interpret him from the perspective of our times? What a strange and troubled character Caravaggio was.

The painting was sent to Rome for restoration because after several centuries the subject could hardly be made out any more. During the restoration, X-rays showed that Caravaggio painted Santa Lucia with a severed head (as this was how she was martyred), but in the final painting her head is back on her body.

You can’t get very close to the painting and have to view it from the altar rail. Every few minutes, from the back of church, an official barks out ‘No photos!’ through a megaphone to anyone trying to take a shot with a phone or camera. So not the best of conditions in which to look the painting and try to understand it.

 

 

 

Va pensiero…

Pushing my way back out of the cave that’s cool and dark after the fierceness of the afternoon Sicilian sun, I walk through a group of people spread across the width of the cave. As I pass them they start singing a tune that seems vaguely familiar at first, until it suddenly reveals itself as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco. Looking back I see a conductor in their midst. Some are singing the words, others (like me, drawn to them) humming along. It is totally unexpected, very moving and at the same time highly appropriate.

For I am in the Orecchio di Dionisio (Ear of Dionysus) in the Latomie at the Archaeological Park in Siracusa. From the outside it resembles the top of 2/3 of an ear and it has a curious
S-shaped structure that goes back about 60m, ending in a wall of sheer rock. Limestone was quarried here for buildings in Siracusa or alternatively it was used as a place for storing water. Whatever its original purpose it has a grim history.

In 415 BC during the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians sent an expedition against Sicily which was in league with the Spartans. It turned into a major defeat in 413 BC for the Athenians with the loss of 200 Greek ships and the capture of over 7,000 of their soldiers. The Orecchio di Dionisio is where these captured Athenians were kept in appalling conditions, without food or water. Most of them died after a few weeks and only an estimated 20 survived to make their way back to Athens to report to an incredulous population what had happened.

One can only imagine the torment of the Athenian prisoners in this prison and their longing for Greece. In Nabucco, the Hebrew Slaves lament for their lost homeland. So this impromptu performance by a random choir on a summer’s afternoon was a very fitting memorial to these events of so long ago.   

Obliquely it also has a link to Euripides’ play ‘Eleni’ (first performed in 411BC) which I have blogged about here and also to Seferis’s poem of the same name. The defeat of the Athenian forces was a major blow to the morale of the city state and may have been one of the contemporary events that prompted the questioning of the purpose of war in Euripides’ play.

The Orecchio di Dionisio was given its name by Caravaggio after he was shown it in 1608 when visiting the island. The Dionisio in question was tyrant of Syracuse a few years after the defeat of the Athenian forces who allegedly imprisoned opponents here and was able to eavesdrop on their plans thanks to the space’s perfect acoustics. The best place to hear the focused sounds in the cave is from a gallery above the entrance which unfortunately is not accessible to visitors.

It’s in Siracusa that I encounter Caravaggio the painter for the first time, specifically his Burial of St Lucia. But that will have to wait for another post.