The church of San Vitale in Ravenna was dedicated to St. Vitalis. After the discovery of the bones of the reputed martyrs Agricola and his slave Vitalis at Bologna in the fourth century, Vitalis was widely venerated in the west. The church of which he is the patron saint in Ravenna was begun by Bishop Ecclesius in the second quarter of the sixth century, when the Goths still ruled there. Funds for its construction were supplied by Julianus Argentarius. The church was completed and consecrated by Bishop Maximian in 547/8, after control had passed to the Byzantines .
San Vitale was built on an octagonal plan (Ills. 1), with eight heavy piers supporting the drum and dome. The inspiration for the central plan likely came from the east, for Ecclesius had recently returned from a visit to Constantinople, but the construction is Roman. Of special interest are the mosaics of the sanctuary and apse. The mosaics in San Vitale cover the entire sanctuary (Ills.
2,3). In different symbols and images, they all convey one idea: the redemption of mankind by Christ and the sacramental re-enactment of this event in the eucharistic sacrifice. The compositions must thus be understood as the setting for the rite celebrated in this room and as closely related to it.
In the vault there appears the Lamb of God in the midst of a wreath, which is supported by four angels standing on globes. The image of the lamb was introduced into the Roman rite only at the end of the seventh century by Pope Sergius I, a Syrian . But, in the liturgies of the East, this symbol of the Christian sacrifice appears at an earlier date, and we are justified in interpreting its representation in San Vitale as alluding to the eucharistic liturgy (Ills. 4).
The first arcade of the sanctuary is decorated with fifteen medallions, showing the images of Christ, of the twelve apostles, and of Gervase and Protase, who, with their father Vitalis, were venerated in this church. In the ancient liturgy of Ravenna, all these saints are mentioned in the so-called “diptychs,” the “Book of Life,” listing the names of those whom the church wishes to remember at every Mass (Ills. 4, 5).
The next bay on either side shows, above the columns supporting the arcades of the galleries, two sacrificial scenes from the Old Testament. On our left, the three angels appearing to Abraham in the valley of Mambre (Genesis, chap. 18), and Isaac whom his father is about to sacrifice; on our right, Abel offering a lamb, and Melchizedek with his sacrifice of bread and wine. Above them, there appears the hand of God, the traditional symbol of the divine presence and of God’s acceptance of the sacrifice (Ills. 6, 7).
All four scenes allude to the eucharistic sacrifice. To make this significance plain, an altar is depicted between Abel and Melchizedek, on which are placed a chalice and two loaves of bread, identical in shape with that which Melchizedek offers and also with the eucharistic bread which the church used during the sixth century . The altar motif appears again in the opposite mosaic: Isaac is shown kneeling upon an altar, and even the table behind which the three angels are seated resembles the simple wooden altar of Christian antiquity. The three round cakes which Sarah has placed before the heavenly messengers are marked with the sign of the cross and recall again the eucharistic hosts of that time. In patristic exegesis and in Christian art and literature, the four scenes depicted are among the most frequent symbols of the eucharistic sacrifice.
Above these mosaics and flanking the graceful arcades of the gallery, the four evangelists are represented: Matthew and Mark on the left wall, John and Luke on the right. All four appear seated in a mountainous landscape, holding their Gospels on their knees. Their symbolic animals are seen above them; writing utensils are placed at their sides (Ills. 8, 9). The relation of these figures to those below is obvious: as the two tables which Moses received on Mount Sinai contained the Old Law, so the New Regulation is contained in the Gospels. In the later Middle Ages, Christian art expressed this relation by depicting the apostles standing on the shoulders of the prophets . The mosaics in San Vitale express the same thought. It must be mentioned, however, that the four evangelists are depicted not solely as the authors of the Gospels. They, too, are symbols of the sacramental life of the Christian.
As we proceed deeper into the sanctuary, toward the main altar of San Vitale, we face two monumental compositions. The imperial panels in the church of San Vitale at Ravenna are perhaps the most famous of all Byzantine mosaics. The two panels face each other, one on each side of the apse. The left panel (Ills. 10) shows the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the midst of his attendants. The right panel (Ills. 11) shows the empress Theodora, Justinian’s consort, similarly attended. Each member of the imperial pair wears extravagant purple imperial robes and a crown and is distinguished by a halo. Each also carries gifts for the church, Justinian a gold paten and Theodora a golden chalice. Each group appears to be advancing toward the center of the apse across a green floor between two jeweled gold columns, which, in Justinian’s panel support a coffered ceiling and in Theodora’s support a carved egg and dart cornice .
While the wall behind Justinian’s scene is plain gold, Theodora’s scene has a more elaborate background: a niche with a shell-shaped conch directly behind the figure of the empress, at the left an open doorway hung with a curtain behind a small gushing fountain on a pedestal, and at the right a section of gold ground with a drapery hanging above it .The emperor has, to his right, two prominent dignitaries wearing white mantles with purple tablia over short white tunics embroidered with shoulder ornaments. To their right stands a group of guardsman carrying spears and a shield. To the emperor’s left is another white-robed dignitary squeezed into a narrow space, to his left a bishop labeled Maximianus carrying a gold cross, and to Maximian’s left two deacons, one carrying a Gospel book and the other a censer . Theodora has two eunuchs to her right, one of whom touches the curtain in front of the doorway as if to lift it, and to her left two prominent noblewomen and a group of five ladies-in-waiting.
Inside the church, in the overall context of the decoration of the sanctuary, these panels are located in the apse’s hemicycle, which is otherwise occupied mainly by three large windows (Ills. 12). The panels are integrated into the larger apse decoration by the simple and standard means of ornamental borders and decorative architecture . The borders include a ubiquitous pearl and jewel band and a scalloped black and white one. The bejeweled columns used at the sides of each panel reappear in a slightly larger size between the windows of the apse.
In the simplest sense, the intended purpose of these panels seems clear. It is to glorify the emperor Justinian and his empress, Theodora. In a wider sense, the mosaics may be conceived as a glorification of the whole institution of imperial autocracy, in Italy and throughout the world. At this time Justinian was vigorously expanding his empire beyond the lands he had inherited in the eastern Mediterranean. In 535, just after conquering northern Africa from the Vandals, the emperor sent an expedition under Belisarius, his most capable general, to take Italy from the Ostrogoths. In 540, after Belisarius secured the surrender of the Ostrogothic king Vitigis and the Ostrogoths’ capital at Ravenna, he held all of Italy except for a few Ostrogothic outposts. At that point, Justinian recalled Belisarius to fight the Persians in the East. The Ostrogoths then rallied and retook much of Italy before the Byzantines finally completed the conquest in 561 .
The scholarly consensus is that these mosaics represent an imaginary procession, given that Justinian, Theodora, and Maximian, the archbishop of Ravenna, who is labeled in the mosaic, were never together in the same place after Maximian’s consecration in 546 . The figures apart from Justinian, Theodora, and Maximian are generally thought to be unidentifiable, though some tentative suggestions have been made for two or three others. After all, the mosaics must be essentially genuine, and the central figures can hardly represent anyone other than Justinian and Theodora, who reigned when the church was consecrated and were contemporaries of Archbishop Maximian. Like other works of imperial art, the mosaics of San Vitale were produced at a certain time for a certain occasion, but they were intended to retain their significance independently of that occasion, once it was past and forgotten.
The only explicitly identified character in either panel is Maximian (Ills. 13), the first Bishop of Ravenna to rank as an archbishop, whose name is inscribed above his head. The only other similarly identified bishop in the church’s mosaics is Ecclesius, represented in the act of offering the church to Christ in the apse at the viewer’s far right. This prominent position mirrors that of the church’s titular saint, Vitalis, whom Christ awards the crown of martyrdom in the same scene at the far left (Ills. 12). We know from the ninth-century chronicler Agnellus, who saw a now missing inscription in San Vitale, that Ecclesius was the bishop who initiated the church’s construction, that Maximian was the consecrating bishop, and that a certain Julianus Argentarius actually had the church built, decorated, and dedicated. Agnellus records that Julianus, a well-known patron of churches in Ravenna and probably a Greek and a banker, paid the substantial sum of 26,000 solidi to build San Vitale .
Carved monograms on several capitals in the church name a third bishop, Victor, Maximian’s immediate predecessor, who obviously took a part in the construction. Ursicinus, who was bishop between Ecclesius and Victor, presumably participated as well. Victor’s episcopate included the year 540, when the Ostrogoths, who followed the Arian heresy although they tolerated Orthodoxy among their subjects, surrendered Ravenna to the Orthodox Byzantines . Since San Vitale was begun under Ecclesius and consecrated by Maximian, the work spanned about two decades and took place under four bishops and two radically different political and religious regimes, one Ostrogoth and Arian and the other Byzantine and Orthodox. The details of the work’s progress and exact participation of each sponsor are not recorded in the sources and can only be conjectured. However, that the panels were planned together as a matching set, depicting the imperial couple bringing gifts to the church, is clear. They surely belong to the period after 540, because the Ostrogothic kings would hardly have permitted anyone to put up mosaics in their capital that glorified the emperor and empress as rulers at Ravenna.
With this background in mind, we can turn our attention to specific details on the imperial panels in San Vitale. The figures in the San Vitale panels are characterized according to conventions of Byzantine portraiture that define their age and position. The mosaicists have done this with indisputable competence and a fairly wide technical repertoire, though without excessive care for details of technique. Among the conventions known to the mosaicists was the indication of age through the choice of colors and the setting of rows in patterns to represent either younger and firmer flesh, as in the faces of Theodora’s ladies-in-waiting and the young lady to their left (Ills. 14), or sagging and paler cheeks – if in a somewhat understated manner – for Theodora herself (Ills. 15) and her closest female companion (Ills. 16). Age is represented for men through hairstyles, beards or a lack of them, and brow and cheek patterns ranging from smooth to furrowed. For instance, Justinian, though clean-shaven, has the shadow of a beard (Ills. 17), while the adolescent second from his right and Theodora’s eunuchs (Ills. 18) have no traces of beards. The visible flesh parts in the San Vitale panels’ heads and hands are made exclusively with glass tesserae, except for two of the heads, to be considered shortly, which are made mostly with stone cubes .
This last observation, which bears on the technique, is important because it allows the group as a whole to be placed in the chronologically earlier stages of the San Vitale mosaic decoration, when glass tesserae were used overwhelmingly to render features, hands, and feet as well as ornaments. Areas similarly treated include the entire apse, the vault of the Lamb, the topmost parts of the sanctuary walls, and the top medallions of the west arch (Ills. 12). During a restoration phase, to give the most noticeable example, white marble and limestone usually replace the white and silver glass.
After many years of study of the mosaics, the existence of a division between two phases at the same level on all four walls of the sanctuary and in the west arch was established . It follows that all the work on the mosaics in San Vitale was interrupted at the same point, after the mosaics of the apse had been finished. Work was resumed somewhat later with slightly different materials, although, at least in the medallions of the west arch, it continued the program’s original plan (Ills. 12). The boundary between the two original phases runs horizontally around the sanctuary at about the level of the springing of the vault, so that it separates the vault and the north and south tympana from everything beneath them, including the panels of the Evangelists that flank the two imperial panels.
The figures of the two deacons in Justinian’s panel display an oversimplified and linear rendition of their features that point to a lower level of technical proficiency (Ills. 19, 20). They seem inspired by real people, and were set by a different hand from the dignitaries and guards. The remaining two heads, those of the bishop (Ills. 13) and of the man who appears in the background between him and the emperor (Ills. 21), are even more different. They alone are made predominantly with stone tesserae, even though they share with the deacons a technically less achieved manner, noticeable in the less careful setting of the rows of tesserae. These two heads, which are real portraits, were made by the same mosaicist and at the same time . The bishop’s head is slightly smaller than those of his immediate companions, but this was probably dictated by the need to fit the inscription Maximianus into a limited space above him. Further complicating matters, the top of the neighboring deacon’s head (Ills. 19), the emperors crown (Ills. 17), and the beginning and end of the bishop’s inscription have all been remade, with smaller tesserae than the ones used originally (Ills. 22).
In spite of an extremely prominent location, the person squeezed between the emperor and the bishop, made at the same time as the latter’s head, was not planned from the start. This is demonstrated by the fact that the mysterious character, unlike the others, lacks feet as well as the lower part of his garment, and further by a gap between the emperor and the bishop where this figure’s white-clad body ought to be (Ills. 22). Unlike the missing feet of the generic guards in the back rows, the missing lower part of this figure, who was important enough to be placed between the emperor and the bishop, can be explained only by his having been inserted as an afterthought to the original composition. The differences between the heads made with stone tesserae and the others strongly suggest a last-minute change. They concern two central characters, one of whom was a controversial newcomer, Maximian, who had his name inscribed above his head to make his identification unmistakable.
At present there are two main reasons for dating these two figures to a restoration phase, which was close in time to the creation of these mosaics. One reason is the compositional oddity that represents the official in an awkwardly confined position, with no trace of a lower body and with very narrow shoulders that are out of proportion with his head and with the other figures. The second reason is the difference in materials. Stone dominates both of these figures’ faces (Ills. 13, 21), instead of the glass used in the faces and hands of all the other characters (see Justinian’s face in Ills. 17 and his hand in Ills. 23) and even in the hand of the bishop himself (Ills. 24). The reasons for discontinuing the use of glass paste for flesh tones in the restoration phase are still not clear, but one possibility is that the white and pale-colored glass was more expensive than stone .
It seems, therefore, that the head of the bishop was replaced, but not most of his body or his hand, which is made with the same glass-paste tesserae as that used for the other hands in both panels. At the same time of this alteration, the inscription Maximianus was fitted in above the bishop’s head and the official behind him was carefully added, but without a lower body to correspond to his upper body because the original composition left too little room for him. These two heads, which belong to the restoration of the mosaics, appear not to have been part of the original mosaic surface, and the same is true of the inscription.
Before proceeding further, we need to date the San Vitale mosaics, which, as we have seen, had a restoration phase. The original phase evidently did not include Maximian, because the technical considerations outlined above indicate Maximian’s head and inscription were added later. Since the bishop’s garb is original, the original figure was presumably an earlier bishop of Ravenna. Yet he was not much earlier, because the figure of Justinian was part of the original mosaic and was unaccompanied by any Ostrogothic king. It follows that the mosaic was put up after imperial forces entered Ravenna in 540 . That narrows the possibilities for the original bishop of Ravenna to just one: Maximian’s immediate predecessor, Victor.
Let us begin with the man to the emperor’s right and the woman to the empress’s left. As the people just following the emperor and empress in their processions, they are the second-ranking personages in the panels. One might therefore guess that they were the highest-ranking man and woman in Ravenna. For this reason they have occasionally been identified as the imperial commander-in-chief of Italy, Belisarius, and his wife, Antonina . In 544 Belisarius was about forty-five and Antonina about sixty, ages that fit well enough with the faces. Thus, the mosaic probably dates between 544 and 545, around the time of Bishop Victor’s death. This appears to be the date when the building of San Vitale was essentially complete. Victor did not consecrate it, however, presumably because he died before he considered it ready. It follows that Maximian contributed little if anything to building the church or to decorating its apse. Yet much of the mosaic decoration of the rest of the sanctuary should be his, because it belongs to the restoration phase that was apparently begun after Victor’s death and can scarcely be later than Maximian’s inscription and his consecration of the whole church . Bishop Victor won his place in these prestigious panels because San Vitale was after all his church. Victor may have felt a special need to emphasize his loyalty to Justinian and even to Belisarius, because he had been consecrated bishop under the Ostrogoths when they were already at war with the emperor and his general. Yet the main initiative behind the selection of figures for the mosaics presumably lay with Belisarius and Antonina.
In altering the mosaic, Maximian’s main purpose was doubtless to promote his own authority in Ravenna. This mosaic, after he had altered it, reminded his brood that Maximian had the backing of the emperor, the empress, and of both of the emperor’s chief officers, Belisarius and John the Nephew of Vitalian . Beyond this, substituting Maximian’s head for Victor’s allowed Maximian to lay claim early in his tenure to a church that he had seen to completion, although it had actually been built and, in large part, decorated under his predecessors. From the start, Maximian showed great energy in altering and finishing the buildings of earlier bishops. In San Apollinare in Classe, for example, he radically changed the original program of mosaic decoration and had the present mosaics finished quite quickly .
It follows that the original designer of the imperial panels did not mean to give Justinian twelve companions representing the twelve Apostles, since originally those companions numbered eleven . Nor did the designer add Maximian’s inscription to give the bishop prominence in the mosaic, since his inscription was not part of the original composition and was added later to serve a different purpose. (Although we cannot be absolutely sure that Maximian’s name was not substituted for Victor’s, such a label seems out of keeping with the rest of the original panels, and Victor would probably have expected his portrait to be recognizable by itself.)Only now does the significance of the mosaics become fully apparent. And it will be realized how intimately the different works are interconnected. Moses, as well as the “just offerers,” alludes to the emperor. As Moses, upon God’s command, had made and adorned the Tabernacle, so Justinian had built and sumptuously furnished the church of San Vitale, and, like Melchizedek, he presented the sacrificial offering at the altar. But the imperial portraits must also be related to the great central composition in the apse (Ills. 3). The connection between the emperor-portraits and the central mosaic is obvious. As Ecclesius, the founder of the sanctuary, stands ready to receive the same award as that which is tendered Vitalis, so the sovereigns, as the primary benefactors of the church, will be rewarded for their sacrifice. Again it is the liturgy which gives particular significance to this thought.
The entire cycle of mosaics thus culminates in the apse of San Vitale, where the sacrifice offered by Justinian as emperor and priest is shown to be judged and accepted on the last day. The scene is the supreme vindication of Justinian’s administration, all the more moving since Christ, whom he is shown confronting, appears himself as an emperor in the act – dear to the religious imagination of the age – of bestowing the wreath of glory to the winner in the agon .
If texts can be misread, art is even more susceptible to misinterpretation. Today, some scholars seem to want to believe in a Byzantium that idealized its rulers and cared above all for politics. The sources seem rather to show a society that valued the rulers, if it valued them at all, mostly for the practical benefits they could present . The reality behind an idealized image of power was often weakness; attempts to glorify figures in authority often masked their actual insecurity and unpopularity.
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