400 – 1300
Medieval Era

Byzantine Art: San Vitale, Ravenna


San Vitale is one of the most important surviving examples of Byzantine architecture and mosaic work. It was begun in 526 or 527 under Ostrogothic rule. It was consecrated in 547 and completed soon after.

Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker

One of the most famous images of political authority from the Middle Ages is the mosaic of the Emperor Justinian and his court in the sanctuary of the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.

This image is an integral part of a much larger mosaic program in the chancel (the space around the altar).

Apse Mosaic, San Vitale, Ravenna

A major theme of this mosaic program is the authority of the emperor in the Christian plan of history.

The mosaic program can also be seen to give visual testament to the two major ambitions of Justinian's reign: as heir to the tradition of Roman Emperors, Justinian sought to restore the territorial boundaries of the Empire. As the Christian Emperor, he saw himself as the defender of the faith. As such it was his duty to establish religious uniformity or Orthodoxy throughout the Empire.

Justinian and Attendants, San Vitale, Ravenna

Who's Who in the Mosaic and What They Carry
In the chancel mosaic Justinian is posed frontally in the center. He is haloed and wears a crown and a purple imperial robe. He is flanked by members of the clergy on his left with the most prominent figure the Bishop Maximianus of Ravenna being labelled with an inscription.

To Justinian's right appear members of the imperial administration identified by the purple stripe, and at the very far left side of the mosaic appears a group of soldiers.

This mosaic thus establishes the central position of the Emperor between the power of the church and the power of the imperial administration and military.Like the Roman Emperors of the past, Justinian has religious, administrative, and military authority.

The clergy and Justinian carry in sequence from right to left a censer, the gospel book, the cross, and the bowl for the bread of the Eucharist. This identifies the mosaic as the so-called Little Entrance which marks the beginning of the Byzantine liturgy of the Eucharist.

Apse Mosaic, San Vitale, RavennaJustinian's gesture of carrying the bowl with the bread of the Eucharist can be seen as an act of homage to the True King who appears in the adjacent apse mosaic (image right).

Christ, dressed in imperial purple and seated on an orb signifying universal dominion, offers the crown of martyrdom to St. Vitale, but the same gesture can be seen as offering the crown to Justinian in the mosaic below. Justinian is thus Christ's vice-regent on earth, and his army is actually the army of Christ as signified by the Chi-Rho on the shield.

Who's in Front?
Closer examination of the Justinian mosaic reveals an ambiguity in the positioning of the figures of Justinian and the Bishop Maximianus. Overlapping suggests that Justinian is the closest figure to the viewer, but when the positioning of the figures on the picture plane is considered, it is evident that Maximianus's feet are lower on the picture plane which suggests that he is closer to the viewer. This can perhaps be seen as an indication of the tension between the authority of the Emperor and the church.

Photos by Scott McDonough

Text by Allen Farber

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Allen Farber wrote on Saturday, October 24, 2009

An issue that I like to discuss in relationship to this mosaic is the question of reality. I emphasize how there is no universal definition of reality, but how each culture constructs its own conception of reality. For the culture of the time of Justinian, reality would have been seen in Platonic terms where this physical world is only a shadow or reflection of true reality which exists on the spiritual level. It is then interesting to compare the conception of the figure and space in the Justinian mosaic to that evident in the adjacent apse mosaic of Christ in majesty. In the latter mosaic the artist does indicate bodies beneath the drapery through the use of lines and some shading, and the figures do have a sense of gravity standing on a ground plane. See especially here the figures of the angels who flank the Christ in Majesty. This emphasis on the solidity of figures placed in space is in marked contrast to the flatness of the figures and ambiguity of space of the Justinian mosaic. How does one explain this difference in treatment? Could it be due to different artists or different periods? Another explanation is suggested by an examination of the roughly contemporary icon of the Virgin and Child from Mount Sinai. This icon includes representations of saints, the Virgin and Child, and angels. Comparison of these different figures reveals different styles used for these different figures with the saints being done in a relatively flat and more abstract style while the angels are well modelled and have solidity. The Virgin and Child are done in an intermediate style. This reverses our conventional explanation. We would expect the angels to be more abstract and the saints who are closer to our existence should be done more illusionistically, but the opposite is true. Applying the Platonic conception of reality, the saints in the icon and Justinian in the mosaic are the shadows of the spiritual realm or true reality of God and the angels.

Kim wrote on Wednesday, July 28, 2010

When did this video post? I am writing my essay of this. Thank you very much.

Robert J. Maurer wrote on Sunday, May 27, 2012

Observe the faces of Justinian and his attendants. They engage the viewer and communicate authority. By implication their actions will procede from principles that are fixed and predictable. Observe the faces of the soldiers. Their expressions are diffident and project no independent will or point of view. Their actions depend on the will and executive decisions of Justinian and his court.

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