Ravenna in northern Italy was one of the most important cities of Late Antique Europe (third to eighth century CE) and hosts some spectacular works of art and architecture from this period.
Ravenna became an important place thanks to its strategic geographical position close to the Adriatic Sea. Around 31 BCE, Emperor Augustus chose it as a naval base. The port was named Classis, meaning ‘fleet’, and it was ideally situated to control the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea.
In 402, the Emperor Honorius moved the court from Milan to Ravenna, making it the capital of the Western Roman Empire and one of the greatest cities of Europe. The size and importance of the city grew and its heritage shows the mixed influences from two different worlds – the Eastern and Western empires.
The history of Byzantine Ravenna can be divided into three ages corresponding to the prevailing ideology of the time, each of which is illustrated through the mosaics you find within the city walls.
In the Galla Placidia age (425-450), the Orthodox religion was the prevailing ideology in Ravenna. This was overshadowed in the age of Theodoric – king of Ostrogoths (493-526) – by the Arian religion. Then, under the Emperor Justinian (527-567) and some important archbishops, such as Maximian of Pola and Agnellus, the Orthodox religion was finally reaffirmed.
Ravenna was the residence of western Roman emperors, Ostrogoth kings and Byzantine governors until the invasion of the Lombards in 751 CE. In that time, it transformed into an imperial city with many magnificent churches and buildings, whose modest exteriors contrast with the bright beauty of their interior decoration.
City of mosaics
The extraordinary brightness of mosaic art in Ravenna from the fifth and sixth centuries – the golden age of the city – has left us a great number of masterpieces from the early period of Christian art.
Mosaic was chosen as the main decorative medium for religious buildings. As in Salonicco, Constantinople, Rome and Milan, mosaic was used to express the prestige of the city, both as a court residence and as a prominent ecclesiastical centre.
The images of power-holding figures, in particular those relating to offertory (the part of a Eucharistic service when bread and wine are ceremonially placed on the altar), represent a strong link between Ravenna and Constantinople mosaics.
After Theodosius the Great (Roman Emperor from 379 to 395, and the last emperor to rule over both the Eastern and the Western halves of the Roman Empire), Christian iconography started to focus on images that celebrated the greatness of the empire.
Examples include: traditio legis scenes in which Christ distributes his new law to Peter and Paul; the offer of the crown; the three Wise Men (representing the barbarian kings’ submission to the imperial power); the acclamatio - a public expression of pleasure or displeasure by loud acclamations; saeva crimina - Christ trampling the symbols of Evil; the laurel wreath as a symbol of victory symbol; the empty throne.
The following examples show how mosaic art in this period became an instrumentum regni - a means of exploiting religion to achieve political ends - and contributed to the establishment of the Orthodox religion after the Arian age.
The missing mosaics of San Giovanni Evangelista
The Church of St John the Evangelist is the oldest church in Ravenna. It was built in the 5th century under the authority of the Empress Galla Placidia. The Empress and her children had survived a storm during their passage to Ravenna from Constantinople, during which she vowed to the Evangelist that she would build a Church for him if they survived.
The Church of St John the Evangelist was almost totally destroyed during an aerial bombing on 25 August 1944 but has since been restored. Thanks to a detailed description in the Liber Pontificalis Ecclesiae Ravennatis by historian Andrea Agnello, the iconography of the mosaics originally in the apse can be reconstructed.
One mosaic shows members of the Theodosian dynasty. Flanking bishop San Pier Crisologo are two imperial couples - Theodosius II and Eudocia, and Eudoxia and Arcadius (the father of Theodosius II) - bringing offerings to Christ. An inscription, taken from Psalm 68: 29-30, endorses a holy link between human kings and God:
Confirma hoc Deus, quod operatus es in nobis: a templo sancto tuo, quod est in Jerusalem, tibi offerent reges munera.
[Oh Lord, confirm what you have done in us : from your holy temple, which is in Jerusalem, the kings will offer you gifts.]
Justinian at the Sant'Apollinare Nuovo basilica
The majority of mosaics in Sant'Apollinare Nuovo basilica were created during the Theodoric reign (493-526). The church, originally dedicated to Christ, was originally located in regio Caesarum, that is, near the palace. It was one of the privileged places in which power and its symbols were represented.
In the lower register of the southern wall, the decoration shows the famous palatium, a building with a central structure of three arches, on top of which was a triangular pediment flanked by arcades (a series of arches and columns), with a gallery of windows above.
Following a Justininian decree in 561, Archbishop Agnellus ordered damnatio memoriae - that representations of Theodoric and Arian dignitaries be removed. However, panels bearing their images remained in the palatium as well as elsewhere in Ravenna and the port of Classis, bearing testimony to the power of the kings.
The hands of Theodoric court figures are still visible on the building’s columns, while entire characters were removed and substituted by tents and other decorative elements. On the palatium (frons regiae), Theodoric was shown on horseback, armed with a shield and a spear, surrounded by the personifications of the cities of Ravenna and Rome.
In the main nave mosaics, martyrs and virgins’ processions take the place of what was probably a depiction of court procession portraits that underlined the importance of the power of the court. The Virgin and Christ enthroned, to whom the processions are addressed, have imperial iconographic characteristics.
The purge and substitution of iconography that Archbishop Agnellus wanted even affected the mosaic decoration of the internal façade.
A portrait that represented an important character or possibly Theodoric himself was possibly modified to assume a new appearance. New elements enrich the figure. Tiaras and fibula (brooch) with pendants show it is an imperial portrait. The inscription IVSTINIAN shows it is a Justinian figure. Elements added by Agnellus such as diadem (an ornamental headband or crown), chlamys (short cloak) and a gold background are symbols which identify the Constantinopolitan emperor.
Justinian at the San Vitale Basilica
In San Vitale Basilica, the imperial panels of Justinian and Theodora date back to the sixth century. As the imperial couple had never been to Ravenna, their images were inspired by encaustic representations (hot wax and pigment on wood) and other imperial portraits sent from Constantinople.
The ritualistic gestures depicted symbolise the connection between the divinity and the Emperors; Justinian is represented holding a golden paten (plate) and Theodora holding a jewelled chalice. Justinian’s clothes symbolise his imperial power, as do his shield and Chrismon (a type of monogram or cipher).
By comparing the two Justinian mosaic portraits in Ravenna, we see differences in their artistic style and detail. But other similarities - like the crown, pendilia (pendants), fibula (brooches) and pallium (cloak) - show how the imperial portrait of San Vitale influences the Sant’Apollinare Nuovo one.
The mosaic panel showing Theodora, located on the right side of the altar, depicts the empress standing upon a shell-shaped niche - a symbol of imperial dignity and power.
The empress is differentiated from the other court ladies thanks to the elegance of her clothes, adornments and symbols of sovereignty like the purple chlamys (cloak), maniakion (necklace), praependulia (pendants) and jewelled tiara.
The position of Justinian and Theodora between the earthly and divine dimensions could be read as a submission of imperial power to God.
Explore more Ravenna in our blog A Journey through Byzantine Ravenna