Located in the backyard of San Vitale, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna is known for its ancient and breathtaking mosaics. The small brick structure dates from around 430 AD, making it one of the oldest monuments in Ravenna. Galla Placidia, a powerful Roman empress, was never buried here but likely commissioned the building.
History of Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
According to tradition, this ancient building was made to house the tomb of Galla Placidia, daughter of Emperor Theodosius I (379-395) and half-sister of Honorius (393-423). After short marriages to a Visigothic king (414-16) and the Roman co-emperor Constantius III (417-21), the powerful empress became the virtual ruler of the western world for 12 years (425-37) as regent for her young son Valentinian III.
Galla Placidia died in Rome on November 27, 450, and despite a long tradition to the contrary, it is unlikely she was ever buried in Ravenna. Far more probable that she was buried in the Rotunda of St. Petronilla next to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The rotunda is known to have been the mausoleum of the family of Theodosius, and Galla herself, just a few months before her death, had the body of Theodosius II shipped from Constantinople to be buried there.
Modern scholarly opinion is that the "Mausoleum of Galla Placidia" was built as an oratory rather than a mausoleum. It was originally connected to the narthex of the adjacent church of Santa Croce, which is known to have been built by Galla Placidia. So she probably commissioned the oratory, and it rightly takes her name, even if she was never buried there.
The mosaics of Galla Placidia have impressed millions of visitors over the centuries, including, it is said, Cole Porter. The story goes that while on his honeymoon in Ravenna in the 1920s, he wrote "Night and Day" while thinking of the starry sky of Galla Placidia.
What to See at Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
The small brick chapel is plain and modest on the outside, concealing the glittering treasures inside. Shaped like a Greek cross measuring 40 feet by 30 feet, it has blind arches on its walls and a square tower over the crossing. Because of subsidence, it has sunk 4.5 feet into the ground over the centuries.
Entrance is through a small door (originally 4.5 feet taller, of course) on the north side. The plain north facade was once covered in marble; only a lintel with a carved frieze survives over the door.
The interior is lit by 14 small windows, since 1908 filled with warm-hued alabaster to allow better viewing of the mosaics. The visitor's eye is immediately drawn upward, as the entire vault is covered in exceptionally beautiful and ancient mosaic work dating from about 430 AD. The walls are lined with (restored) marble panels.
The vault of the oratory features a lovely mosaic of a starry night sky. The stars (more than 800 of them!) are arranged in concentric circles around a golden Latin cross, with the symbols of the Four Evangelists on the spandrels. The arches of the side niches have similar golden patterns on a dark backdrop, featuring a variety of flowers and plants along with more stars.
It is worth noting that the cross on the vault is pointed towards the east instead of being aligned with the axis of the chapel. This is almost certainly because the chapel is not aligned to the east in accordance with established tradition (its position preventing it), and the decorator partially corrected that by giving the central cross the proper alignment.
Perhaps the most important mosaic in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is an early depiction of Christ as the Good Shepherd, located over the entrance on the north side. This image was common in the Roman catacombs of earlier centuries, but there are important developments to be seen in this version. Instead of being shown as a typical countryman, this Good Shepherd has a large golden halo, wears a royal purple mantle over a golden tunic, and holds a tall cross. On either side of him are two groups of three sheep, who look peaceful and gaze up at their Shepherd. Christ tenderly touches the nose of one of them.
Another fascinating mosaic is across the room on the south side, depicting a saint holding a cross and a book with Hebrew text on it, hurrying towards an iron grate that is being licked by flames. On the left is an open cabinet with four books inside, labeled with the names of the Four Evangelists. The books are clearly the Four Gospels of the New Testament, and this is an important early depiction of them as a canonical set.
As for the man and his flaming grate, the most natural and likely interpretation is that it is St. Lawrence, who was a Roman deacon (thus the processional cross and Book of Psalms) and was martyred on a hot iron grill. The Four Gospels would therefore symbolize the faith for which Lawrence willingly gave his life. But other theories advanced by scholars include: a saint hastening to throw heretical books into the flames; the angel announcing the last judgment; or Christ holding the Book of Life at the last judgment.
The mosaics of the central tower walls depict pairs of apostles looking up to heaven, accompanied by pairs of doves drinking out of vases.
Three niches of the oratory are home to marble sarcophagi, which tradition says were those of Galla Placidia, her second husband Constantius III (d. 421) and her son Valentinian III (d. 455). However, the tradition has been discounted by most scholars. The tombs are ancient, but were brought here from other places sometime between the 9th and 14th century.
The tomb in the south niche, beneath the mosaic of St. Lawrence, is especially imposing. It bears no Christian symbols and was probably a pagan tomb of a noble Roman. But it is has been traditionally associated with Galla Placidia and has a rather fascinating history. Various authors in the 14th to 16th centuries recorded that through a large opening in the back (now closed up), one could see the body of the Empress seated upright on a wooden chair!
So it seems that a body was placed in the sarcophagus in the 13th or 14th century with the intention of passing it off as Galla Placidia. Falsification of relics, accompanied by elaborate tales and legends, was quite common in this period. The fraud came to an end in 1577, when some local boys threw lighted candles in the tomb, hoping to get a better look at the body. Presumably they did, but only shortly before the cypress chair and entire body went up in flames. Only a few fragments of bone, a skull, and a few scraps of wood survived.
The sarcophagi in the side niches of the oratory were opened in 1738. The one on the left contained "two entire heads with a few teeth remaining and bones covered with soft black mud of about three fingers' depth." The one on the right disclosed the bones of two people, at least one of which was a woman.
The sarcophagus in the left arm of the oratory is traditionally associated with Constantius III (d.421) Galla Placidia's second husband. The earliest mention of this association is in the early 14th century and there is no other evidence to support it. For stylistic reasons, it has been dated to the late 5th century. The front panel bears reliefs of a lamb standing upon a rock that is gushing water. The lamb has a halo with the Christogram (Chi Rho), so he clearly represents Christ, the Lamb of God. On either side are two lambs without haloes, probably representing the apostles, and two palm trees, representing victory. The lid has Christograms at the corners.
The tomb in the right arm, traditionally associated with Valentinian III (d.455) but now dated to the beginning of the 6th century, has a front panel carved into three niches. The side niches have fluted columns and an arch enclosing a shell and a cross; the central one has a pointed roof instead of an arch. Inside it are two doves perching on the arms of a tall cross, which stands on a rock from which four rivers flow and on which the Lamb of God stands. The back has a similar design, but was done much more quickly and simply. The lid is carved with a pattern like overlapping fish scales over the top and Greek crosses inside medallions on the end.
Quick Facts on Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
|Names:||Mausoleo di Galla Placidia · Mausoleum of Galla Placidia · Oratory of Galla Placidia|
|Categories:||churches; mausolea; World Heritage Sites|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||44.420973° N, 12.197061° E|
|Address:||Via degli Ariani|
Jan 1: 2-5pm
Dec 25: closed
|Lodging:||View hotels near Mausoleum of Galla Placidia|
- Personal visit (May 9, 2008).
- Guiseppe Bovini, "The so-called Mausoleum of Galla Placidia" in Ravenna: Art and History (Ravenna: Longo), 12-22.
- Paul Blanchard, Blue Guide Northern Italy: From the Alps to the Adriatic, 12th ed. (2005), 658-69.
- "Mausoleum of Galla Placidia" - Ravenna Tourist Office
- PlanetWare (2006).
- Kristin Jarratt, "The Churches of Ravenna," In Italy Online (2006).
- Ralph W. Mathisen, "Galla Placidia" - Roman Emperors (DIR)
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