Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Basilica of Saint Vitalis in Ravenna

After a pause of over a month, we finally conclude our series of Nicola’s photographs from his visit to Ravenna at the beginning of the summer; in the meantime, he has recently been traveling again, and before this series is over, he will undoubtedly have many more pictures of beautiful Italian churches to share with us.
St Vitalis was the father of the Milanese martyrs Gervasius and Protasius, and said to have suffered martyrdom at Ravenna; he is named in the Communicantes of the Ambrosian Canon, right after St Apollinaris, the founder of the church of Ravenna and its patron Saint. The church which bears his name is one of the most important early Christian churches in Italy, particularly because of the magnificent mosaics in the main sanctuary, which are not only very well-preserved, but also contain a very precious testimony to the early history of the Roman liturgy. Founded by a man named Julianus Argentarius, who was both a banker and an architect, the building was begun in 526 under the bishop of Ravenna Ecclesius, and consecrated in 548 his third successor, Maximian. The main body of the church is octagonal (a shape normally used in that era for baptisteries), surmounted by a cupola.
A view of the external ring of the basilica and its mosaic pavement.
The main sanctuary; the various parts of the mosaics are shown in detail in the photos below.
The main apse: a young and beardless Christ is accompanied by two angels, and on the left, St Vitalis, on the right, bishop Ecclesius, who offers the church to Christ. The naturalistic representation of the ground, with greenery, rocks and flowers, is typical of the older tradition of Roman mosaics, while the gold background, which represents heaven, and gives the viewer the sense of looking into the sacred place where Christ dwells with his Saints, is more in keeping with the then-emergent conventions of Byzantine art.

St Vitalis receives the crown of martyrdom; notice how he covers his hands with a veil to receive the sacred object.
St Ecclesius present the church building to Christ.
Beneath St Vitalis is this famous representation of the Emperor Justinian with the members and a group of soldiers; his preeminence in the group is indicated not only by his clothing, but also by the fact that he is stepping on the foot of the man closest to him. On the right are the bishop who dedicated the church, Maximian, a deacon holding a Gospel book, and a subdeacon holding a thurible.
On the opposite side, Justinian’s wife, the Empress Theodora, stands amid a court of noblewomen.
On the left side of the sanctuary, the mosaic under the arch represents (left and center) the Biblical episodes of the Hospitality of Abraham (Genesis 18, 1-10), in which the three men who come to Abraham and Sarah are also referred to as “the Lord” in the singular, and were thus of course understood as an appearance of the Holy Trinity. In the right side is the Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22, 1-18.) Outside the arch on the left are the prophet Jeremiah; in the middle, angels holding a shield with the Cross in it; on the right; Moses receives the Law on Mt Sinai as the people look on from below (Exodus 19 sqq.)

Above Jeremiah is the Evanglist John with an eagle, and above Moses, St Luke with a bull.
On the right wall, the sacrifices of Abel and Melchizedek; the pairing of these with Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac on the opposite wall is one of the earliest artistic representations of the words of the Supra quae propitio of the Roman Canon, “Upon which do Thou vouchsafe to look with favorable and gracious countenance, and accept them, as Thou didst vouchsafe to accept the gifts of Thy just servant Abel, and the sacrifice of our Patriarch Abraham, and that which Thy high priest Melchizedek offered unto Thee, a holy Sacrifice, an unspotted Victim.” Above the arch, we see the same motif of the angels bearing the Cross within a shield.

Outside the arch on the right, the prophet Isaiah, with the Evangelist Mark above him; on the left, Moses shepherds the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro, and has the vision of the Burning Bush (Exodus 3, 1-15); the Evangelist Matthew is above him.
These two views shows the relative positions of the different sections of the mosaics.
Columns decorated in this fashion are found throughout the church.
The mosaic of the sanctuary’s ceiling, with the Lamb of God in the center, supported by angels on all four sides; in the arch at the edge, Christ and the Twelve Apostles.
A section of the later medieval cosmatesque pavement in front of the sanctuary.
The main altar

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