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.
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:
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.