Mosaics (and more) in Ravenna

A weekend in Ravenna in the Emiglia-Romagna region of northern Italy. Ravenna contains no less than eight UNESCO World Heritage sites – all religious buildings from the fifth and sixth centuries, all decorated with incredible designs in mosaic.

Ravenna was one of Europe’s most important cities in the Late Antique period. Between 402 and 751 it was the residence of the Western Roman emperors, the Byzantine governors and the Ostrogothic kings of Italy. Between 540 and 600, Ravenna’s bishops embarked upon a notable building program of churches, which were richly decorated in mosaic.

Basilica of San Vitale

Consecrated in 548 AD, the Basilica of San Vitale is one of the most important sites of early Christian art. In construction it is octagonal with a large central cupola. Inside, the mosaic decoration is extremely richly coloured and includes not only portraits of Emperor Justinian, Empress Theodora and Bishops Maximinian and Giuliano Argentario but also vivid depictions of wildlife, plants and landscape.

Basilica di San Vitale

Apse mosaic

The Sacrifice of Isaac

Emperor Justinian and his retinue

Empress Theodora and attendants

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

This small mausoleum was built in the fifth century for Galla Placidia, daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius; however, it was never used for her as she was buried in Rome. The mosaic designs are Christian symbols of immortality and eternal life.

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

Mosaic lunettes with Apostles

The Good Shepherd

Ceiling design with central cross and symbols of the four Evangelists

Basilica of Sant’Appollinare Nuovo

Erected by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great as his palace chapel and originally an Arian church, it was reconsecrated in 561 AD, under the rule of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. The mosaic designs date from both periods and are in three rows. The top rows depict twenty-six scenes – thirteen show Jesus’s miracles and parables and thiteeen depict the Passion and Resurrection. Below these are prophets, saints, and evangelists, sixteen on each side, whilst the bottom row has, on one side, the Three Magi and a procession of the twenty-two Virgins and on the other side a procession of twenty-six Martyrs, led by Saint Martin and including Saint Apollinaris.

Basilica of Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo

Christ and Angels

Three Magi

Procession of Virgins

Prophets, saints, and evangelists

Neonian Baptistery

This is the most ancient of Ravenna’s monuments, its construction, octagonal in shape, dating back to the early fifth century. The mosaic decorations are from the period of Bishop Neon in the mid-fifth century.

The ceiling design depicts John the Baptist baptizing Christ, who is standing in the River Jordan. Zeus as personification of the Jordan, is also present. A procession of the twelve apostles proceeds around the centre mosaic in two directions, ending with Saint Peter meeting Saint Paul.

Neonian Baptistery

Ceiling mosaics – John the Baptist baptizing Jesus

Saint Andrew’s Chapel

The Chapel was built by Bishop Peter II during Theodoric’s rule and it is the only archiepiscopal chapel of the early Christian era. It served as a private oratory of Trinitarian bishops from the beginning of the sixth century.

Christ dressed as a Roman soldier

Ceiling mosaics

Figures of Evangelists above the apse altar

Adjacent to the chapel is the Archiepiscopal Museum, containing numerous artworks and archaeological finds relating to the ancient city cathedral (now demolished), the most important of which is the carved ivory throne (cathedra) of Maximian.

The throne is entirely covered with ivory panels. On the front, beneath Maximian’s monogram, is the figure of John the Baptist, flanked by the four evangelists. Scenes from the story of Joseph (Genesis 37 – 50) are located under each armrest. The back panels, inside and outside, have depictions of the early life of Christ and his miracles. 

Throne of Maximian

Tomb of Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri, author of the ‘Divine Comedy’, was born in Florence around 1265 and spent his early life there. However, for political reasons to do with disputes between Guelph factions in the city, he was condemned to perpetual exile in 1302 and never returned to Florence. It was whilst in exile that Dante wrote the ‘Divine Comedy’.

After spending periods in Lunigiana and Verona, Dante was invited to Ravenna by Guido Novello da Polenta, lord of the city. In 1321, Guido sent Dante on a diplomatic mission to Venice; however, whilst travelling back he was stricken with malarial fever. He died in Ravenna in September 1321.

In the early-sixteenth century, Florence, with Papal support, asked for Dante’s remains to be sent to the town of his birth. Ravenna refused to comply and hid the bones. They had to be hidden again in 1810 during the French occupation to prevent them being confiscated and for a while they were forgotten about until they were found again in 1865. After being hidden again during World War II, they were finally replaced in the monument where they still remain.

Tomb of Dante

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