Ravenna: Cappella Arcivescovile

Christ in the narthex of the chapel.

The archiepiscopal museum of Ravenna (Museo Arcivescovile) is located directly behind the cathedral of the city. Although the building that houses the museum can with some justification be called modern, its history goes back a long way. The cathedral itself was built by bishop Ursus (ca. 370-396 or 405-431), and it is not inconceivable that he was also the driving force behind the construction of an episcopal palace (episcopium) behind it. An ancient Roman tower from the second century stood and still stands there, the Torre Salustra. It may have originally been a water tower that was connected to the local aqueduct. Later (arch)bishops, starting with bishop Neon (ca. 450-473), had new buildings erected around the tower, so that over the course of several centuries an episcopal complex was created.[1] Much of the complex was later demolished again, but the former private chapel of the archbishop has fortunately been preserved. This Cappella Arcivescovile is a genuine jewel box, with splendid mosaics that convey a political and religious message.

History and narthex

The chapel was built by bishop Peter II (494-520). In his lifetime, Italy was ruled by the Ostrogothic king Theoderic (493-526), who had conquered the peninsula in 489-493 and had made Ravenna his capital. Theoderic was not a stupid barbarian, but most of the time a wise and tolerant ruler. His tolerance extended into the field of religion. The Ostrogoths were Arian Christians, which meant that they denied the divine nature of Christ. According to them, Christ had been created by God and could therefore never be of the same substance as God, which Orthodox Christians firmly believed. Now it should be noted that the Orthodox doctrine had already been confirmed at the 325 Council of Nicaea, which had simultaneously rejected the Arian beliefs. However, in Italy the Ostrogoths were calling the shots. Nevertheless, as long as they did not oppose or hinder him and his Arian bishops, Theoderic for his part did not in any way impede Orthodox Christians or their bishops (see Ravenna: The Arian Baptistery).

Christ with the text from John 14:6.

Apparently the king felt that criticism of Arian beliefs did not necessarily constitute opposition, as already in the narthex or vestibule of the chapel we find images that have been interpreted as pro-Orthodox and anti-Arian. If you walk about halfway into the narthex and then turn around, you will see a beautiful mosaic of Christ in warrior’s garb above the entrance. He is in fact dressed as a Roman emperor on campaign. Christ has slung a large cross over his right shoulder and is holding a book in his left hand that has the Latin text EGO SVM VIA VERITAS ET VITA on its pages, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”. This three-tiered declaration comes from John 14:6 and was used by Orthodox Christians as proof of the Holy Trinity and evidence against the Arian position. On the mosaic we see Christ trampling a lion and a snake. It is of course tempting to see these beasts as manifestations of Arianism. The barrel vault of the narthex also has splendid mosaics, which consist of a golden sky with birds, lilies and discs that look a bit like Sacred Hosts. Of course there have been quite a few restorations in the 1,500 years that the mosaics have been in existence. In fact, the entire lower part of the Christ mosaic has been re-laid.

Apse of the chapel, with Jesus and six of the twelve apostles. Above the cross, and just below Christ, the monogram of bishop Peter II (494-520) is visible.

The chapel itself

Interior of the chapel.

The Cappella Arcivescovile is dedicated to Saint Andrew the Apostle, but it is not clear whether this was already the case in the days of bishop Peter II. The floor of the chapel, executed in opus sectile, is still largely original, and so are the marble wall coverings and the mosaics of the vaults. The decorations in the lunettes of the sidearms of the chapel have been lost and replaced by mediocre frescoes that depict the Deposition from the Cross and the Ascension of Christ. The frescoes are the work of the local painter Luca Longhi (1507-1580). In the lunette above the entrance of the chapel the people responsible for the restorations have included a reference to the ninth-century priest and historian Agnellus, who also wrote about the deeds of bishop Peter II. The mosaic in the conch of the apse is not original, but a modern reconstruction based on the finding of dark blue and silver tesserae. We see a blue sky with golden and silver stars and a Latin cross. Compare what you see here with the dome of the mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, which is a couple of decades older. Above the apse the monogram of bishop Peter II is visible.

Next up is the mosaic of the cross-vault of the chapel. It consists of four angels holding a tondo with the Greek letters iota (I) and chi (X). Together the letters are an abbreviation of the name Iesous Christos. The so-called IX monogram appears twice more in the chapel (see below). Between the four angels we furthermore see a lion, a bull, a man and an eagle, so the symbols of the four evangelists. All four are holding a Gospel. Remarkably, the book held by the lion, i.e. the Gospel according to Mark, looks very heavy. In reality Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four.

Vault of the chapel.

Lastly, I will dedicate a few words to the barrel vaults of the arms of the chapel. On each vault seven figures have been depicted inside tondi. On the vaults near the apse and entrance we twice see a young Christ. The other figures are the twelve apostles, including of course Saints Peter and Paul, but also including Saint Andrew, to whom the chapel is dedicated. The IX monogram reappears on the vaults of the sidearms, but now the letters alpha and omega have been added. On the left side of the chapel the monogram is flanked by the heads of six female martyrs and on the right side by the heads of six male martyrs. The martyrs are, according to one of my sources, “an oddly assorted bunch”.[2] The presence among the women of EVFIMIA drew my attention. She is Saint Euphemia of Chalcedon, who was martyred at the start of the fourth century. In 451 an important church council was held in Chalcedon, where the Orthodox doctrine about the nature of Christ was triumphant. The presence of Euphemia in this Orthodox private chapel can therefore very well be seen as an anti-Arian statement.[3]

Barrel vault with IX monogram and six female martyrs, including Euphemia.


  • Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis, Ravenna in Late Antiquity, p. 100-101 and p. 187-196;
  • Ravenna Turismo website.


[1] Ravenna’s bishop was promoted to archbishop in 553.

[2] Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis, Ravenna in Late Antiquity, p. 194.

[3] In the church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna Euphemia can be seen leading a procession of female saints. This mosaic is the result of an anti-Arian purge that took place in the 560s, after Ravenna had been recaptured from the Ostrogoths two decades previously.

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