Ravenna: Museo Arcivescovile

The Virgin Mary as the Vergine Orante. Fragment of a mosaic from 1112.

The palace of the archbishop behind the cathedral of Ravenna is probably as old as the cathedral itself. After all, the bishop of the city – archbishop since 553 – needed a place to live and receive his guests. The palace was enlarged in several phases, the first known addition being an intervention by bishop Neon (ca. 450-473). Of the palace from Antiquity the private chapel of bishop Peter II (494-520) has been preserved. This Cappella Arcivescovile, famous for its splendid mosaics, deserves its own post. This post is mostly about the other treasures in the archiepiscopal museum, the Museo Arcivescovile. The history of the museum goes back to archbishop Maffeo Nicolò Farsetti (1727-1741). In the first year of his episcopate he had the old cathedral of Ravenna, the Basilica Ursiana from the fourth or fifth century, demolished and then replaced with an entirely new building. Farsetti firmly believed it was important that sculptures, mosaics, paintings and other objects from the cathedral were preserved. Many of these objects were moved to a new museum.


The museum is not exceptionally large, but obviously I cannot discuss the entire collection. The Pinacoteca and the collection of liturgical vestments are not very interesting, so I will skip these altogether. The first object that caught my eye was a part of the sarcophagus of a certain Seda, which can be found in the lapidarium. According to the text on the sarcophagus, Seda was an ignucus et cubicularius of the Ostrogothic king Theoderic, who ruled over Italy between 493 and his death in 526, and had made Ravenna his capital. An ignucus is a eunuch and a cubicularius a chamberlain. It follows that this Seda held a high-ranking position at the Ostrogothic court, which is why he is rightly called a vir sublimis on the sarcophagus. According to the text he died when he was about forty years old. His death occurred during the consulate of [Anicius Faustus Albinus] Basilius, which was in the year 541. This means Seda lived just long enough to see Ravenna being recaptured by the Eastern Roman emperor Justinianus (527-565) in 540. A copy of the sarcophagus can be admired in Classis Ravenna – Museo della Città e del Territorio, where the letters of the text have been reddened (‘rubricated’).

Part of the sarcophagus of the eunuch Seda.

‘Throne of Maximiamus’.

One of the most famous objects in the museum is the so-called ‘Throne of Maximianus’. In 553 Maximianus (546-557) became the first archbishop of Ravenna. On the throne is a monogram that has generally been identified as his. Indeed we see a large M and X as part of the monogram. It is not inconceivable that the throne was a gift from the emperor Justinianus. The throne was originally decorated with 39 ivory panels, 27 of which have been preserved. The panels on the front of the throne represent Saint John the Baptist and the four evangelists. John is holding a Lamb of God in his left hand and each of the evangelists is holding a codex with his own Gospel. The other panels tell stories from the Old and New Testament. Of the stories from the New Testament we for instance see the Wedding at Cana and the entrance of Jesus in Jerusalem.

The scenes from the Old Testament are very special. They tell the story of Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob. He is his father’s favourite, which makes his brothers quite jealous. They throw him in a well and want to let him die there, but in the end they decide to sell him to itinerant Ishmaelites. The brothers kill a young goat and rub the blood of the animal on Joseph’s coat. They show the coat to Jacob and thus trick him into believing that his son has been devoured by a wild animal. In reality the Ishmaelites have sold Joseph to Potiphar, the commander of the bodyguard of the Egyptian pharaoh. Potiphar’s wife then tries to seduce the young and handsome Joseph, and when he refuses her advances, she falsely accuses him of an attempt to rape her. This lands Joseph in prison, where he demonstrates an exceptional talent for explaining dreams, winning the pharaoh’s favour in the process. In the end the young man even becomes viceroy of Egypt. Next, famine strikes hard in Canaan and Joseph’s brothers travel to Egypt in search of food. The brothers bow to Joseph, exactly as had been predicted by the latter several years previously. The end of the story is that Jacob and his kin move to Egypt (Goshen in the Bible) and settle there.

Joseph taken from the well. On the left the goat is killed.

Jacob and Joseph reunited.

Pulpit from 596-597.

Wedding at Cana.

Why did Maximianus choose to have the story of Joseph from the Book of Genesis depicted on his throne? Scholars have offered several explanations, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive.[1] One possibility is that the throne was made in Egypt, where the story of Joseph was very popular (it was, after all, set in Egypt). We furthermore know that Maximianus visited Egypt. Another explanation might be that Joseph was seen as an example for bishops, a religious leader who became an advisor to a secular ruler. Whereas Joseph was the influential advisor to the pharaoh, the fact that Maximianus was archbishop of Ravenna made him an influential advisor to the emperor Justinianus. Lastly, Maximianus was of humble origins. He had been born in Pola (Pula in present-day Croatia) and had risen through the ranks to become archbishop of Ravenna. In a sense Joseph was a source of inspiration for him: the slave and prisoner who had become viceroy of a mighty empire.

The cathedral of Ravenna has a pulpit from the sixth century that was made on the orders of archbishop Agnellus (557-570). The archiepiscopal museum has a similar pulpit (ambo or pyrgum) that comes from the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo. This second pulpit dates from 596-597 and was clearly inspired by the pulpit in the Duomo. Several different animals have been depicted on the pulpit, as well as Saints John and Paul, two imperial court officials who were said to have been martyred in the fourth century (see Rome: Santi Giovanni e Paolo). Interestingly, Paul’s name is written as PAVLOS, which is Greek. The central part of the pulpit is actually the reused lid of a sarcophagus.

Cross of Agnellus and medieval mosaics

‘Cross of Agnellus’.

Now that archbishop Agnellus has been mentioned, it is time to discuss the so-called ‘Cross of Agnellus’, a beautiful cross made of spruce and decorated with twenty silver medallions. The cross was used during processions. In his Liber Pontificalis Ecclesiae Ravennatis the ninth-century priest and historian Agnellus claims that his namesake the archbishop commissioned a silver cross for the cathedral.[2] Nevertheless, it seems rather unlikely that Agnellus was referring to this processional cross. Recent research has convincingly demonstrated that the silver decorations date from the eleventh or twelfth century, so from the High Middle Ages instead of Late Antiquity. Of course this does not in any way affect the quality of the decorations. The cross is still a wonderful work of art.

To conclude this post, I will dedicate a few words to the mosaics that are kept in the museum and have been put on display. The old cathedral of Ravenna had a large apse mosaic that had been laid in 1112. Christ himself was the protagonist of the mosaic (the cathedral was and still is dedicated to his Resurrection), but Saint Apollinaris played an important role as well. He is traditionally considered the first bishop of Ravenna and two important basilicas are dedicated to him, i.e. Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and Sant’Apollinare in Classe. When the architect Giovanni Francesco Buonamici (1692-1759) started the rebuilding of the cathedral in 1734, the apse mosaic was probably in sorry condition, but Buonamici was apparently still able to make a detailed drawing of it in 1741. Maybe he had intended to preserve the mosaic, but during the construction work the apse collapsed and the mosaic was lost as well. Fortunately, several smaller fragments have survived. These are clear evidence that the mosaic was of exceptional quality.

Saint John the Evangelist.

The historian Giuseppe Gerola (1877-1938) used Buonamici’s drawing in his attempt to identify the fragments. Two male heads almost certainly represent Saints Peter and John the Evangelist. Two other male heads are usually assumed to be Barbatianus and Ursicinus. The former was confessor to the augusta Galla Placidia (ca. 388-450). In the cathedral one can still admire his beautiful tomb. The Ursicinus of the mosaic is not the bishop of Ravenna (533-536), but a martyr from Ravenna who was a friend of Saint Vitalis, the patron saint of the city. The fifth fragment features a disciple who places a lid on Saint Apollinaris’ sarcophagus.

When I visited the museum it soon became clear to me that the fragments with the heads of Peter, John, Barbatianus and Ursicinus had become jumbled up. Only the fragment with Peter was in the right place, the other three evidently did not match with their captions. I felt it my duty to report this to the museum, but the closest museum employee was one floor down. In the end I decided to take a photo of the display case and went down the stairs to show it to the lady. In a strange mix of Italian and English I tried to explain the problem to her.

Disciple at the sarcophagus of Saint Apollinaris.

Initially the lady gave me the “oh no, another one of those bloody tourists” look. Fortunately she was prepared to go and take a look at the fragments herself. The caption about Saint John the Evangelist spoke of a young face (‘un volto giovanile’) and of a saint without a tonsure (‘privo di tonsura’). What we saw was, however, an older man with a beard and an obvious tonsure. After a couple of Italian visitors had explained to the employee what a tonsure was – apparently she was unfamiliar with the term – she agreed with my conclusion that the fragments were in the wrong order. Perhaps a reader who has recently visited the museum can leave a comment below this post and tell us whether the mistakes have now been corrected.

The last mosaic fragment that has been preserved also happens to be the largest and most beautiful one. It features a praying Virgin (Vergine Orante), who is wearing splendid purple robes with a golden trim. The Virgin has her hands raised in the orans position (see the first image in this post). Unfortunately the mosaic is kept behind glass, which makes it difficult to take pictures. It is generally agreed that this Vergine Orante was based on the Madonna Greca, made in 1100, that is kept in the church of Santa Maria in Porto.


[1] Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis, Ravenna in Late Antiquity, p. 218.

[2] “Fecit beatissimus Agnellus crucem magnam de argento in Ursiana ecclesia super sedem post tergum pontificis, in qua sua effigies manibus expansis orat.”

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