Y CURRENT research project had me studying the stunning mosaics of Ravenna over the last two weeks. These artworks were not completely unknown to me, but I had never had the occasion to explore all the secondary literature that has been devoted to these mosaics. These magnificent images, crafted mostly in the fifth and sixth centuries, are not only attractive to behold, but also deeply theological.
For those who may be unfamiliar with these works of art, a good, concise introduction to the Ravenna churches is found here.
One of the most interesting pieces is the mosaic adorning the apse of Sant’Apollinare in Classe. The presence of Moses and Elijah make clear that the mosaic depicts the scene of the Transfiguration. The figure at the center, however, is not a radiant Christ in splendor, but rather a jeweled cross set in a blue orb. An excellent analysis of the details in this mosaic is found here.
Another masterpiece among the Ravenna mosaics is the set of panels adorning the nave walls of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. These images show a procession of saints, bearing their gifts to the altar and, ultimately, to the enthroned Christ. The Gospel side of the nave features 22 virgins (all female), while the epistle side features 26 martyrs (all male).
The most architecturally interesting church in Ravenna is undoubtedly San Vitale, consecrated in the year 547. The basilica combines Roman and Byzantine elements. The basic floorplan consists of two concentric octagons, surmounted with a dome.
The apse within San Vitale presents an extraordinary program of interconnected mosaics. The central image displays Christ in Majesty, alongside St. Vitalis and Bishop Ecclesius. On either side of the apse, one finds mosaics of the Emperor Justinian and his Empress, Theodora. In order to understand how all the mosaics in the apse of San Vitale relate to one another, I highly recommend watching this video:
The cluster of Ravenna churches housing these mosaics stand as testimony to the beauty of ancient Christian faith. They also remind us not to fall into the all-too-easy trap of thinking that people living in ancient times were somehow primitive, unrefined, or unintelligent (a position encountered surprisingly often both in popular imagination and in historical studies).
The artist-theologians who crafted the mosaics of Ravenna still have much to teach.