The undisputed highlight of any trip to Ravenna is a visit to the Basilica di San Vitale. This church, which is about a kilometre west of Ravenna’s railway station and is located just south of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, is world famous for its unique shape and its wonderful mosaics. Pictures of these mosaics – especially the ones featuring the Eastern Roman emperor Justinianus and his wife, the empress Theodora – can be found in just about any book on Byzantine art. I had wanted to see the San Vitale and its art for quite some time, and when we visited Ravenna in June of 2016, my heart started beating faster as we approached the majestic edifice. I was not disappointed.
Building a miracle
San Vitale or Saint Vitalis is a rather obscure saint, and we may doubt whether he existed at all. As Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis explains in her excellent Ravenna in Late Antiquity, the rise of Saint Vitalis as Ravenna’s chief martyr is somehow connected to the fierce rivalry between the Episcopal sees of Milan and Ravenna. Milan was of course the previous capital and the city of the great Saint Ambrosius (ca. 340-397), who had been responsible for founding many of the city’s churches in the fourth century.
Most, if not all, of these would have been a little older than Ravenna’s. Ravenna, however, was the new capital and the seat of the imperial court after 402. It therefore considered itself higher in church hierarchy than Milan. In the Ravennate version of events, Vitalis was a soldier and the father of Saints Gervasius and Protasius, Milanese martyrs and patron saints of that city (see Milan: Sant’Ambrogio). The fact that Vitalis was the father of Gervasius and Protasius of course entailed that the church in Ravenna was the “father” of the church in Milan, i.e. the former took precedence over the latter.
According to tradition, Saint Vitalis was martyred in Ravenna, but we do not know when the story is set; it may have been anywhere between the reign of Nero (54-68) and that of Marcus Aurelius (161-180). In any case, it seems that a chapel dedicated to Saint Vitalis existed in Ravenna since the fifth century. Excavations in 1911 below the floor of the church have led to the discovery of a rectangular structure with an altar and mosaic floors, which seems to have been used as a place of worship.
Parts of the floors from this sacello are now on display in the San Vitale, and the caption says they are indeed from the fifth century. The mosaics show peacocks and smaller birds around a vase, as well as intricate geometric patterns, some of which have the shape of swastikas. See the images below.
It was bishop Ecclesius (522-532) who made plans to build a larger church dedicated to Saint Vitalis at the site of the smaller chapel. This was at a time when Ravenna and Italy were still under Ostrogothic rule, and the fact that the Gothic authorities did not object to the project shows that – for whatever reason, true tolerance or simply political convenience – Orthodox Italians were allowed to practice their religion freely and even construct new churches. Ecclesius did not live to see the result of his efforts. His successor, bishop Ursicinus (533-536), was presumably too busy with the construction of his own basilica in Classe, so work on the San Vitale was continued by bishop Victor (538-545).
Both Ecclesius and Victor must have put in a lot of work, as the former has a prominent position in the apse mosaic, and the latter’s monogram can be seen on the impost blocks in the church. The church was completed and consecrated on 19 April 547 by bishop Maximianus (546-557). He can be seen in the mosaic that features the emperor Justinianus and that will be discussed below.
Although we do not know when exactly construction of the church started, we can be certain that construction was slowed down when the Gothic War started in 535. Ravenna was taken by an Eastern Roman army in 540 and there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in the city around the year 543. Many building materials would have to be brought in from the East, especially the marble needed for columns and decorations. Bricks from older buildings were apparently no longer available, so the San Vitale had to be built using new bricks. All in all, a building period of some twenty years seems quite reasonable. The project was made possible by a donation of 26.000 golden solidi from a mysterious and wealthy banker (argentarius) named Julianus, of whom we know next to nothing. It seems a little unfair that while the three bishops involved in the construction of the San Vitale – Maximianus was made archbishop around the year 553 – were all visibly honoured inside the church, no such monument was left for Julianus. Only the road leading to what is now the main entrance of the church was named after him: the Via Giuliano Argentario.
Although the church is called the Basilica di San Vitale in Italian, the word basilica only refers to its status, not its form. The San Vitale is anything but a typical Roman basilica, i.e. a rectangular building with a high nave and slightly lower aisles. It is a centrally-planned building that is probably best described as an octagon within an octagon, but with a twist. The central octagon is domed and has exedrae (semi-circles) on seven of the eight sides, while the eighth side opens into the sanctuary, which ends in an apse. The central octagon is surrounded by a second octagon, an ambulatory with a gallery above it, and the apse actually punches through and projects beyond the ambulatory. The apse faces the (south)east and it is flanked by two round chambers. The dome above the central octagon is 28.7 metres high. The sanctuary has a vault that is slightly lower: it has a height of 17.7 metres. The apse is again somewhat lower and rises 11.7 metres above the floor.
On the west side of the building, two stair towers were built, one of which was transformed into a campanile (bell tower) during the Middle Ages. The campanile collapsed in 1688, but it was apparently rebuilt, as there is still one today – it seems out of place and does not match with the rest of the building. External buttresses were added to the church, possibly in the late 1100s (see the first image in this post). They were necessary to carry the extra weight caused by the vaulting of the ambulatory and the gallery.
The ground plan of the San Vitale included in this post shows a large rectangular space with apses to the west of the building. This was the church’s narthex. It was connected to a square atrium. The church became part of a Benedictine monastery somewhere in the tenth century, and I assume the atrium became a cloister. It – or its successor – can still be seen from above if you use Google Maps. The monastery was dissolved in 1860, and the building now houses the Museo Nazionale di Ravenna, which is usually very quiet and well worth a visit.
A visitor can easily spend hours looking at the mosaics in the sanctuary and the apse. They are simply amazing. The level of detail is spectacular and the colours are exceptionally beautiful, with gold and green dominating. Parts of the mosaics have been restored, which is inevitable after so many centuries. There have been renovations in the twelfth, fourteenth, sixteenth and late eighteenth centuries, as well as in the 1850s, the 1930s and the 1960s. A new round of restorations was begun from 1988 onwards, and no doubt more work will be necessary in the future, as the little tesserae that make up a mosaic unfortunately have a tendency to come off every now and then. Still, what we see today is more or less what a churchgoer would have seen in 547. It is this feeling of seeing what someone would have seen almost a millennium and a half ago that makes a visit to the San Vitale such an incredible experience. Let us discuss the mosaics one by one.
Here we see a scene with five participants, set against a golden background with a few bluish and pink clouds. In the centre is a youthful Christ, seated on a blue globe. Christ is beardless and wearing a purple tunic with a broad golden stripe (clavus). In his left hand he has a scroll with the seven seals of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation: “A book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals” (Revelation 5:1). Christ’s head is surrounded by a halo in which we see a jewelled cross. In his right hand he is holding a crown which he is offering to Saint Vitalis, who is the person on the extreme left (but on Christ’s right; he is labelled S(AN)C(TV)S VITALIS). Vitalis is portrayed as an older man, with greying hair. The level of detail of his clothes, especially the pattern on his mantle, is quite impressive.
Christ is flanked by two winged angels with staffs. The one on the left has his hand on Vitalis’ shoulder, introducing him to Christ. The one on the right does the same with regard to the fifth person in the scene, bishop Ecclesius, who is labelled ECLESIVS EPIS(COPVS). He is holding a miniature model of the church in his hands. Mauskopf Deliyannis claims that this is one of the earliest examples of the depiction of a patron offering a church to Jesus. A slightly older example can be found in Rome. In the apse mosaic of the Santi Cosma e Damiano, we can see pope Felix IV (526-530) offering his new church to Christ. It is interesting to compare the two mosaics. There are clear differences in style, with the mosaic in Rome having the more classical, natural look. Both works are obviously about Christ’s second coming, and they even share some of the bluish and pink clouds.
The San Vitale is famous for having two mosaic panels on the walls of the apse showing the Eastern Roman emperor Justianianus and his court, as well as his wife Theodora and her court. Neither Justinianus nor Theodora, who started her life as a pantomime artist, ever visited Ravenna. We do not know the exact reason why they were depicted in the San Vitale, but there is no doubt among historians that we see the emperor and empress here, although none of them is labelled.
Justinianus, who can be seen on the left wall, on Christ’s right hand side, is clearly Justinianus for the simple reason that he is wearing the red and purple shoes that only emperors were allowed to wear. Since the San Vitale was constructed during his long reign (527-565) and there was no other emperor during that period, it must be him. The emperor is clean-shaven and he is the only haloed figure in the scene. The level of detail of his clothes is quite astonishing. Note for instance his crown, the large brooch on his right shoulder and the golden rectangular inset on Justinianus’ purple mantle, which is called a tablion. The tablion is lavishly decorated with figures of birds.
The emperor is flanked by several figures. One of them is labelled MAXIMIANVS, and this is of course the bishop – the later archbishop – who consecrated the San Vitale in 547. He is portrayed as a balding man, dressed in a chasuble, with the bishop’s pallium draped over his shoulders and an ornate cross in his right hand. Interestingly, he is the only man in the scene with bright eyes; all the others have dark eyes. We know that Maximianus and the man between him and Justinianus were added slightly later: Justinianus’ face is made of glass tesserae, while stone tesserae were used for the two other faces.
There is a theory that originally bishop Victor (538-545) was portrayed in the mosaic. This is not impossible, as Victor almost lived to see the completion and consecration of the church, but it remains a theory that cannot be proven. It is also possible that, since Victor died in 545 and was not replaced by Maximianus until about a year later, the space was simply left empty and the bishop’s face was not added until Ravenna had a bishop again. In any case, Maximianus was Justinianus’ pick, and therefore it is fitting that he was included in the mosaic alongside his master.
The two men to the right of Maximianus are deacons. One is carrying a Bible, the other an incense burner. The two men to the left of the emperor, and the man between the emperor and the bishop, are court officials, but we cannot know their names for certain. It has been suggested that the man with the beard and the very thin moustache is the famous Eastern Roman general Belisarius (505-565), who played a pivotal role during the Gothic War in Italy. Again, it is plausible, but it cannot be proven. On the extreme left on the mosaic are soldiers in colourful tunics. They are carrying spears and we also see an oval shield with the familiar chi-rho symbol. At least three of the soldiers are wearing torcs around their necks, perhaps an indication of their non-Roman origins. None of them seem to be wearing armour and helmets are also notably absent.
Although strictly speaking not in the centre of the mosaic, Theodora is certainly the central figure in the scene, if only because she is the only person with a halo. Once again, the level of detail is very impressive. The empress’ head and shoulders are covered in emeralds and pearls. Theodora is wearing a chlamys – a costume only worn by men ánd empresses – and on the lower part of it we can see images of the Three Magi, similar to the ones in the Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. The man on the left – possibly a eunuch – appears to be opening a curtain for his mistress. The other man in the scene is a court official.
The remaining figures in the scene are all women, and there are interesting differences in style and colour of dress between them. Their faces are nearly identical though. All that we know is that the women are ladies at Theodora’s court and it is impossible to pin any names on them. It has been speculated, however, that the woman on Theodora’s left is Antonina, Belisarius’ wife and Theodora’s friend and confidante.
We take a few steps back so that we can admire the mosaics in the sanctuary. They are divided in a lower and an upper zone. I will discuss the lower zone first.
On the left wall, we see a lunette above the arches with two scenes from the Old Testament: Abraham feeding the three strangers at Mambre and Abraham sacrificing Isaac, both stories from the Book of Genesis and both seen as precursors to the Christian Eucharist. At the centre of the lunette are the three strangers from Genesis 18:1-15. They are seated behind a table with three pieces of flatbread on it. The bread is marked with a cross and looks suspiciously like the hosts used during the Eucharist. On the left, Abraham approaches with a cooked calf, while his wife Sarah stands in the doorway of a simple hut with a thatched roof. To the right of the table we see Abraham again, this time about to sacrifice his soon Isaac (Genesis 22:1-13). The boy is bound and placed on an altar. Abraham has his left hand on Isaac’s head and his sword up in the air, ready to strike. But then the Hand of God appears from the sky to intervene. At Abraham’s feet is a little white ram, which is to be sacrificed instead.
Above the lunette, we see two angels holding a medallion with a cross inside. We also see the image of the prophet Jeremiah – labelled IEREMIA – with an opened scroll. On the right is Moses – labelled MOSE and depicted as a young man – receiving the Law from the Hand of God on Mount Sinai. Below him is a crowd of Israelites. A further point of interest are the impost blocks that support the arches: these are actually painted.
On the opposite wall, the scenes with Moses continue. Here we see him tying his sandal among several burning bushes, while turning his head to face the Hand of God (see the image above). At the bottom, it is Moses again, this time with three sheep. He is feeding one of the sheep with his right hand, while holding a scroll in his left. In the middle, above the lunette, is a set of angels holding a medallion with a cross again, and to the right of them is the prophet Isaiah, labelled ISAIAS.
The most interesting scene is of course in the lunette itself. It shows another two scenes from the Book of Genesis. We see Abel, son of Adam and Eve, sacrificing a lamb to God, and the King of Salem, Melchizedek, offering a loaf of bread. On the altar are two more loaves of bread and a chalice. Again, it is hard not to think of the Eucharist in Christian churches, although these are of course scenes from the Old Testament. Abel’s sacrifice is mentioned in Genesis 4:4:
“And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering” (AKJV; Cain’s offering is ignored, and this leads to envy between the two brothers, ending with Cain murdering Abel)
Melchizedek appears in Genesis 14:18-20:
“And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God.
And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth:
and blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all.” (AKJV)
Perhaps even more importantly, Jesus is compared to Melchizedek in the Epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament.
In the mosaic, we further see the Hand of God above the altar, perhaps reaching out for the offerings. To the left of Abel is another simple hut with a thatched roof, while to the right of Melchizedek stands a more complex building, usually interpreted as a temple. Again, the impost blocks below the lunette are painted.
The upper zone of the sanctuary mosaics is the domain of the four evangelists. The north wall is occupied by John and Luke with their symbols, an eagle and an ox. On the south wall we find Matthew and Mark, with a man and a lion respectively. All of them are seated in a rocky landscape, and all but Luke are behind a writing table. The evangelists are holding their own respective Gospels. There are Latin texts on three of the Gospels, but Matthew’s Gospel appears to be in Hebrew, although the scribbling on the pages is not really Hebrew.
Finally, the vault of the sanctuary. It is made up of four triangular panels with green and golden backgrounds and decorated with scrolls and several animals. In the centre is a medallion with the Lamb of God, held by four winged angels on blue globes.
One last point of interest is the soffit of the arch leading into the sanctuary. It contains fifteen medallions with male faces. In the centre is Jesus Christ, whose bearded face has been almost entirely restored. To his right are six apostles led by Paul, while to his left, we see another six apostles led by Peter. The final two medallions at the bottom of the soffit are occupied by the faces of Saints Gervasius and Protasius. They are, of course, not apostles, but the sons of Saint Vitalis, at least according to tradition.
Although the church is obviously most famous for its mosaics, do not forget to look at the marble wall decorations and the spectacular floor. Slabs of marble were used to decorate much of the walls and piers. For this, two types of marble were used: Proconnesian marble from an island in the Sea of Marmara (southwest of Constantinople) and so-called cipollino rosso from Karia in present-day Turkey. The latter has a deep red colour with white veins. Spectacular mirror effects were created by cutting a block of marble in two and placing the two halves side by side, as can be seen in the picture included in this post. The Karian slabs were then surrounded by pieces of Proconnesian marble, which is white and grey.
If I understand correctly, the floor that we see in the central octagon today is not original, but mostly a product of a sixteenth century restoration. Two triangular segments are, however, from the sixth century church, although of course heavily restored. The segments show scrolls flowing from a vase and obviously visitors are not allowed to walk on these parts of the floor; they are far too vulnerable and therefore roped off.
You may ignore the eighteenth century Baroque frescoes that cover the interior of the central dome and the conches of the exedrae. They are not bad or ugly, but simply feel stylistically out of place in this Walhalla of Late Antique art. However, although just over a hundred years old, do not miss the alabaster panes in the windows of the drum of the dome. These were installed in 1904 and presumably replaced earlier glass panes. The alabaster panes are beautiful in their own right and cause wonderful light effects.
Even though the San Vitale is the most famous church in Ravenna, there were only about 15 other tourists in the church when we visited it. We had all the space and all the time in the world to admire the marvellous building and its treasures. Citizens of the twenty-first century are very fortunate that so much of this magnificent church has stood the test of time.
– Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis, Ravenna in Late Antiquity, p. 200-250;
– Judith Herrin, Byzantium, p. 74-76;
– Ravenna Turismo website.
Update 14 August 2022: text and images have been updated.