Ravenna, Italy: Church of San Vitale – Rick Steves’ Europe Travel Guide – Travel Bite

Posted By on February 24, 2020


Ravenna is a charming if
underwhelming town of 140,000, with a fascinating history
and some of Italy’s most amazing art treasures. Ravenna is on the tourist map
for one reason… its 1,500 year old churches
decorated with best-in-the-West
Byzantine mosaics. Imagine it’s the year 500 AD. The Roman Empire
has fallen in the West, barbarians have sacked
the city of Rome, and Europe is falling into
the Dark Ages, yet the Eastern half
of the empire, ruled from dazzling
Constantinople, present-day Istanbul,
has morphed into Byzantium and becomes the pinnacle
of civilization. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian
then brings order and stability to this part of Europe,
making Ravenna the westernmost pillar
of his realm. His church of San Vitale
stands as a sanctuary of order in the midst of all that chaos. Its interior is decorated
with lavish mosaics — countless vibrantly
colored chips the size of your fingernail —
that served as propaganda for an alliance between
the Church and the Emperor. High above the altar,
Christ is in heaven, sitting on a celestial orb
overseeing creation, symbolized by the green earth
below his feet. And running things here on earth
is Emperor Justinian, sporting both a halo and a crown
to show he’s leader of both the Church
and the state. Justinian brings together both
military and church leaders, all united by the same vision. Facing the emperor is his wife
Theodora and her entourage. The former dancer
who became his mistress, then empress, is decked out
in jewels and pearls and carries a chalice to
consecrate the new church. As pilgrims have done
for centuries, visitors marvel. Appreciate the symmetry. At the top of the arch, the circle with
the monogram of Christ… “I” for Jesus
and “X” for Christ… symbolizes perfection
and eternity. Floating above the arch,
two angels hold rays of sun. The ceiling above is a festive
celebration of God’s creation, with 80 different birds
from the sixth century, most still flying around
Ravenna today. All creation swirls around
Christ as this sacrificial lamb, supported by four angels. Everything sparkles
with colorful Bible scenes told with a sixth-century
exuberance. This was a time of transition,
and many considered these mosaics both
the last ancient Roman and the first
medieval European works of art. For instance,
this image of Christ is beardless,
the style of the ancient Romans, and nearby is the standard
medieval portrayal of a bearded Jesus. Yet each were created by artists
of the same generation.

Posted by Lewis Heart

This article has 17 comments

  1. Gotta add that, while Rome did suffer barbarian raids after the fall of the empire, it was sacked mostly by the Byzantine Empire, taking some of the best ancient roman swag for Byzantium.

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  2. Why call Ravenna an underwhelming town of 140K? It has some of the oldest churches in Italy and they're very well preserved.

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  3. I visited two years ago ; such a great alternative to the big five Italian cities … I prefer towns to cites …
    You can see all the major attractions / churches in 2 days … all but one by foot … Also , Dante is buried at city center … And near that a house Lord Byron once lived …

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  4. Ravenna has beautiful beaches, amazing beach clubs and a fine slo-food scene, there`s much more than the ancient churches.

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