Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna

Since today is the feast of St Lawrence, we continue our series on the early Christian monuments of Ravenna with the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, which contains one of the most famous ancient images of him. Galla Placidia was the daughter of the Emperor Theodosius, who reigned from 379 until his death in 395; she was born sometime between 388 and 393. For most of her life, she lived in the thick of the very complex dynastic politics of the decaying Roman Empire, married first to Ataulf, the king of the Visigoths, who was assassinated less than two years later (in September of 415), then to the Emperor Constantius III in 417, who died after four years and the birth of their two children. She then remained a widow for the rest of her life, acting as regent for her son, Valentinian III, in the earliest years of his reign, and living in Ravenna, then the de facto capital of the Western Roman Empire. She was also a great and devout benefactor of the Church, and a close collaborator of the bishop of Ravenna, St Peter Chrysologus.

The small building which has long been known as her mausoleum was in point of fact most likely not built as such, but rather as a chapel dedicated to St Lawrence; it is not at all certain that either of the sarcophagi still kept within it (shown below) was originally hers. One of the most interesting signs of the shift from Roman paganism to Christianity is the lack of external decoration, and the concomitant focus on the interior, where pagan religious structures were often very beautifully decorated on the outside, but had a very plain interior. (Photos by Nicola de’ Grandi.)

Most of the upper part of the interior is decorated with extremely high quality mosaics which are in a very good state of preservation. This is the view from just inside the door; the mosaic of St Lawrence is at the bottom of this photo, and shown more closely below.
The view from the entrance corridor, looking back towards the door; the mosaic of Christ as the Good Shepherd is also shown below more closely.
At the back wall of the chapel, we see St Lawrence dressed as an upper-class Roman, holding the Cross, and an unidentified book. In the middle, we see his gridiron with the flames underneath it, and at the left, an open armoire with the four books of the Gospels, which he as a deacon would use during the celebration of the Mass. In ancient times, books of any sort were rare and extremely precious, and generally kept under lock and key; all the more so books of the Gospels and other Scriptures, which tended to be lavishly decorated, and have covers made of all kinds of precious materials. Also note the translucent alabaster windows here and on the other walls.
Over the entrance, Christ the Good Shepherd. This motif is very common in early Christian funeral contexts, as a confession of faith in the Resurrection of Christ, and by inference, in the general resurrection of the body at the end of thr world, since Christ says that as the Good Shepherd, He not only “lays down His life for His sheep”, but also “takes it up again.” (John 10, 17)
The ancient Romans generally preferred mosaics with blue backgrounds representing the sky, where the later Byzantine tradition preferred gold backgrounds, representing heaven.
At the ends of the two transepts are two different representations of the same set of motifs: deer drinking from a natural water source, in reference to the first words of Psalm 41, “As the hart panteth after the fountains of water; so my soul panteth after thee, O God”; vines, referring to Christ’s words “ I am the vine, you are the branches”, with two Apostles in their midst; at the center of the arches, the XP monogram, decorated with the Greek letters alpha and omega, from Apocalypse 1, 8. 
In the central cupola, an empty Cross on a starry background, and the symbols of the four Evangelists at the corners.
On each of the walls of the crossing beneath the cupola, two Apostles are represented, with a vessel and two doves between them. These two are Peter and Paul; the others have no distinctive attributes by which they can be specifically idenitified. The eight here and the four amid the vines in the transepts make a total of twelve.
A elaborate decorative element in the pavement of the floor.

One of two sarcophagi preserved within the church, which have no inscriptions to identify their occupants; dated from the later fourth to mid-fifth century.

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