The Churches of Ravenna: An Early Christian Picture Show
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San Vitale and Sant'Apollinare in Classe, two of the most illustrious expressions of Byzantine artistry in the world, are in this northeastern Italian backwater (the third is Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul). To fully understand their greatness, we recommend you proceed chronologically and visit the late-Roman churches first. The oldest of these is the Orthodox (or Neonian) Baptistery, which suffers from a malady shared by several other local buildings: since its construction in the early fifth century, the street level has risen almost ten feet. The Baptistery is literally buried in asphalt up to its knees, and this of course destroys the majesty of its beautiful marble columns and the mosaic-decorated arches that join them.

We start our excursion into the intense symbolism of Byzantine art by pointing out that even the octagonal shape of the Baptistery means something: it represents the seven days of Creation and the eighth day of rest. Here, above the spot where pagans disrobed before being baptized, the dome is a very busy pinwheel of icons and the twelve Apostles revolving around a rather primitive picture of Christ up to his waist in the waters of the Jordan. St. John stands next to him, about to pour holy water onto the Heavenly head from a dish. This detail was added in the 19th century by a Roman artisan named Felice Kibel, who is considered somewhat of an anti-Christ around these parts. Asked to restore damaged sections of almost every mosaic cycle in town, he apparently was more interested in showing off his own talents than in faithfully replacing fallen tesserae.


Today, just about every touch he added is vilified. For instance, St. John apparently held no dish in the original mosaic; he merely extended his hand to place it on Christ's head and gently push it into the river.

Our next visit is to Ravenna's oldest extant mosaic cycle, in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia. It stands in a wonderful part of town, reached by a few narrow streets lined with tastefully restored old homes. The archeological area itself, which includes the mausoleum, San Vitale and the National Museum, is a park shaded by tall umbrella pines - first planted here by Roman legionnaires. The mausoleum is a small, extremely plain building which you enter through an even tinier door. It hardly looks worth the effort to stoop over, but from the moment you straighten up again you will probably gasp - as people have been doing since 430 AD. Above your head is a deep blue barrel-vaulted ceiling covered with dozens of red and silver daisy wheels. Over the door is a portrait of Christ, seated in a garden surrounded by sheep.

Christ, pictured as a vibrant young shepherd, is starkly contrasted by the nearby scene in which St. Lawrence pauses before stepping onto the flaming grate of his martyrdom. Still, even for the doomed Roman, hope appears in the form of two doves sipping fountain water just above his head. In this tiny building you will first encounter some of the amazingly modern decorative motifs invented by the Oriental artists of Ravenna. Galla Placidia was probably entombed in the large marble sarcophagus facing the door. It is said that her mummy was consumed when a curious local resident bored a hole (still visible) in the marble and used a candle to illuminate the interior.

Ravenna's second golden age was presided over by Theodoric I. From this epoch we have the Arian Baptistery, the Archbishop's Chapel, Theodoric's Mausoleum, Sant'Apollinare Nuovo and the church of Santo Spirito. If you remember Galla's tomb, you'll notice that the Archbishop's Chapel has a similar floor plan. Here too is a barrel-vaulted entry surmounted by a portrait of a youthful, smiling Christ (seen this time as the slayer of evil in the form of a lion and a snake). Again the Evangelists appear in the dome, but here their symbols are actually half-man, half-animal, whereas in the earlier building they had possessed no human attributes.


The Baptistery contrasts sharply with the Orthodox one. Because it represented the Arian sect, who fell into serious disfavor after Theodoric's death, its eight walls were stripped of all decorations and now are no more than bare brick. Only the dome survives, showing a much simpler composition surrounding Christ's baptism. You'll be relieved to know St. John is not holding any dishes in this picture!

The most illustrious survivor of Theodoric's realm is Sant'Apollinare Nuovo. If you haven't already understood how the Byzantines used mosaics to tell stories, you certainly will here. The enormous nave (semi-buried by a later pavement and stripped of many original treasures) is long, narrow and lined on both sides with marble columns surmounted by mosaic cycles. Look for the Virgin holding baby Jesus, at the far end of the left wall. From here the pictures tell the story of Christ's life until he finally appears at the near end of the right wall, a weary older man wearing a purple robe and seated on a throne. This is also where you'll see the famed processions of 26 martyrs and 22 virgins bearing gifts (led by three Kibel-corrupted Wise Men). As if all these characters weren't enough, there's also a layer of saints and prophets, pictures of the city and harbor of Classis, and of Theodoric's legendary palace. There may have been some sort of representation of the king of the Goths himself, but it was later removed by Justinian, along with the bodies of the Goth courtiers whose hands are still visible on the column of the palace.

This brings us to the crowning moment of Ravennese glory: the sixth century. About this time a mysterious banker suddenly showed up and offered the local bishops a staggering sum of money to build one church in town and another in Classis. Giuliano was probably no more that the long arm of the Eastern Roman Emperor, whose portrait figures prominently in both churches. Also portrayed (but never alongside her husband) is his gorgeous wife Theodora. Historians of the time say that she grew up in a circus, became an actress and prostitute, had an illegitimate child and was subsequently abandoned by her Syrian lover. She was a penniless weaver when the Emperor met her, fell hopelessly in love with her and made her his Empress. Theodora apparently wielded a powerful influence over Justinian for the rest of her life. In these portraits she does indeed look elegant, extravagant and irresistible. The mosaicists of San Vitale obviously had a chance to see her and the many other courtiers they depicted, because for the first time we see individual (and not always flattering) features that clearly corresponded to the real figures. The panel showing Empress Theodora and her court is considered to be the most perfect 6th-century mosaic in existence.

As fascinating as the mosaics are, I don't consider them to be the most astonishing aspect of San Vitale. What really takes your breath away is the structure. Its original entrance is gone today; you enter through a rather convoluted 16-century cloister that joins it to the museum next door. After wending your way through several levels of hallways lined with boring bare brick, you are entirely unprepared to step into the octagonal apse, surrounded by eight large niches and surmounted by the matroneo where women worshipped. It is virtually impossible to describe the sensation of being surrounded, so closely and yet so majestically, by all this architectural and decorative splendor. Few places on earth have the power to stop you dead in your tracks: this is one of them.
To reach Ravenna's eighth wonder, you drive through about five miles of nondescript flat farmland, passing a couple of ruined churches as you go. The most remarkable thing about the route is how poorly it is marked. Not once does even a rusty old placard assure you this is the two-lane road that leads to a major European monument. You will probably be ready to give up and turn back just when the horizon is suddenly punctuated by a gracious round belltower. Built in the 10th century, it escaped destruction three times in World War Two alone. First is was narrowly missed by the Americans during their heavy bombing of the area. A few months later it was actually singled out as a target when it became an observation tower for the Germans. An enlightened soul in the Allied Command managed to save it before the Nazis fled in such a hurry that they too had to scrap their plans to demolish it.

The interior of Sant'Apollinare in Classe resembles the earlier church of the same name, but it has lost much of its decoration. After the great harbor of Classis silted over and disappeared, this magnificent basilica was left like an abandoned child by the wayside, easily pilfered by anyone who happened to wander past. The most notorious prowler was the great Pandolfo Sigismondo Malatesta of Rimini, who purportedly hauled off one hundred cartfuls of carved marble. The surviving interior is flooded with sunlight and divided into three naves by two rows of beautifully veined marble columns supporting pendentives of the prettiest pistachio green. These brilliant diamonds lead your eye straight down to the apse, where a joyful St. Apollinaris stands in a garden of the same color. Apart from being an immensely important piece of early Christian art, this has to be one of the happiest mosaics in existence. Animals cavort gracefully beneath a gold and azure sky in which the hand of God emerges from a bank of wispy clouds. Twelve sheep representing the Apostles climb another pistachio-colored hill toward Christ, who smiles down from the highest point, flanked by the Evangelists. The green, together with a pale turquoise, also appears as a background in the portraits that line the lower part of the apse. These are the last great mosaics to be completed before Ravenna fell into decline and obscurity as its gleaming lights were extinguished by the suffocating curtain of the Dark Ages.

by Kristin Jarratt

Sant'Apollinare in Classe and Theodoric's Mausoleum can be visited for free, along with many other local attractions, by purchasing the Ravenna Visit Card. It costs 10 Euro and is good for seven days.

You really can't "do" Ravenna in a day trip. If you wish to stay overnight, there is a beautiful new hotel in town. Small, elegant, and managed by an extremely friendly staff, it is only minutes away from San Vitale.


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