Monday, June 27, 2011

Ravenna Mosaics I

We first heard of the mosaics in Ravenna when we were in Istanbul last fall. In Ravenna are the oldest and most intact of the Byzantine mosaics, 6th century. But that is by no means the whole story. Ravenna became the capital of the western empire in the 5th century, as Rome fell, and thus has Roman mosaics as well. Even better, after the Goths had conquered Italy later in the 5th century, they made Ravenna their capital. It so happens the Goths were Arian Christians, that is, followers of Arius, a 4th century bishop and theologian who became the center of the Arian Heresy, perhaps the most ferocious theological debate the Roman Church endured until the Reformation. In a nutshell, it was about arithmetic, Arius arguing that 1=1, emphasizing monotheism and the humanity of Jesus. The eventual winners of the debate, the Roman Church, held that 1=3, emphasizing the divinity of Jesus, and opening themselves to endless ridicule from Muslims, (some) Protestants, and others about their claim of monotheism. In the 6th century, the (non-Arian Christian) Byzantine emperor Justinian conquered the Goths, set everything temporarily aright, and also had many, but not all of the Goth/Arian mosaics "corrected" vis-a-vis the Arianism. Anyhow, it's all in the mosaics. They're not merely beautiful but also convey much interesting and important history. And some would say that it is in Ravenna that Roman art ends and Medieval (Byzantine) art begins. So we had to go there.

I have brutally edited our pix from Ravenna. Only one of the churches themselves is depicted, and none of the baptistries nor other buildings buildings. Alas they are all 5th-7th century, and what else, I ask, survives in Europe from this age? Intact? Still in its original use? Anyhow, they're all siena brick, and some, e.g., the Apollinaire Church in Classe, are quite large. All the towers lean, though not as severely as the one in Pisa. Just about everything of age on Italy's Adriatic coast is sinking or leaning.
In the so-called Arian Baptitstry; it and
the adjoining church are the only remaining
Goth buildings

John the Baptist baptizing an anatomically correct Jesus
(emphasizing his humanity), while the river god of the Jordan
looks on (a Roman artistic convention); the holy spirit dove is
merely figurative (?); "pay no attention to that holy spirit dove
behind the curtain nor question its divinity..."

In the mausoleum of Galla Placida, a mid-fifth century
imperial personage

All the churches and other buildings emphasize the Gospels
and particularly the written word

From the entrance to the mausoleum; Christian symbolism
abounds; alabaster window treatment; the mosaic work is

We're now in the Basilica of St. Vitale, erected after
Justinian re-conquered Italy and made Ravenna the western
headquarters of the empire

Ladies of the court

The empress Theodora

Byzantine guys: Justinian himself in the center, with both
crown and halo

Another day, another Pantokrator; still in St. Vitale

Byzantine representation in mosaic of Biblical Jerusalem 

Capital detail; it is a huge Greek cross basilica, said by some
to have been the inspiration for Hagia Sofia, built a decade
later in Constantinople

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