Ravenna is unquestionably celebrated worldwide for its mosaics, and this excellence is due the fact that it possesses the world's richest heritage of 5th and 6th century mosaics, superior in artistic quality and iconological importance to those of any other city of the ancient and classical worlds both east (Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria) and west (Rome, Milan, Aquileia, Trier, Cologne).
This is why Unesco, in 1997, placed seven sacred buildings in Ravenna on the "World Heritage" list, buildings which are the jealous custodians of the celebrated mosaics dealt with in this publication.
In Ravenna the Archbishops and ecclesiastics who commissioned the mosaic cycles were men of profound theological learning, capable of measuring themselves against the great testimony remaining from the artistic civilisation of Roman classicism in decline and able to request and obtain a high stylistic perfection, rich in content of the essential Christian mysteries celebrated in worship and in the liturgy.
The Bible is fundamental to liturgical celebration of the Easter, Christmas, Epiphany and Baptism of Christ mysteries. The most authentic and profound explanation of the message of the Ravenna mosaics is, still today, to be sought in the writings of the Old and New Testaments and in the commentaries thereon.
In fact the Ravenna mosaic cycles reflect a conception of ancient Christian symbolism intrinsically linked to the liturgical reading of the Holy Scriptures, precisely in the sacramental spirit of the eminent 5th and 6th century ecclesiastical Authors.
The main theological inspiration came above all from S. Pier Crisologo, Doctor of the Church (in the 5th century), and Archbishop Maximianus (in the 6th century). S. Pier Crisologo's theological culture shines magnificently in the mosaics of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and in those of the palatine church of St. John the Evangelist (which have been lost but whose contents are known to us). No one in his century (neither in Constantinople nor Rome) ever surpassed Maximianus's symbolic and iconological culture: he is the inspirer and enlightened theologian of all the S. Vitale mosaics and all the 6th century ones in S. Apollinare in Classe.
We may state that Pier Crisologo represents the spirit of oriental and Latin Christian culture in the age of Neo-Platonism, but it is above all Maximianus who, having lived for decades in the east at the palatine school of the capital, Constantinople, demonstrates organic affinities with the Christian Platonism of the contemporary author of the Corpus Dionysiacum , after the supremacy in Ravenna of Severino Boezio and Cassiodoro.
In general, with the Ravenna mosaic heritage, Christianity (originally non-iconic) was enriched for the first time, in a complete and definite manner, by a genuine iconography to represent, through the universal language of images, the biblical message and the contents of Christian theology.
This is why Ravenna safeguards its unique heritage with great responsibility, as an extraordinary resource for the destiny of world civilisation and culture. This publication aims to bear witness to its light of truth, beauty and peace. Please click on the links below for a historical and pictorial description of each monument, along with many beautiful pictures.
The structure and images of the Mausoleum of the empress Galla Placidia re-evoke the life and death of an imperial princess fully involved in the empire of her father, Theodosius the Great. Well acquainted with the greatest theologians of the age - Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, Chrysostomus and Pier Crisologo of Ravenna - Galla Placidia was marked, in her own physical life, by one of the most catastrophic events in the history of the Late Empire: the sack of Rome by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410.
Galla Placidia had built the palatine basilica of St. John the Evangelist with the aid of Bishop Pier Crisologo and the mosaic decoration celebrated the glory of the Christian Roman Empire. This glory was expressed by the Cross (Constantine's monogram, reused decades later by Maximianus in the palatine basilica of S. Vitale) and the basilica, to which her Mausoleum was annexed was dedicated to the Cross.
The Mausoleum is built to a Latin cross plan, and the main symbol of the mosaic in the dead centre of the vaulted ceiling is a celestial cross that shines among the stars in the heavens, the heaven of eternal salvation, the heaven of the Kingdom of God described by St. John in Revelation.
The cross s the symbol borne by Christus victor on the left, seated in the power of his kingdom, stroking the sheep of perpetual peace, placed on the door of the building to evoke consecration to the Saviour of the building itself, for the perpetual redemption the empress expects in divine life. Opposite is the greatest Roman saint that followed Christ, the martyr Lorenzo, carrying his own cross, who has entered gloriously into heaven after the torments his life and the trial by fire. This heavenly kingdom is shown by the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul (with others) on the eastern side: the side where the Sun of Justice rises, Christ the Saviour; the side whence comes the light that covers the universe towards the west, towards the tenebrous world, the shadows of death.
The paradisiacal vault of the great entrance with plant symbols of light and life inspired by the theology of the 4th Evangelist and St. John of the Apocalypse demonstrates well the basic theme of the conception Pier Crisologo and the narrow-minded Galla Placidia had of Christian life and death.
So this Mausoleum, though very similar to the large pagan mausoleums (central plan, single entrance, pinecone on the roof) it is entirely decorated with the Christian symbols of immortality and eternal life.
A total monument (it was to inspire the Neonian Baptistery and the Archiepiscopal Chapel) even the minor spaces are enriched by funerary symbols of the new faith: the doves drinking at the source of spring water, the deer bending to drink running water. In fact the 22nd Psalm, used in the ancient funeral service, says, "The Lord leads me to the cooling water, He saves my soul"; "My soul thirsted for the living God: when shall I come to appear before the Lord? As the deer is drawn by the springs of water so my soul desires thee O Lord." (Psalm 41).
St. Paul (80 x 67 cm)
This is the earliest figure of the Apostle Paul in the mosaics of Ravenna and it obeys the age-old iconography of the Apostle to the Gentiles. In fact, as the "philosopher" of ancient Christianity, and in distinction to Peter with whom he is nearly always associated, he possesses precisely the distinguishing characteristics of a philosopher: long beard, slightly emaciated face, high balding forehead, book or scroll (here a scroll) in hand. But in this Mausoleum the gesture of his right hand and the direction of his gaze should especially be clarified: because he is looking at the cross, sign of eternal salvation, while his hand indicates to the faithful the symbol of human redemption through Christ.
St. John (75 x 90 cm)
In this Mausoleum as elsewhere (the two Ravenna baptisteries and the Archiepiscopal Chapel for example) the iconography of the holy apostles Peter and Paul is quite unmistakable, though this cannot be said about the other apostles. Often, however, two others are easily recognisable: John because he is beardless and Andrew for his fine head of hair. Here we have the face of a young man intentionally shaved, in distinction to the others, with view to showing special physical features. While others do not have the scroll (the book), this is the only young man, he is beardless and carries the Evangelist's scroll: everything points to the Apostle John the Evangelist who meditates on the "mystery of the Cross".
Doves drinking (71 x 100 cm)
The iconography of the doves by the spring in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia ("a well of water springing up into everlasting life." John 4, 14) is repeated no less than four times, above the four arches supporting the tambour and the vaulted ceiling. In the direction North-South the birds are shown near the water springing forth; but in the direction East-West, that is, directly above the lunette of the deer drinking running water, the doves too are drinking. This is symbology at once biblical and Christian adapted to the eschatological and funerary message of the Mausoleum cycles: the message of life everlasting promised to those who follow Christ with the cross, Christ the Eternal Shepherd: archegos tes zoes (guide to life) (Acts, 3, 15).
Detail of vaulted ceiling (109 x 91 cm)
The vaulted ceiling of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is the only mosaic without human or animal images and may be interpreted as representing theological thought, perhaps dictated by the bishop Doctor of the Church Pier Crisologo, or as a purely symbolic representation. In any case they are symbols of terrestrial and celestial harmonies which are integrated and completed in the circles of the vault's starry sky. The detail we are looking at shows floral geometries idealised in solar and stellar forms. One must think of the metamorphosis of the earthly paradise into a heavenly one: a theme congenial to the monument's "ideology" and backed by Neo-Platonic Christian thought regarding paradise. One would not be mistaken in referring to the Mausoleum of Constance, which Galla Placidia certainly knew, because in Rome the pagan nature symbols lived on in the iconology of celestial Christian meanings.
Festoon (61x 195 cm)
The ideological function of this detail is to symbolise life, which is the decorative theme of the whole mausoleum. The festoon consists of two parts which, starting at the base of a stylised vase, develop upwards to decorate a Greek cross, the monument's chief symbol. Festoons of life conclude the vital and paradisiacal symbology of the entrance vault with its stylised, terrestrial and celestial floral symbols. Moreover the festoon enriches all the other mosaic elements with vine foliage and bunches of grapes, a symbolic vital metamorphosis also widely employed in the Mausoleum of Constance in Rome. Comparison with the festoons in the rear vault of S. Vitale is natural and coherent; festoons supported by four peacocks, symbol of immortality: the four S. Vitale festoons co-ordinate the vaulting cells with the birds and animals whereas in the Mausoleum, with greater naturalism, the most symbolically meaningful animals are present: doves and deer.
Greek key (50 x 130 cm)
Among the multiple geometrical forms with which the borders of the anthropomorphic and phytomorphic mosaic fields are composed, the "Greek key" design assumes a decisive importance because it delimits the conclusive vault of the building, the one containing the highly important lunette of Lorenzo, bearer of the cross. The "Greek key" is a geometrical form generated by a cross and is therefore coherent with the chief symbol inspiring the monument. It is a very ancient graphic sign belonging to classicism; and as in many other cases it was adopted by Christian symbolism with new adaptations and new meanings. The same "Greek key" design also surrounds the east wing of the cruciform Mausoleum: in a certain sense it is the main wing because it stands in the direction of the sky from which the central Cross comes, which goes from east (like light and life) to west. In this privileged space, above the Greek key design, appear the leaders of the Apostles, saints Peter and Paul.
Frieze with leaves (100 x 65 cm)
The great frieze with leaves covers the inner arches to the east and west, that is to say where, in the lunette, the deer drinking running water are depicted. The symbolism of life is therefore evident. And even more so because this great twofold frieze is inserted between a twofold representation of plant volutes, vines and bunches of grapes, grapes which, in funerary iconography as seen on Ravenna sarcophagi, are frequently being eaten by birds. The meaning is therefore the nourishing of life, or rather of eternal life, which is perfectly coherent with the Mausoleum's iconological message.
The mosaics in the Basilica di S. Vitale are certainly the most organically important mosaic complex of late-antique Christian art.
The unity and the perfection of style combine with a political- religious thought which no other mosaic or literary work succeeds in fully celebrating, with regard to the empire of Justinian (and Theodora), as do the articulated cycles of the S. Vitale apse and presbytery.
Celebration of Justinian's empire does not rest only in the imperial works with the Emperor and the Empress: celebration is closely linked with the reign and empire of Christ Almighty, demonstrated with the chief signs of power: the cosmic globe as a throne and, in the left hand, the scroll (the Book) of the Law, which is to say the Wisdom that rules the world. And while the Archangels Michael on the right and Gabriel on the left represent the eternal court of Christ (eternal in the youthful expression of the beardless face placed out of time), the figures of the soldier martyr Vitale and the bishop Ecclesius join a temporal history in which Justinian's terrestrial empire exists, with the idea of a reign without end.
The arch of the apse with its imperial eagles bearing the monogram of Christ and the cornucopias which express the riches of the empire, in the Roman tradition of imperial triumph, link the political dimension with the religious. Concrete history is shown by the emperor's and archbishop Maximianus's unity of intent, the latter immortalising himself in this doctrinal synthesis by signing the work clearly in the Latin version of his name.
In the presbytery, near the imperial pictures, are four scenes from the life of Moses: the liberating prophet, lawgiver, great leader, prototype emperor, author of the Book of Civil Law. Still in the presbytery, the imposing figures of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, from the Old Testament, and the Four Evangelists from the New Testament represent the bearing witness, both historical and of the faith, of what is illustrated with regard to unity of Church and Empire, Empire and Priesthood. In the triumphal arch of the same presbytery everything is sealed by the Christ with his Apostles (to whom, for devotional reasons, are added S. Gervasio and S. Protasio, considered sons of S. Vitale). And the religious aspect comes once more to the fore in the sublime and celestial triumphal centrality of the Lamb of the Apocalypse. This is Christ himself (in a heaven of twenty-seven stars, a threefold and Trinitarian number and symbol) who reigns forever, announced in the time of providential prophetic history by the biblical sacrifices of Abel and Melchizedek on the right, and Abraham on the left. In the presbytery, at the centre of the wall above the arch of the apse, between the symbolic cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, there is the solar symbol with Alpha at the centre, meaning Christ creator, with the emanation of rays, of the cosmos and the historical world. A clear triumph over the Ostrogoths and all the barbarian peoples (Visigoths, Vandals) who invade the Empire. But being Arian they are overcome by Justinian's anti-Arian faith.
Imperial Portrayal of Theodora
The empress Theodora is in the centre: on the right, the imperial court matrons and on the left, in the palatial architecture, the figures of the male dignitaries serving the Byzantine empress. These images constitute one of the most stupendous testimonies of 6th century court art. First of all it should be pointed out that though the imperial portrayals of Justinian and Theodora are based on real history they are eminently symbolic. They are interwoven with history because the people who commissioned them (Maximianus and the two elderly deacons of the church of Ravenna who appear with him, one of whom might be his successor and collaborator Agnello and the other perhaps Giuliano Argentario) certainly wanted to represent the political doings of the Christian Roman empire which was heading definitively towards military victory over the Ostrogoths on land and sea, in Italy and the islands, above all conquering Rome after Ravenna.
So the picture is full of history and represents the empress whom we know to be the very authoritative inspiration for Justinian's power politics. But the historical link should be seen between this and the other two Ravenna palatine basilicas: Galla Placidia's (S. Giovanni Evangelista) and Theodoric's (S. Apollinare Nuovo). With the portrait of Theodora, Maximianus and Giuliano Argentario wanted to surpass all other portraits of imperial or royal women. But this revenge, in the case of Theodora, was not the be all and end all of that very high historical dimension which we can reconstruct when we think of the destiny of Rome and Italy in the unity and universality of the legal, civic and cultural programmes which Theodora helped draw up and promote in the capital, Constantinople.
It is a well-documented fact that Maximianus personally owed much to Theodora and to Pope Vigilius (who is also exalted in the same basilica). But the historical claims recounted by this picture, or rather by this monument-document, go way beyond prosopography: they constitute a block of world power.
But these historical dimensions are expressed in a liturgical-symbolic language. It is only the symbology that has Theodora hold the wine chalice before Justinian who, in turn, holds the paten with the bread, whereas in reality, in Constantinople, the emperor carried both.
Equally full of religious symbolism are the people involved: the imperial ladies and the dignitaries shown in the sumptuousness of their majestic clothes and in the magnificence of the imperial palaces. Galla Placidia had reproduced imperial iconography; Theodoric had portrayed Ravenna as being absorbed by his Palatium; Maximianus, portraying Theodora in imperial and holy concord with Justinian, erected the greatest (remaining) monument the empress ever had, and furthermore enriched it with an unparalleled religious-symbolic meaning with the figure of the Three Wise Men that decorates the imperial purple robe.
The Magi, who figured in Galla Placidia's palatine basilica and whom Agnello controversially inserted in the reconverted palatine basilica of Theodoric, are there on Theodora's cloak for theological reasons. There was a widespread irreverent rumour concerning the empress: it was said that she fomented the heretical tendency of Monophysitism by maintaining that in Christ there was only divine nature (to the detriment of the human nature absorbed, precisely, by divinity).
But it must be understood that the Magi adored Christ both as real man and real God. So over and above the connection with the idea of royalty, Maximianus was stating an important point of the whole history of the Constantinople court: its defence of orthodoxy deserved the full support of the peoples of the empire so that the Roman-Christian Trinitarian faith should triumph.
Head of Justinian (63 x 53 cm)
In the life, work and thought of Archbishop Maximianus no person merited exaltation more than the emperor Justinian. Eight centuries before Dante, in canto VI of the Paradiso, wove figurative words of highest appreciation of Justinian, Maximianus had done it with the word of images. There is another portrait of Justinian in S. Apollinare Nuovo but nowhere, neither in Ravenna nor elsewhere in the imperial iconography of the ancient world, is there an image equalling this one. The halo and the crown, for the emperor as for the empress, are clearly signs of divine splendour; but the emperor's chevron next to the brooch of his robe indicates the supreme military power of the Christian Roman empire after Constantine (solemnly cited in Christ's monogram on the bodyguard's shield). Note that the animal on the emperor's chevron is the same as that of the martyr Vitale: military signs which should be read as sacred symbols.
Head of Maximianus (48 x 64 cm.)
Just as Maximianus ordered the master mosaicists to compose the highest image of Justinian, agreeing to the symbolic and somatic transformations, so he wanted his own portrait to be exclusively and strictly "historical". Among all the portraits in the panel this is certainly a portrait "from the life", maybe the only intentional one. More true to life in the face than in the clothing. The clothing, with the pallium, chasuble and processional cross, is normal for bishops officiating at the Eucharistic liturgy. But the face is that of the Deacon of Pola become Archbishop of Ravenna and invested with the highest powers, the See of Rome being vacant. It is the face of the theologian and philosopher who commissioned the most famous mosaic cycles of early Christianity: those of S. Vitale and S. Apollinare in Classe. Those eyes and that mind saw the most critical period of imperial history and the most difficult period in the history of Christianity: forming mediaeval Europe.
Group of Jews (129 x 94 cm)
The biblical scene from the Book of Exodus concludes the Life of Moses, narrated in accordance with Maximianus's commission, with the iconology of the story of salvation linked with the more political meanings of Justinian the lawgiver who is placed near Moses the lawgiver. In this mosaic then, the children of Israel, consisting of twelve tribes and represented by the heads of the tribes, are a prototype of the peoples of the Empire who, in the unity of Roman cultural and legislative civilisation, live under one and the same law of which the Jewish Torah - the Mount Sinai tablets - is a prototype. This mosaic exalting Moses, figure of the Christian emperor, should be placed in close relationship with the Justinian mosaic in the contemporary (c. 553) basilica of Sinai in which Moses receiving the law as a model of religious-political synthesis is an essential interpretation.
City of Jerusalem (184 x 79 cm)
The symbolic representation of the City of Jerusalem (with Bethlehem opposite on the right) in S. Vitale is part of the iconology of the Apocalypse which is dominant in the mosaic cycles of this basilica. The Lamb and Christ with the book (scroll) of the Seven Seals are decidedly inspired by the Book of Revelations. Here Jerusalem and Bethlehem are witnesses of the universal church constituted by the Jews (Jerusalem) and the Gentiles (Bethlehem). They are therefore witnesses of the universal faith spread throughout the world as divine eschatological-apocalyptic revelation. The source of this revelation is Christ, represented by the sun symbol, shining in the cosmos between the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. More precisely, it is Alpha (Christ, principle of all being) that stands in the centre of the symbolic cities. This Jerusalem, moreover recalling Zion, city of David, demonstrates the centrality of Jewish scriptural culture in the historical continuity of imperial Christianity.
Symbol of St. Mark (135 x 100 cm)
It should be noted that in S. Vitale Archbishop Maximianus, in a wholly original manner, had the symbols of the four evangelists represented in complete iconographic isolation with regard to the evangelists themselves. In the case of the lion of St. Mark this representational form is even more pronounced. The figure of the lion is solemn, different from the one in the Archiepiscopal Chapel and from other less powerful representations. As the lion is St. Mark's symbol because of the desert where John the Baptist appears with his sermon at the beginning of the Gospel of St. Mark, we may suppose an iconological wish on Maximianus's part who put himself (on the Ivory Throne) in the position of "precursor" and not "primate".
Angel (46 x 60 cm)
This Angel is part of the scene of the appearance of the three angels before Abraham, beneath the oak in Mamre. It is the first angel from the left and is characterised by its loving look towards Abraham and Sarah while the other two are portrayed in benediction because, while the third (on the right) blesses with fingers in the symbol of the trinity, the one in the middle (who perhaps represents the Son) blesses, with his eyes fixed centrally, using the twofold and complete sign of unity and trinity. Seeing the angel's hand we note that it indicates solidarity, the bond of love with the other angels in the prophecy-blessing of Sarah and Abraham. Here we see only the loving look as if it were the benevolence of the Holy Spirit for Abraham, "our father in the faith" as the liturgy has it.
Pen and Inkwell (51 x 42 cm) Fig. 42
This pen and inkwell is part of a portrait of St. Matthew on the right wall of the S. Vitale presbytery. It shows three of the basic tools of ancient writing: pen, erasing knife and inkwell, while the writing surface, the "writing paper" in this mosaic is represented by scrolls in a basket. With the exception of Luke, and for reasons we cannot go into here, the evangelists (Matthew, Mark and John) are all shown with writing instruments and in connection with writing. But only Matthew is shown actually in the act of writing, probably because, as we mentioned, he is seen writing in Hebrew or Aramaic. In the S. Apollinare Nuovo mosaics Theodoric had ostentatiously magnified the book. Maximianus adds materials, instruments and writing activities with cultured references.
Basket with Doves (61 x 52 cm)
The symbol of the basket with two doves is found four times in S. Vitale, twice on each part of the very first mosaic register of the presbytery walls. Above, on the same walls, there are - again four times and in perfect symmetry - three doves with cantharus. From the cantharus spring vast spirals of vines while the basket with the two doves is abundantly full of fruit. Indubitably these are symbols of life, symbols of eternal life perfectly coherent with the great paradisiacal decoration of the vaulted ceiling in its abundance of plant and animal signs surrounding the Lamb of the Apocalypse. These symbols of doves as souls fed by the food of heavenly life are not part of the apse metaphor, in the cornucopias where the richness of the fruit exalts the providential imperial government; here the fruit and the doves allude to heavenly paradise.
Lapwings (133 x 53 cm)
Just as the iconography of Matthew is concluded with the decorative carpet, with the image of the heron and the turtle, so the iconography of Mark (very evident in the lion portrait) ends with this depiction of lapwings boldly done with different coloured legs and in the act of pecking at insects or some such things. Were the subject matter so carefully depicted only writing materials and instruments we would, with the evangelists, admire a refined inventiveness of extraordinary vigour in the history of culture itself, but the lively introduction of the animal world, summarised in an evident meaning of world harmony, goes beyond decorative requirements and conjoins with the theological message.
Basket with Parrots (70 x 52 cm) Fig. 07
The iconography of this mosaic, decoration with the use of life symbols, should be evaluated in iconological symmetry and coherence with the basket with doves. But the introduction of parrots, beribboned and ringed, is a highly important sign of the extreme care with which the entire planning of the S. Vitale mosaic cycles was organised and executed. So not only the symmetrical correspondences but the richness of the undertaking of the entire ornamental repertory in question bear witness to the highest level of court art. Archbishop Maximianus was to suggest an extraordinary repertory of ancient bestiary for the ivory throne but, as this particular item shows, already in the S. Vitale mosaic cycles there are clearly evident biblical, liturgical and symbolic interpretations of plants and animals to distinguish Christian practices from the earlier pagan imaginative tradition.
Detail of Left Vaulting Rib
This figure reproduces a part of the vaulting rib mosaic decoration. The rib between the figures of the Archangels Raphael and Uriel. The clearest indications are that the commissioners of the work wanted decoration that was more distinctly zoomorphic than phytomorphic in the curvilinear spaces of the four vaulting cells while a more phytomorphic decoration was carried out in the four ribs and their final convergence, the clipeus, with flowers and fruit, which contains the apocalyptic lamb. Coherently with the whole celestial paradise background of great plant volutes with foliage, the symbolism of the vaulting ribs highlights the reality of eternal life given by the Lamb of life. While two of the four vaulting ribs have, unusually, only two birds each, the other two have a vine element with leaves and bunches of grapes. The symbolism of the vine is evident and is reinforced by the mystical meaning which, in another part of the S. Vitale cycle, portrays birds that by eating the berries transmit the idea of celestial nourishment.
Cross-vault, decorative motif of left vaulting rib
The image we see here shows one of the birds that decorate the rib of the vault between the Archangels Michael and Uriel. In clarifying the meaning of the previous detail (the bunches of grapes) we said that only two of the vaulting ribs bear, in transversal continuation, the symbols of the birds, and only the other two, also transversally, bear the symbols of eternal life represented by the fruit of the vine. The figure we see here therefore considerably enriches the total symbolism of the vault, transmitting the message of the Lamb, source of universal and eternal redemption, cosmic and human, in history and in the world. This bird faces the onlooker (i.e. the faithful) inviting him to fix his gaze on Christ Almighty in the apse: the true giver of all good, the only redeemer who can say "I am the way, the truth and the life" (Cf. John 14,6); the Lamb that defeats the darkness of sin and gives light to life.
Basilica Di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo
Of all the Ravenna basilicas, S. Apollinare Nuovo has the richest history. It is in fact, in the history of the 6th century, a synthesis of the Ostrogoth reign of Theodoric and the empire of Justinian. Though it has lost the name and the icon of Theodoric, a representation of Justinian remains.
Palatine basilica of Theodoric's court, it held claims (in one sense justified) to set itself up against the imperial palatine basilica of S. Giovanni Evangelista built by Galla Placidia. Theodoric, who was to set his superb Mausoleum against the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, set his palatine basilica against that of Galla Placidia, representative of the great Flavian-Valentinian-Theodosian imperial dynasty. Theodoric's claims must have been supported, at least in part, by several Catholic bishops and Roman senators. These were the high ranking people who frequented the basilica, at least for court ceremonies. This glorifying of Theodoric's power is portrayed in the great mosaics of the Palatium (with the city of Ravenna) and the Portus (with the city of Classe).
There are many mosaics of ancient cities but none equals Theodoric's idea of appropriating Ravenna by portraying it dominated by his own palace and by the Ostrogoth court, represented by personages subsequently cancelled out by the Catholic archbishopric chancery: personages who clearly appeared in the arches of the palace.
But Theodoric, who exalted classical Greek and Latin culture and accompanied it with the culture of the Goths, wanted to show his regal political power joined with the power of Christus Rex who was placed on the right hand wall flanked by the four Archangels. Thus, on the opposite wall, Mary with Christ the blessing lawgiver (in symbols of the wisdom of government), in a Christian tradition that exalted the Arian barbarians. But it was with the great work between the windows that Theodoric legitimised the prestige of his culture and power: thirty-six figures of prophets, apostles and evangelists with Codes, books and scrolls. Above the windows were placed, thirteen to each part, the essential Christological depictions of the public life, passion, death and resurrection of the Saviour to whom the Basilica was dedicated and whose name it bore. A historic, artistically sublime monument which archbishop Agnello was to modify in accordance with his Catholic culture, removing the Aryan magistrates and integrating the three Kings and male and female saints into the procession. The building remained uniform because the numerous figures of saints, taken from earlier mosaics and Catholic liturgical literary texts, go well with the thirty-six figures of the Prophets: St. Martin and St. Euphemia are placed symbolically at the head of the procession for their anti-Arian religious vocation. The result is a communio sanctorum as a synthesis of high symbolic meaning.
Madonna (122 x 298 cm.)
A mosaic of extraordinary iconographic and iconological richness. The iconography describes the solemnity of the mother of Christ, seated on the throne, and of a Christ no longer infant but adolescent; in any case old enough to reign and bless with the command of the right hand, and to represent Wisdom and the Light of the World with the sacred book (the scroll) held in his left. The absence of the abbreviation of the holy name MP (Meter) OY (theon), mother of god, could be a sign of the refusal of Theodoric's Arian court to accept titles with Catholic meanings. The Roman model of the Mother of Christ and Mother of God is that of Sixtus III in S. Maria Maggiore. The inscriptions were not inserted into the Catholic integrations, the reason being that archbishop Agnello did something more: he added the Three Wise Men adoring the Christ, by divine revelation of the star, true man and true God, in the full concept of the Trinitarian and Christological faith of the ancient Christian ecumene.
Victory [small] (23 x 26 cm.)
This image of victory, in the ideal setting of the palatium (King Theodoric's royal palace) is highly prestigious and with high claims: it is in fact an imperial image. Our copies present it in various situations. The icon in question highlights the link between Victory, the festoons of plenty and the harmony of the palace. This harmony, in perfectly symmetrical proportions (ten Victories, two in the centre and four on each side), symbolises the order of good government, and the festoons of plenty represent the prosperity of Theodoric's reign. He rejected all symbols of usurpation in his highly decorated iconology but at the same time intelligently put forward every imperial sign of wise and legitimate power. This sign is the sign of his victory.
Victory with capital (33 x 59 cm.)
This image of victory with a capital shows the care with which the iconography of Victory was designed, with the intention of making its symbolic message explicit (Cf. Nº 12). Here this Victory initiates the series of the other Victories who bear the festoon symbolising prosperity and abundance. She holds the festoon with her right hand but also holds a long palm branch in her left. In Christian iconography the palm is also a sign of victory and the plant is considered beautiful in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jericho is called the city of palms. The author of the canonical Apocalypse "beheld, and lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne and before the Lamb..." (Revelation, 7,9).
The Woman at the Well (104 x 75 cm.)
In this image of the icon of the Samaritan woman at the well (to be compared with the slightly earlier one in the Cathedral of Maximianus) we see only the woman in the act of drawing water. The biblical story, found only in the Gospel according to St. John, tells us: "Then cometh he to a city of Samaria which is called Sychar (...) Now Jacob's well was there (...) and it was about the sixth hour. There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water (...). Jesus saith unto her: "Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again; But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst (...) The woman saith unto him, Sir, give me this water..." (Cf. John 4.5 and subsequent). The scene, part of the series of pictures reflecting the Lenten evangelical readings, is part of a didactic repertoire which was more or less shared by Arian and Catholic alike.
Port of Classe (148 x 128 cm.)
Portrayal of ships, the sea and the port in Civitas Classis gave Theodoric a way to show, in political propaganda, how he intended the historical pairing of Ravenna and Classe to be seen: that is, that the capital of the western Roman empire, under his rule, had been returned to its early splendour. There must have been portraits of his magistrates and perhaps of he himself along the framing of the walls of Classe. The political message is clear: the Barbarians are not only valiant rulers with horses and nomad tents, as appears in the pincer symbol of the Mausoleum, but are also capable of dominating the seas and governing the world East and West as the Romans did.
Blue Angel (55 x 95 cm.)
The blue angel in this mosaic must be seen in relation to the goat, symbol of the forsaken and condemned of the Last Judgement. Countering the blue angel, the dark angel that represents the kingdom of shadows and death, there is the red angel, the angel of light, the angel of the divine and luminous kingdom. Christ, king and judge, is enthroned between the two angels. This Ravenna mosaic is the earliest known portrayal of the Last Judgement. The reference is to the celebrated chapter 25 of the Gospel according to St. Matthew: "When the Son of Man shall come in his glory and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory; And before him shall be gathered all nations; and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats; And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left (Matthew 25, 31-33).
The judgement does not show that the verdict has already been reached. The blue angel is
not simply the symbol of evil. The Arian bishops who commissioned the mosaic also explained Matthew's parable
as a reference to human free will for good and for light.
Figure of Christ (36 x 28 cm.)
The figure of Christ in the scene of the Prayer in the Garden (Cf. Fig. 8). In Fig. 8 Peter is clearly seen with five other Apostles. Here we see Andrew, opposite Peter, with four others. Naturally Judas is missing and will arrive to betray Christ. This is another case in which the iconography of Peter and Andrew is clearly recognisable. The same thing, in the iconography of the two brothers, can be observed in contemporary images in the Archiepiscopal Chapel. One may suppose that, notwithstanding the contrasting religious-theological tendencies of the Catholic and Arian commissioners of the works, the artists and craftsmen who carried them out in the city were more or less the same. Christ praying, halo marked with the cross, is a perfect icon of the overcoming of passion as an experience of torments. The glorious Christ of the Resurrection or of the Transfiguration would not appear otherwise.
Prayer (66 x 40 cm.)
This portrays the disciples in the scene of the Prayer in the Garden (Cf. Fig. 7), the second panel in the story of the Passion. In the oldest story of St. Mark: "And they came to a place which was named Gethsemane: and he saith to his disciples, Sit ye here while I shall pray' (...) then he returned and found them asleep. He said to Peter: "Simon, sleepest thou? couldest not thou watch one hour?" (Mark 14.32 and subsequent). Peter is first on the right, extending his hand to respond to Christ, and the others too begin to awake and with a gesture of the hand, raising their half asleep eyes, respond to the Saviour. One notes the perfectly composed realism of these faces in accordance with the text of the Gospels, the same realism observed in the preceding scene, the Last Supper, and the following one, Judas's Kiss. No less than Catholic accounts, Arian homilies are full of this biblical existential realism.
Judas's Kiss (102 x 130 cm.)
This is the third scene in the 13 panel series of the Passion, Death and Resurrection. It may be evaluated as one of the most scenically elaborated and aesthetically elegant iconographies. Aesthetically one immediately admires the facial expressions, particularly the looks on the faces of Jesus and Judas. Giotto depicted these revelatory looks in his masterly iconography of the betrayal in the Arena. Here, over and above the stylistic form, we note the gestural nature of the scene in the animated dramatisation which starts from the clear distinction in dress between the disciples (including Judas himself of course) and the armed soldiers of the Sanhedrin. Peter is ready to draw his sword from its sheath but the statuesque severity of ancient Christian art refrains from bloodshed and the cutting off of the ear. Reverent hieratic restraint says much in terms of refined sensitivity.
Group of Heads (24 x 30 cm.)
This group of heads is taken from the scene of Christ captured and led, by priests and scribes or by their emissaries, to be judged (Cf. Mark 14, 53). The division of the figures is hierarchic. On Christ's right, the priests in their vestments, and on his left the scribes and Pharisees in civilian clothes. The icon underlines, above all in the eyes, looks and expressions, the hostility believed to be felt towards Christ. It is the same look found in the preceding group on the faces of the soldiers of the Sanhedrin who, with torches and daggers and led by Judas (Cf. Mark 14, 43), capture Jesus. As may be seen, Theodoric employed the best Ravenna and foreign artists. They not only carried out their iconographic commission but also put human psychology into their work with highly refined mosaic technique.
Head of Christ (36 x 28 cm.)
This image must firstly inform the general and then the detailed aspect: the general aspect is the unshaven face of Christ, as seen here. It is well known that Theodoric's Ostrogoth, Arian court and the Arian bishops wanted all the faces of Christ appearing on the north wall (i.e. in the scenes from public life) to depict him young or, better, unshaven, while he was to appear bearded on the south wall in the scenes of the Passion, Death and Resurrection. We may be allowed to think that the bearded Christ should relate to the prophet Isaiah's "man of sorrows" (Cf. Isaiah, 50, 6). Here however we are in the scenes from public life and we see the Christ of life and command over nature in the history of the miracles.
Lunette: Christ and Apostles (58 x 53 cm.)
The image of Christ accompanied by two disciples, as he generally is in the depictions of public life in this basilica, is of great importance because, placed above the gates to the City of Ravenna, he is invoked as Saviour (Theodoric's original name for the church was Basilica Salvatoris). But even more so because Christ is stamping on the serpent which of course is a symbol of evil conquered and driven out by Christ the redeemer. The symbols of evil in the contemporary Archiepiscopal Chapel come to mind: perhaps the iconographies are independent, but it may be that bishop Pietro II, in the depiction of Christ the Soldier stamping on "lion and dragon", actually wanted to say that the Arian heresy was being stamped out (Deichmann). Theodoric and the court intelligentsia were thinking of the Christ amid a flock of sheep above the door of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia: apotropaic signs of high value also in the propaganda of the Arian government which compared itself with Roman-Catholic governments.
Dove (27 x 31 cm.)
This image of the dove, taken from the long series of pairs of doves in the upper register of birds in S. Apollinare Nuovo, should immediately be interpreted as an image of the Christian soul in adoration of the cross. There are in fact twenty-eight pairs of doves which, placed above the stylised shell (itself a symbol of life, as in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia), are seen facing the cross. The other register of birds, lower down above the eleven windows, portrays pairs of various types including rock partridge, sultana birds and ringed parakeets (Ortali, 1997, 73): an element more decorative than symbolic in comparison with the doves and with the dove we see here.
Dove (27 x 30 cm.)
This icon of the dove is very similar to or almost identical with (certainly in its symbolism) the one in Fig. 15. But it should be noted that with this one we have the pair of doves facing the cross. We have already mentioned the importance of this symbolism: the adoration of the cross, a symbolism very different from that of the doves in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (Cf. 7). In the Mausoleum the doves face a source of spring water, whereas here they face the cross. We should reflect on this: the Prophets and Sages who are very clearly seen between the windows, beneath the doves, should also be understood as teachers of the mystery of the cross.
Magi Flower (68 x 44 cm.)
This highly delicate image should be seen in connection and comparison with Fig. 18. Reaffirming the fundamental decorative significance of the image, it is however worth noting the singularity of rendering flowers in mosaics: far more than in fresco painting, we see the truth of the assertion attributed to Ghirlandaio: mosaic is painting for eternity. But in this case there is something more: we are given to see, concretely, a detail that may seem minimal: just how true are the words Corrado Ricci expended to underline the relative solidity of the preservation of the Ravenna mosaics where natural catastrophes and human disasters have caused damage which we know to be (and how!) an irretrievable loss.
Flower of the Magi (83 x 65 cm.)
This image of the flower of the Magi is a decorative element which recalls the stylistic perfection of similar flowers in the S. Vitale mosaics, in the apse of S. Apollinare in Classe and in the contemporary apse of the Euphrasian basilica in Parenzo. There is usually a connection between the appearance of historical figures (in this case the Three Wise Men) and the paradisiacal meadow in which they appear. There is certainly an expressed desire to highlight, with naturalistic decoration often enriched by birds and animals (as with the Ivory Throne), the aristocratic life of historical personages. We shall not fail to observe here the stylistic continuity of the ancient Ravenna school of master mosaicists.
St. Agnes Virgin (72 x 133 cm.)
This mosaic, among the most significant of the figures of the Saints, is characterised by its portrayal of the holy Roman virgin and martyr with the symbol which is hers by virtue of the Latin meaning of her name: the lamb (seen lower down). This symbol clearly refers to the other figure, the holy Roman protomartyr Deacon Lorenzo, he too depicted with the symbol of his ecclesiastic office: the deacon's golden dalmatic. St. Agnes, fourth in the order of dignity and devotion, follows St. Euphemia, St. Pelagia and St. Agatha. While it is somewhat strange that the Sicilian saints are separated (Agatha of Catania and Lucia of Syracuse) and while it is no surprise that St. Euphemia should be at the head, being the patron saint of Catholic orthodoxy against the Arian heresy - for this same reason she stands opposite St. Martin of Tours, Malleus Haereticorum (Hammer of the Heretics) - it is interesting to see important citations of romanitas and the Roman saints.
Sant'Apollinare In Classe
While the Basilica of S. Apollinare Nuovo is the richest in historical culture for its synthesis of the Arian and Catholic religions in the ancient oecumenicity, and while the Basilica of S. Vitale is the most important palatine basilica for the theologies of the Christian Roman Empire, the Basilica of S. Apollinare in Classe is the Church of Ravenna's most illustrious religious building precisely for the celebration of its historical beginnings and for its high position (second only to Rome) in ancient church history.
This basilica is in fact a monument-document of the apostolic-episcopal situation of the early Christian church. Here, on the historical and documentary foundation of the ancient tomb of Apollinare, where a small basilica-martyrion had been built on the tomb of Ravenna's first bishop and only martyr, the imposing imperial-ecclesiastic monument we see was built in the first half of the 6th century.
SANCTUS APOLENARIS, we read in the centre of the apse. A solemn inscription which transmits its capital meaning in capital letters. Thus sanctus Vitalis in S. Vitale: titles and figures, somehow central, but the pregnancy of ancient hagiographic devotion is greatly surpassed in the polysymbolism. In fact the true centre of this ecclesiastic basilica, which was intended to serve for the celebration of the Eucharist, is occupied by one of the most splendid (if not the most splendid) theophanies of Christian antiquity: the great symbolic transfiguration which, a robust treatise of symbolic-mystical theology, occupies the whole apse vault. The glorious cross of the resurrection (metamorphosis of the execution-cross of Golgotha) stands in a dominant position and represents Christ himself, protagonist of the transfiguration. The sheep on the right of the Cross (Christ's right) is Peter, the first disciple.
There follow, on the left, another two sheep: James and John. Whereas the two prophets Moses and Elijah (representing the Law and the Prophets) are portrayed in busts. Moses, on Christ's right, is beardless (because he is a prototype of Christ) while Elijah is on the left (Cf. Mark 9, 2-13).
One who interpreted the Cross and the Prophets in an exclusively eschatological sense (E. Dinkler) admitted finding difficulty in explaining the presence of Apollinare, and even more that of the hand of the Father which appears in the golden sky high above the cross. But if the transfiguration is interpreted as a symbol of Easter, and Easter as an offering, a sacrifice, Holy Communion of the Lamb (and of the Cross), we can better explain how the hand of the Father receives the eucharistic sacrifice (the Mass): a Sacrifice offered for the church and the community of the faithful of the Bishop Pastore Sacerdos who is S. Apollinare. In fact the twelve sheep which, six to a side, go towards Pastor Apollinare represent the church of Ravenna which shares in celebration of the Mass and in response to Apollinare's "Mystery of the Faith!" sings, "We announce your death Lord; we proclaim your resurrection; in awaiting your coming." There is eschatology in this awaiting, but all the rest is what went before: Passion, Death and Resurrection at Easter. The four bishops in the four spaces between the windows should be interpreted in this way, that is to say, in the ecclesiastic and eucharistic sense. Founders of churches (the very first, small and no longer extant sanctus Severus; the cathedral sanctus Ursus; S. Vitale Ecclesius, S. Apollinare in Classe Urcinus) they are the historical support of the Ravenna hierarchy, the preachers of the Gospel (which they hold in their hands), the heads of the liturgical congregation of the people of God of the New Testament, inaugurated by sanctus Apolenaris.
Christ (44 x 44 cm.)
The head of Christ at the centre of the glorious cross in the apse of S. Apollinare in Classe is an icon of the highest importance in spite of the limited proportions of the artistic form quantitatively and perhaps also qualitatively. In fact a Christian apse should be dominated by the figure of Christ; but in Classe the icon of the martyr saint and proto-bishop Apollinare, more or less central, and the great cross (also more or less central) occupy the privileged space. So the Saviour's face (with three inscriptions appended - Alpha and Omega, Salus mundi and IXOYC) gives a definitive meaning to the cross. Furthermore, where the glorious cross is the celebration of the Easter Resurrection, all that remains for the bearded face of Christus-homo is to express the message of the passion and death on Golgotha. Thus this bearded face of Christ should be considered in the symbolism of the centre of the world, the cosmic universe; and centre of the world of history in the mystery of salvation.
Symbol of St. Luke (160 x 140 cm.)
The highest mosaic register on the wall of the frontal above the apse in S. Apollinare in Classe depicts the symbols of the Four Evangelists who, in a scene of apocalyptic flavour and two by two, flank the bust of the Saviour who, giving his blessing, holds a book, inscribed in a clipeus among the clouds as an image of parousia. The layout of the four symbols is somewhat surprising in comparison with analogous representations: a unique order is not usually followed. Here there is a certain rationality inasmuch as Matthew and John stand in canonical and hierarchical sequence on Christ's right while Mark and Luke are on his left. This is an absolutely orthodox composition since Matthew and John (being Apostles as well as Evangelists) must stand on the right while Mark and Luke, Evangelists only, must stand on the left. Furthermore, as Mark was a disciple of Peter (who has primacy over Paul whose disciple Luke was) it is Mark himself who deserves first place on the left. So Paul's disciple Luke is on the extreme left. This is humanity's evaluation in an interpretative ecclesiastical tradition established after the end of the 4th century.
Flower (55 x 25 cm.)
This flower is part of the very painstaking decoration of the register of the twelve sheep that move, six to each side, towards S. Apollinare in the apse of S. Apollinare in Classe. The sheep are distinguished one from the other by beautiful lilies as big as themselves. But under each sheep, so to speak, there are bushes of highly elegant flowers with a white-red calyx, the beautiful red prevailing. The bushes, two by two, are alternately in harmonious proportion beneath the bellies of the sheep and between their hind legs. Under the belly there are bushes with four calyxes each and between the legs bushes with only three. The same white-red flowers can also be seen spread around decorating the upper part of the paradisiacal meadow amid various plants, birds and small stylised rocks. This is superb naturalistic symbolism complementary to the theological iconology of the iconographic symbolism expressing life and salvation.
The Arian Baptistery
The Arian Baptistery is a religious building closely linked to the Arian Cathedral. If the Arians of Ravenna, present in the city since the year 478 with King Odoacer's Heruli, did not have a cathedral and a baptistery (which they may have had) they certainly had their ecclesiastical complex after the year 493 with Theodoric.
In the baptistery
we see today, the splendid mosaics in the vault which express the theology of Christian baptism are certainly
from the 5th to the 6th centuries. The two mosaic registers are evident imitations of the Catholic (also known
as Neonian) baptistery. As in the Neonian baptistery, the Arian bishops wanted, in their own baptistery which
was near their episcopate, a central biblical scene depicting the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan (portrayed
in both baptisteries with the anthropic river representation of pagan extraction) and the descent of the Holy
Spirit in the image of the dove.
Thus the second register with portraits of the twelve Apostles perhaps imitates substantially the same iconography as that of the Catholic baptistery. In the Arian baptistery (together with many other things in comparison with the Catholic baptistery which abounds in detail) the altar and throne register is lacking. It is somewhat compensated for by the splendid throne to the east. Here the Apostles, who bear life-glory-victory crowns as in the other baptistery, are separated not by the candelabra symbol of light but by the palm, symbol of life. The main difference, however, lies in two points: in the first place the Arian Christ does not come from the East but goes towards the East; in the second place, water flows from the dove's beak onto Christ's head (water just like that of the river Jordan: not fire, not spirit or breath) water which must be interpreted in its symbols.
Corrado Ricci has written that the cross of Galla Placidia and the two figures of Christ in the two baptisteries have the same positioning and orientation. But there is a slight error here. The "Arian" Christ faces east, but why? The Catholic Christ, coming from the east, is 'light from light, true God from true God, generated not created, of the same substance as the Father' (Credo of the Mass).
But the Arians denied this doctrine. A Christ who faces east was, in the Arian imagination, a Christ who becomes God at the moment of baptism in the river Jordan and is made divine by the primordial water: a primordial generating creature on which the spirit of God lived in a possible interpretation of this passage of the protology of Genesis: "And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters" (Genesis 1, 2). On the other hand it is impossible to believe that the Arian bishops, in their baptistery, did not offer an Arian catechesis for young boys and girls ready for baptism. For the Catholics we have the sermons of Pietro Cristologo delivered to his Catholic candidates for baptism in the world's most beautiful baptistery.
Head of Christ (70 x 63 cm)
There is a great secret regarding this Christ on whose head the water falls from the dove's beak, which is to say from the Holy Spirit. The mystery of the waters is part of the liturgy of Holy Saturday, Easter Eve, or Easter itself and there is reason believe that the Arian rites here drew their origins from the older Catholic ones. The original waters of creation (Cf. Genesis 1, 2) on which the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, moved to fecundate them sacramentally are most important in the mystery of the waters and hence of the baptismal waters. It is very likely that the Arian bishops ordered two things coherent with their doctrines: first, the head of Christ (as in this case) must face East to unite with the light of the Father who also created the Word and Christ himself, and Christ is not the light of the world but a reflection of the Father's light; second, he has not been the son of God since time began but becomes so only at the moment of baptism in the original water given him by the sanctifying Spirit.
St. John the Baptist (69 x 53 cm)
The icon of John the Baptist in the Arian Baptistery stands out for its iconographic and stylistic rigour. All the signs of the asceticism of the desert, in an aura of penitential austerity, increase its sacramental value: the animal skin clothing, the simple pastoral staff, almost a magisterial rod, the rough partial nudity of the desert retreat almost as if to prefigure the monastic, hermitic life. After the famous discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the caves of Qumran with their information on the life of the Essene community, we today can better understand the Baptist's movements, and this icon is useful to us for placing him in the space and time of his mission.
St. Peter (51 x 69 cm)
The image of St. Peter in the Arian Baptistery, analogously with that of St. Paul (and in similitude with the same images in numerous other Ravenna mosaics) is, we should say, the classic Christian one of a roundish face with thick, short white beard and thick white hair drawn back from the forehead. Notwithstanding considerable restoration the image is the original one which, above all with the symbol of the keys, refers to the Peter of the canonical Gospels (Cf. Matthew 16, 19 "And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven").
The general typology of Christian buildings of worship starts with the baptisteries where water gives life, then passes to the basilicas where the bread and wine on the altar represent eucharistic nourishment and ends with the Mausoleum as a building for the death and burial of a Christian.
For mosaic perfection and monumental conservation no other baptistery of Christian antiquity can compete with this one in Ravenna, not even the Lateran in Rome. Its greatness lies above all in the mosaic cycles, enriched by marvellous stuccoes of the sixteen prophets, four major and twelve minor. The baptistery has three mosaic registers: the main one with John's baptism of Christ in the river Jordan (Cf. Mark 1, 9-13), represented here in a symbolic figure and described with the inscription of its name, then the middle register with portraits of the twelve Apostles forming two processions, each led six by six by its coryphaeus, that is to say the two leaders Peter and Paul.
Finally the third register with the preparation of the throne and the empty seats in the architecture of the garden, as celestial paradise, which symbolises the destination of souls for eternal life. While the Arian Baptistery has only the first two registers, the Catholic baptistery, justly called Neonian for the mosaics Neone commissioned there (circa 458), has the original addition of the symbology of Paradise and the marvellous presence of the prophets in stucco. The presence of the Dove in the first register as symbol of the Holy Spirit should be considered very important. In spite of the distortions introduced by Felice Kibel's restoration (circa mid 19th century) the mosaic cycle has maintained its all-important meanings.
The Apostles (with the Prophets) are the highest masters of that faith which here is professed for life. The Apostolic Creed (The Credo) was given with the Paternoster as the membership card of the faith to neophytes (the baptised), which is to say the new plants in the garden of the Church. Fundamental texts of Christian doctrine were transmitted (traditi, traditio) with a special rituality carried out by the bishop. The founder of the Baptistery was the same bishop, Ursus, who had the cathedral built, before 396 which was the year of his death.
Pier Crisologo, who inspired all Galla Placidia's mosaics, left eight sermons on the Credo and six on the Pater - all delivered in this baptistery. Their doctrine illuminates the meaning of the mosaics that were there and of those carried out by his successor Neone.
St. Peter (43 x 53 cm)
Keeping in mind the fundamental importance of the iconography of the Apostles in the Baptistery, the figure of Peter should be particularly explained. In this baptistery Peter holds the crown of victory as the other Apostles do and does not have the symbol of the keys as he does in the Arian Baptistery. But we should note that here he stands immediately beneath the figure of Christ while Paul is beneath the figure of the Baptist. Peter (with Christ) is therefore on the bishop's right: a privileged position from the beholder's point of view. Strangely, in the Arian Baptistery, Peter is on Christ's left (i.e. to the left of Christ's Throne). In the commission of the highly cultivated Bishop Neone, who wanted the apostolic iconography of Peter and Paul in the old episcopate, also in the Triclinium (dining room) Peter was to be especially distinctive as a sign of his primacy. The hair falling on the forehead and the trimmed beard (characteristic features of his icon in ancient Christian art, differentiating him from Paul the "philosopher") portray him as a soberly dressed magistrate. Magistrate of government and therefore often holding the keys to the Kingdom (Cf. Matthew, 16, 19 "And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven").
St. Paul (41 x 50 cm)
The fundamental importance of the iconography of the Apostles in the Baptistery was discussed in the introduction. The image we see here is Paul, associated with Peter in that concordia Apostolorum which imitated the Roman concordia consulum. The boys and girls baptised here were instructed in the primacy of Peter, but this doctrine of Peter's precedence was explained to them through passages from Paul's writings. In other words, if Peter is the "rock of the church" (Matthew 16, 19) Paul is justly presented as the Apostle to the Gentiles and therefore to the pagan Ravenna youth that entered, by baptism, into the new faith. Here, as always, Paul's hair is receding at the forehead and his beard is long because, as teacher to the Gentiles, he is portrayed in the role of "philosopher" (what Roman culture had attributed to Plotinus).
St. Andrew (43 x 55 cm)
The figure of Andrew in early Christian art is often recognisable by his thick and abundant hair. In the Neonian Baptistery, as in the Archiepiscopal Chapel, Andrew comes immediately after Peter. The two brothers are therefore associated in a layout that recalls the evangelical history of their vocation, represented in the second scene of the public life of Christ in S. Apollinare Nuovo. When the Ravenna bishops ordered these mosaics it was known that the eastern capital of the empire, Constantinople, followed the cult of St. Andrew just as Rome (the first See) glorified that of Peter. Ravenna, which claimed to be linked to St. Peter due to Apollinare's presumed Petrinist mission, always honoured the two brothers of Bethsaida with great respect. Andrew here, less rufus than in the Archiepiscopal Chapel icon, shows all the solemnity of magistratus of the Kingdom of Heaven and brother of the Prince of Apostles.
St. James (41 x 50 cm)
The figure of James, John's elder brother, has a special position in the ancient church both because he headed the Church of Jerusalem while Peter went to Antioch and because as head of that church he was the first of all the Christian martyrs. This is probably why, in the Archiepiscopal Chapel, he immediately follows Paul as Andrew follows Peter. In the Neonian Baptistery James was placed next to Andrew in immediate contact with his brother John, and with the name of James, son of Zebedee, he is clearly identified as the third apostolic authority. So this image stands out, among other things, for its excellent imitation of Roman statuary. This links all the Apostles of the Baptistery in their solemn involvement in the two processional orders in which they are placed. But for certain of them, as in the case of St. James, the expressive strength of the face consecrates a symbolic iconology of special honorific and ritual claims.
Sultana Bird (51 x 42 cm)
What we see here is part of the vast decoration, in zoomorphic mosaic and stucco elements, of the Neonian Baptistery. In the sixteen splayed jambs of the eight arches, coherent with the eight sides and eight windows, birds of the most elegant varieties are depicted, from the peacock to the other illustrious examples of the repertoire of Ravenna's religious buildings. Isotta Fiorentini Roncuzzi describes the birds in the Cathedral Baptistery as follows: "If we go down to the eight gores on the columns between the windows we come upon the birds, sixteen of them, grouped in eight pairs (...). Going from right to left from the entrance door we find: 2 ringed parakeets, 2 pheasants, 2 sultana birds, 2 doves with wings spread, 2 pigeons, 2 peacocks, 2 rock partridges, 2 doves with wings spread." (I. Fiorentini Roncuzzi, 1997, p. 75). So much beautiful decoration with birds, amid so much paradisiacal vegetation, goes well with the baptismal symbolism of immortality and eternal life. The tourist in a hurry pays too little attention to the birds: here (and in many other cases) we have the good fortune to admire the beauty of art and the truth of things.
The two mosaic cycles in the Archiepiscopal Chapel created for Pietro II (494-95), that of the central oratory and the introductory one in the atrium, are chiefly important in terms of the decoration of a private sacellum since the Chapel itself is the only place of worship of a bishop's residence that has come down to us intact from antiquity. The Lateran oratory and those of the very ancient bishops' residences no longer exist. Only in Ravenna have these late 5th century marvels been conserved, which are both ancient and of highest artistic value (G. Montanari, Tesori nascosti).
In having these two cycles carried out Pietro II may have been inspired by Neone's mosaics (mid 5th century) in the adjacent dining room (mosaics no longer extant) and in the nearby Baptistery which, for its mosaics, is known as the Neonian (G. Montanari, 1995).
But the highly cultivated bishop, who composed the twenty excellent hexameters we see in the atrium, placed Christ the Soldier on the door, cross on his shoulders, recalling Christ the Victor with the cross of triumph from the earlier Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Christ the Warrior. who stamps out the wild beasts of the Arian heresy, is an indictment of the then dominant political government of King Theodoric. An original creation for its relationship to the Mass, which was celebrated almost daily in the oratory by the bishop and the palace clergy, is the Holy Sacrifice of Christ borne up to heaven by the four Archangels in accordance with the words of the Four Evangelists who are shown with their gospels as guarantors of the true Christian faith: the Catholic faith. The definitive guarantors of this faith are Christ with his senate of Twelve Apostles portrayed, six at each side, in the main archways. In the secondary archways, male (on the right) and female (on the left) saints of eastern, western and African origins express the unity of the ancient Christian Catholic ecumenical faith before the divisions of the Barbarians and Arians. In the vault of S. Vitale Maximianus was to put the Lamb in the place of the monogram of Christ we see here, a clear sign of the Ravenna bishops' cultural continuity: residing here, commissioning works, and with the literary treasures of their library and the Palace Archives near at hand.
Christ (diam. 68 cm.)
The special iconography of this portrayal of Christ, seen twice in the two arches with the Apostles (six on each side), is that the Saviour is depicted beardless. The doctrinal programme is as follows: portray Christ as eternally young, meaning against the Arian creed, because He is not dependent on time but stands outside time; He was not created in time, as the Arians maintained; his is the eternity of God. The image then, as regards the face, is identical with that of Christ the Soldier which Bishop Pietro II, who commissioned the Archiepiscopal Chapel, placed on the atrium door: Christ stamping out the wild beasts of the Arian heresy. This persistent doctrine must be viewed in relation to the Arian Ostrogoths' domination of Ravenna. For the same religious motives Maximianus was to avail himself of this explicit image of Christ and have it placed at the centre of the apse in S. Vitale.
St. Paul (diam. 61 cm.)
This image of St. Paul perfectly expresses the Christian idea of the Apostle to the Gentiles as a "philosopher". In fact not only the face but also the clothing portrays him as such: high forehead, receding hair, long, thick, black beard, toga and laticlave. The image should be seen in relationship with that of Peter and, together with Peter, compared with the earlier pairs of Apostles in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and the Neonian Baptistery. But what really surprises is the fact that the pair of Apostles in the Archiepiscopal Chapel is repeated, with evident imitation, in S. Vitale even in the ductus of the inscription lettering. A clear sign of the importance given by the Archbishops to the images and theological ideas of the episcopal oratory: an actual prototype for the entire ancient art of Ravenna.
St. James (diam. 61 cm.)
As in the hierarchical order of the images of the Apostles, the icon of St. James immediately precedes that of his brother John. They are of course preceded by the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul and by St. Andrew (Cf. Mark 3.13-19). Observance of this hierarchy and the insistent appeal to apostolic hierarchy in the Chapel of the Episcopate of Ravenna, that is to say the most important western metropolis after Rome, is a political-religious act. The intention was to bear witness, against the Arian creed, that the faith the Apostles professed and spread throughout the world was the same as the faith held and defended by the Catholic Church of Ravenna and not that of the Arian Church whose bishops do not figure in the historical continuity of the Apostolic College and are not successors to the Apostles (G. Montanari, Tesori nascosti).
St. Perpetua (diam. 60 cm.) Nº 73
The African saints Perpetua and Felicity, martyred in Carthage in 203, demonstrate the commissioning bishop Pietro II's desire to openly declare the ecumenical meaning of the Catholic faith, the faith which the Arian heretics dared to contradict and obstruct. The Church of Africa had already been invaded by Arian Vandals so bishop Pietro placed the Catholic metropolis of Ravenna at the head of a widespread defence of the true Trinitarian faith in the East, in Africa and in the West. The plan of his Oratory in the bishop's palace dogmatically enriched the mosaics of his predecessor Neone, in the Baptistery and the dining room (triclinium) which was adjacent to the palace. Further, though without the halo that was to come into general use only at a later date, St. Perpetua, in noble and princely garments, reminds us of the true faith for which she gave her life in martyrdom.
The garments of the martyred saint (203) of Thuburbominus near Carthage clearly shows her social status which was that of the lower classes, in contrast with St. Perpetua whose clothing clearly reflects her higher position as a matron of the aristocracy. It must be insisted that with these details too the Ravenna Catholic archbishopric chancery wanted to show itself well informed on Africa and the African church, points which had been of great interest to the Ravenna imperial court even before the Vandal invasion of Africa and Carthage, starting from the age of Honorius and before the empire of his sister Galla Placidia, up to St. Augustine (+ 430). This is a sign of the Church of Ravenna's anti-Arian position.
Guinea Fowl (small) (25 x 20 cm)
The guinea fowl has been raised by man since ancient times," writes Ortali. "It is rare in Ravenna mosaics. The only place we find it, in eleven examples in a row, is in the vault of the Archiepiscopal Chapel where each one is enclosed in a quadrangle framed by lilies." (Ortali, 1997, p.41). As we see, we must refer to the caption of Fig. 49 to note the same iconographic disposition: the birds are set in frames delimited by lilies. The same is true of the great number of rock partridge, as Ortali writes: "In the vault of the Archiepiscopal Chapel vestibule we find no less than eleven rock partridge lined up in interwoven loops of lilies." (Ortali 1997, p.30) Floral decoration with lilies, splendidly rendered in S. Apollinare in Classe, S. Apollinare Nuovo and S. Vitale, enriches the symbolic themes of nature recreated in the Christian concept of redemption of the cosmos. (Cf. Rom. 8, 20-22 and 2 Cor. 3, 17).
Peacock (31 x 64 cm)
The peacock was taken from its original habitat by man in very ancient times," Ortali writes, "but it was with Alexander the Great's arrival in India that it became widespread. It does not figure in ancient Egyptian painting though they did know it. Raised by the Greeks and Romans it was very important for sumptuous banquets. In Christianity it symbolises the glorified soul, resurrection and immortality. It is abundantly depicted all over Ravenna: we may say that there is no sacred building without its mosaic or sculpted peacock. Obviously it is always and only the male that is portrayed." (Ortali, 1997, p.19). In the case of the present icon it is worth observing that it is found in the arch opposite the arch with the image of the Lamb of God. Conjunction with the Sacrifice of Christ celebrated by the archbishops in the Chapel is clearly evident, as is the symbolism of immortality and eternal life expressed by the peacock. St. Augustine liked to recall having eaten peacock in Carthage, remarking that the meat had been preserved for a long time.
Starling (24 x 30 cm)
The starling is found only in the vestibule vault of the Archiepiscopal Chapel. Like all the other birds here the starlings are aligned within spaces created by interwoven lilies. There are eight, but two have greatly deteriorated and are unrecognisable. The others can be classified as starlings. The whitish body markings are rendered particularly well with a mixing of white, black and grey tesserae; the tail is short, as it is in reality, and the beak is black and not large. (Ortali, 1997, p. 44). The vault of this atrium had a precedent in the vault of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (see Fig. 1), but the Mausoleum bears a message of cosmic order while the Chapel vault announces a message of the naturalistic order of life on earth. If in the former a value of eschatological harmony prevails, the latter states the perfection of the redemption of Christus miles and Christus victor in the history of man's life on earth, within the nature of its proportions and of those ends for which one may pray in free-will: this is an oratorium and not a mausoleum.
Pheasant (35 x 30 cm)
In the vestibule vault of the Archiepiscopal Chapel, Ortali writes, "there are ten pheasants enclosed in squares framed by lilies. Notwithstanding the usual restricted space their typical characteristics are clearly presented." (Ortali, 1997, p. 34). The pheasant in the copy is one of these. We should note that the pheasant is depicted often in one single mosaic context only because in the period in question it was not yet a game bird but solely a bird of beauty (Zaccarini). It may be that the slightly antecedent vivarium, of which G. Gerola and C. Ricci have written in connection with the old episcopate (Cf. Deichmann, 1974, p. 207), was a place where these birds and animals were kept. But it is still worthwhile noting the symbolic creation-meanings expressed in Pietro II's epigraph: the twenty stupendous hexameters give, in Christian poetry, the equivalent of what the mosaics give in images.
Heron (35 x 30 cm)
We should do well to follow A. Ortali's indications with regard to this piece: "There is only one example of Egretta garzetta and it is in the Archiepiscopal Chapel in the interior of the entrance arch supporting the vaulted ceiling. There is no doubt that it is a heron: the general shape of the body is unmistakable. (Ortali, 1997, p. 49). As may be seen, this bird too is presented in the naturalistic context of plant forms, and we must keep in mind that the most illustrious model prior to the Chapel consists of the mosaic cycle in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. There the bishop and doctor Pietro Crisologo had expressed the coherence of the symbols of Christian eschatology. Here many of these themes are resumed with evocative vigour: this evocativeness is increased by the icon we are looking at.
The Ravenna Archiepiscopal Museum should be pointed out in museological history because, in addition to the collections, it is housed in the very old episcopate of the Church of Ravenna. Now, since this episcopate includes the ancient Archiepiscopal Chapel and the even more ancient Salustra Tower, considered an earlier Roman monument, it follows that the museum itself is of special importance. In fact no church of the ancient Christian ecumene (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Milan) possesses a 4th century episcopate with a 5th century chapel.
This is the prerogative of Ravenna alone. Further, the Salustra Tower contains Maximianus's ivory throne, "the best preserved and most precious item of furniture, and with the most remarkable artistic qualities, of the whole of late antiquity" (Deichmann). The antiquity of the episcopate may be measured by the fact that it existed before bishop Ursus who died in the year 396 (Deichmann).
The chapel's dating is more precise because it was founded by Pietro II not much later than 494. Here Pietro took up a theological-polemical position (494-495) against Theodoric and the Arian court with the Christus miles, Christ the soldier fighting and stamping out the wild beasts of the Arian heresy. And it was here that Maximianus found inspiration (from the four Archangels offering Christ) for the four Archangels offering the Lamb in S. Vitale. Just as archbishop Agnello, from the male saints (on the right) and the female saints (one the left), was inspired to place male saints on the south and female saints on the north wall in S. Apollinare Nuovo.
The ivory throne, among other things an expression of the bishop's teachings, is based on the Bible and depicts, from the Old Testament, the story of Joseph in Egypt and from the New Testament the Gospel of infancy on the inner part of the backrest and the gospel of public life on the outer.
The textiles room contains rare antique funerary cloths of Archbishops from the 7th-8th to the 12th century.
Items in the Museum's collection deserving special mention for their importance are the 7th-8th century Silver Cross (known as Agnello's), the headless statue of a Roman magistrate and the oldest (3rd-4th century) Christian funerary epigraphs found in Ravenna (Antifonte, Valeria Maria, Anastasio).
Items from the very old cathedral of Ursus (pluteuses, transennas, capitals, metal tiles)
while demonstrating the origins of the collection (after 1732) also show the close link between cathedral