Mosaics in Ravenna

One of the (many) places I have wanted to visit ever since taking Art History 101 is Ravenna. We learned about the Byzantine mosaics there, and when I made my travel list for Italy, Ravenna was quite high on my list.

After spending two days in Venice, we took a (long, indirect) train to Ravenna. I would recommend giving yourself at least a full day there, travel not included. It isn’t a large town, but the mosaics are well worth the full day. We bought a ticket for about 10 euro that included five different sights.

Mosaics in San Vitale

A quote from my old Michelin guide (my grandparents’ from 1989), says the following: “In the peaceful provincial-looking town of Ravenna, the sober exteriors of its buildings belie the wealth of riches accumulated when Ravenna was an imperial city, the Byzantium of the West…Indeed the many wonderful mosaics which adorn the city’s ecclesiastical buildings are the finest in Europe. Their bright colors, richness of decoration and powerful symbolism are evocative of a great spirituality.” (Michelin Tourist Guide: Italy, 1988, p. 159) They go on to explain how Ravenna, after the fall of Rome in the west, was made the capital of the Roman empire in 404 AD/CE by Honorius. Then, being a port city on the eastern side of Italy, it was then well-placed to become part of the Byzantine empire.

We first visited the Church of San Vitale, which was consecrated in 547 AD/CE. The plan of the church is somewhat strange: it is a centrally-planned, octagon-shaped, dome-topped building, with an apse at one end flanked by two chapels. However, it has an off-center narthex, not opposite the apse like you would expect. When you look at the plan, it appears that the narthex (the long lozenge-shaped part) is precariously balanced on a corner, like it could swing either direction at any moment. I didn’t get a good photograph of the outside, so I’ll link you to this one instead.

To enter the church you walk through the cloister: a beautiful courtyard with walls covered in fragments of art and architecture.

After the cloisters you go down the stairs and into the church itself. The fact that you go down a level,  into this sort of dark, underground entrance, contrasts astoundingly with the jewel-bright mosaics, and makes the experience even more interesting.

The mosaics in the apse are incredible. They cover the entire wall and ceiling surface, tiny tesserae making incredibly detailed images of saints and flowers and birds and bible stories. All in wonderful jewel-bright hues. There isn’t much to do but stand (or sit) and marvel and try to notice everything at once. I have a feeling it’s the sort of place you could return to a dozen times or more and notice something new every time.

This one really shows how amazing the gold and the colors are. And how massive the mosaic area really is.

Mosaic of Christ at the top of the apse.

Unfortunately my most zoomed-in images are a bit blurry: it is dim in there, after all. But hopefully you can still manage to see the incredible forms and shading they managed to create, all with the use of tiny pieces of stone and glass and gold.

I believe the scene on the left is a Sacrifice of Isaac.

I loved these blue and green horns or flowers or horn-shaped flowers or whatever they are.


And yes, it really does glitter like that. The vibrancy of the colors is simply astonishing, and they are remarkably well-preserved for being so incredibly old.

The perspective is nowhere near perfect, but I still marvel at how three-dimensional they’ve made the scene using just tiny flat pieces of glass, stone, etc.

I wish I could have gotten just a bit closer to really show you all of the tiny pieces of which each mosaic is made. The photographs really don’t do it justice: the texture is nearly impossible to capture. Firsthand, the texture is noticeable, and makes the experience that much more worth it.

Emperor Justinian – had to know this one for ARTH 101!

And the Empress Theodora!

See all the flowers under their feet? And the amazing decorative borders around every scene?

From anywhere else in the church, the apse seems to glow with the reflected light off of the gold and other parts of the mosaics, creating an ethereal effect that was amazing to experience.

The oldest mosaics here are from the 5th century AD/CE and are in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the sister of Honorius. This building was actually a lot smaller than I had expected, but in no way did it disappoint.

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

In San Vitale, it is impossible to see the mosaics as closely as you’d like: in the Mausoleum, the ceiling is much lower and the mosaics much closer. It was incredibly dark, and visits were limited to fifteen minutes, most likely in the interest of preservation, but my camera managed to get some good shots all the same.

Good Shepherd mosaic

It absolutely sparkled.

I believe this is Saint Lawrence, with the grill he was burned on. Pleasant.

All glowy and beautiful.

We went to three other sites in Ravenna, all with marvelous mosaics as well, but I’m not sure this post can hold many more photographs. Maybe I will try to put some up on my photo site (link on the side of this page) for you all to see.

All in all, Ravenna was one of my favorite places visited all semester. Completely worth a day or two because, as I said, these photos hardly do it justice.

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