The Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna dates from the mid-6th century and contains what are probably the finest Byzantine mosaics in the western world.
History of San Vitale Basilica
Construction of San Vitale Basilica was initiated by Ecclesius, Bishop of Ravenna, shortly after a trip to Byzantium with Pope John in 525. The following year, Amalasuntha succeeded her father Theodoric as ruler of the Goths and of Ravenna; both rulers were Arian but she was more tolerant of Catholics than he had been.
Construction on San Vitale Basilica began in 526 on the site of the martyrdom of St. Vitalis. The church was almost entirely funded by a single wealthy individual called Julianus Argentarius. This otherwise unknown figure is thought to have been a private banker of Ravenna or perhaps a royal envoy of Justinian, sent to prepare the way for the Byzantine conquest.
The Byzantines took Ravenna in 540 and the basilica that was begun under the Goths was finished under Byzantine rule, in 548. It was consecrated by Maximian, the first Archbishop of Ravenna. Nearly all of what can be seen today, including the splendid mosaics, dates from this early period.
What to See at San Vitale Basilica
San Vitale is a small domed church in the Byzantine architectural style. It has an octagonal plan, with a two-story ambulatory enclosing a central space beneath a great cupola. Attached at an angle to the west side is an entrance porch or narthex while a small choir and apse extends to the east.
The great cupola is decorated with uninteresting 18th-century murals, but the remainder of the interior is fully Byzantine and provides an authentic atmosphere of antiquity. And most famously, the ceilings of the choir and apse glitter with magnificent Byzantine mosaics in green and gold.
The arch that marks the entrance into the presbytery is decorated with large mosaic medallions of Christ (with beard), the Twelve Apostles, and two other saints who are probably Gervasius and Protasius, sons of St. Vitalus. Each apostle has a different appearance and hairstyle - don't miss the Einstein-like hair on St. Andrew! Surrounding the medallions are pairs of dolphins with their tails crossed, globes and crosses.
The presbytery (a.k.a. sanctuary or choir) is fully decorated with beautiful mosaics on the walls and ceiling. Set against a naturalistic background of plants and animals, the mosaic scenes relate to the Eucharist service conducted at the high altar. After consecrating the bread and the wine, the priest prayed:
In a lunette on the left wall are two scenes from the life of Abraham. On the left, his wife Sarah waits in the doorway as Abraham brings a calf to the three mysterious guests (seen by Christians as foreshadowing the Trinity), who sit at a table in the center. On the right is his near-sacrifice of his son Isaac in obedience to God's will.
The area left of the lunette depicts the Prophet Jeremiah; while the right shows Moses ascending Mt. Sinai with the Twelve Tribes of Israel grouped around Aaron below (right). Moses is shown beardless in all three appearances in the presbytery, like Christ in the apse.
The upper level of the left wall has full-length figures of two evangelists and their symbols: John with his eagle (left) and Luke with his ox (right). Below their feet are ducks and other water fowl.
The lunette on the right wall centers on a large altar, a visual parallel to the table on the opposite wall. Here Abel (left) and Melchizedek (right) offer their sacrifices to God. Abel offers a spotless lamb (Genesis 4:4) and Melchizedek offers bread (Genesis 14:18). The area left of the lunette shows Moses watching the flocks of his father-in-law (below) and untying his sandals before the burning bush (above). On the right is the Prophet Isaiah.
As on the other side, the side panels of the upper level depict two evangelists: Matthew (with winged man symbol) and Mark (with lion symbol). They are depicted against a grassy landscape with aquatic creatures, including a heron and a tortoise, beneath their feet.
The presbytery vault is richly decorated with mosaics in green, blue and gold, with vine tendrils and small animals. Each of the four sections of the vault has a standing angel in a white robe, who together support a central medallion of the Lamb of God against the backdrop of a starry sky.
Above the arch on the back wall of the presbytery are two flying angels holding a medallion with eight rays projecting from an Alpha, flanked by the City of Jerusalem (representing the Jewish Church) and the City of Bethlehem (representing the Gentile Church).
San Vitale's apse mosaic dates from 526 to 547 AD. It depicts a youthful, clean-shaven Christ the Redeemer sitting on the sphere of the world, flanked by San Vitale (who is being handed a martyr's crown), two angels, and Bishop Ecclesius, who founded the church.
The left wall has a mosaic of Emperor Justinian (r. 527-65) and his entourage. Justinian was a great lawgiver and one of the most powerful Byzantine emperors. He stands in the center of the mosaic, wearing imperial purple and holding a large gold paten, the plate on which the bread is placed for Mass. To his left is Maximian, Archbishop of Ravenna, holding a jeweled cross. Some of the other men hold objects as well, including a censer, an ornate book, and a soldier's shield displaying Christ's monogram, the Chi-Rho.
The right wall bears a mosaic of Empress Theodora, courtesan, actress, and wife of Justinian, with her court. Corresponding to Justinian's paten, the empress holds the cup of communion. "Embroidered" onto her robe is a small depiction of the Three Magi, indicating the intention to associate themselves, as many Christian rulers have, with the biblical kings who brought gifts to the Christ Child.
Quick Facts on San Vitale Basilica
|Names:||Basilica di San Vitale · San Vitale Basilica|
|Categories:||churches; World Heritage Sites|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||44.420617° N, 12.196380° E|
|Address:||Via San Vitale 17|
|Hours:||Apr-Sept daily 9am-7pm|
Mar and Oct daily 9am-5:30pm
Nov-Feb daily 9:30am-4:30pm
|Lodging:||View hotels near San Vitale Basilica|
- Personal visit (May 9, 2008).
- Guiseppe Bovini, Ravenna: Art and History (Ravenna: Longo), 25-49.
- Ravenna - Catholic Encyclopedia
- San Vitale - Great Buildings Online
- Ravenna - San Vitale - Paradoxplace.com
- Frommer's Italy 2005
- Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna - UNESCO World Heritage List
- William L. MacDonald, Early Christian & Byzantine Architecture (New York: George Braziller, 1962).
- John Julius Norwich, ed. Great Architecture of the World (London: Mitchell Beazley Publishers, 1975; reprint, Da Capo Press, 1991).
- San Vitale Basilica, Ravenna - Go Historic
- Photos of San Vitale Basilica - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of San Vitale Basilica, Ravenna
Below is a location map and aerial view of San Vitale Basilica. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.