By the 3rd Century CE, the Roman Empire was in decline largely as a result of civil wars and barbarian invasions. However, Christianity was taking hold despite Roman persecution.
Romans cremated the remains of their citizens, but Christians did not. In order that members’ bodies could be buried together in consecrated ground, the Christians asked for and were granted land outside the city for cemeteries. As more people converted to Christianity, more space for burial was required, and it became necessary to dig deeper into the earth for tombs. Painting on plastered walls of catacombs began in the 3rd Century as the Christian community drew in more, and wealthier, members. Images were drawn from classical Greek art. For example, the strong man figure of Hercules was depicted holding a sheep, a reference to a good shepherd. Scenes were drawn mostly from Old Testament salvation stories: Jonah saved from the whale or Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego alive and well in the fiery furnace. Human figures in early Christian catacombs were painted crudely and in earth tones.
Constantine the Great, who reigned from 306 until 337 CE, declared Rome to be Christian in 312 CE. He took the title Holy Roman Emperor and moved the capital from Rome to the Greek city of Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople in 330 CE. During the reign of Emperor Honorarius (395-420 CE), the official capital in the west was Ravenna, not Rome. Galla Placida, daughter of Honorarius, was made regent of Ravenna until her six-year-old son Valentinian reached age eighteen. She built the Mausoleum of Galla Placida to hold her sarcophagus and those of her father, husband, and son. The Mausoleum, made of unadorned brick outside, is in the shape of a cross created by two barrel vaults that meet in the center to form a dome.
The mosaic decorations inside the Mausoleum represent a new phase in Christian art. Richly colored mosaics decorated the interiors of the new buildings in Ravenna, inspired by the mosaics of Byzantine Greece. The walls and floors were covered with multicolored marble slabs and cut marble inlays. The ceiling vaults were covered with deep blue mosaics to resemble the starry heavens. The Mausoleum was dedicated to St Lawrence, and the mosaics depict him clothed in white, carrying a large open Gospel book and a large gold cross. For the first time he wears a large gold halo. Introduced into Christian art, the halo identified members of the Holy Family and the saints. Lawrence, a Christian deacon in the 2nd Century CE, was responsible for giving alms to Rome’s poor, widows, and orphans. When Pope Sixtus II was executed in Rome, Lawrence sold church treasures and gave the money to the poor. For this offense against the Church, a large grill was made, and Lawrence was put on it and burned to death. The figure of St Lawrence is always seen with a grill. The chest with the open doors holds the four gospels labeled Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Lawrence is the patron saint of the poor and of cooks.
At another end of the cross-shaped building is the mosaic “Christ the Good Shepherd.” The figure of the good shepherd was popular, but its identity as the figure of Christ was just beginning to be accepted. In Ravenna, for the first time, the Christ figure is dressed in a golden robe with deep blue decorations, a royal purple stole, gold halo, and holds a gold cross. The face is of a young beardless man. He sits on a rock in a green field, surrounded by six white sheep among rocks and plants under a blue sky. The arch above Christ is a Greek Christian artist’s innovative and lavish depiction of the starry heavens.
On the dome is the depiction of another version of the starry heavens, filled with swirling gold stars. A large decorated gold cross is placed at the center. At the four corners are the symbols of the four Gospels. At the lower left, the eagle represents John the Evangelist, who was taken up to Heaven where God dictated to him the Book of Revelations. At the lower right is the Lion of St Mark. When Mark first heard John the Baptist’s voice “crying out in the wilderness” (Mark 1:3), he said that it sounded like the roar of a lion. At the upper right is the Ox of St Luke. His gospel emphasizes sacrifice, service, and strength. At the upper left Matthew appears as an angel. The Gospel of Matthew opens with the angel appearing to Joseph to tell him to wed Mary.
Justinian the Great reigned from 527 until 565 CE. He was able to reclaim most of the Roman territory previously lost to Barbarian tribes. He codified Roman law, condemned the Monophysite heresy that Christ was a single being, and embraced the Trinitarian belief that Christ represented three persons in one. Justinian also was an important patron of architecture and art. The Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna was built under the direction of Bishop Eccelsius of Ravenna and financed by the local banker and architect Julius Agentarius. St Vitale is the patron saint of Ravenna, and the church was built on the site of his martyrdom. An officer in the Roman army who was discovered to be a Christian, Vitali was stretched on a rack, thrown into a pit, and covered with rocks and dirt.
In “Christ Offers the Crown of Martyrdom to St Vitali,” the young beardless Christ is placed at the center of the mosaic. Dressed in royal purple robes, He sits on the globe of heaven. A halo representing the Trinity encircles His head. Angels robed in white stand on both sides. He extends the martyr’s crown to San Vitale. The figure of Eclesius, representing the congregation of the church, holds a model of the San Vitali for presentation to Christ. The four figures stand on green earth with white flowers. Christ is suspended above earth in the blue globe of heaven, the golden world of eternal paradise.
Two mosaics, “Justinian” and “Theodora,” are elevated above the altar on the walls just below the mosaic of the crown of martyrdom. The levels are significant. The church floor is the space for the congregation. The altar, elevated a few steps above the floor, is the space for the priests. The Emperor and Empress are placed above the priests, and just below Christ.
In “Justinian” (8’8’’ x 12’), the Emperor is depicted wearing a royal purple and gold stole over a white robe. He is the only figure with a crown and a halo. At the far right of the scene, the clergy in white vestments carry a censer, a gospel book, and a Bishop holds a gold cross. Justinian holds a gold bowl containing the Eucharistic bread. At the left are imperial administrators wearing white and purple robes. The figures at the far left are soldiers: one holds a large shield with the Christian symbol Chi Rho, the first letters of the Greek word Christ. This symbol was introduced by Constantine the Great.
Theodora, the wife of Justinian, had been his mistress, and was 20 years younger than the Emperor when he married her. She was a showgirl/actress, but she was very intelligent and a significant figure in Justinian’s government. In the mosaic ‘’Theodora’’ (8’8’’ x 12’) is dressed in royal purple robes and lavish jewelry. At the right are her court ladies and eunuchs. Among the mosaic tiles of her jewelry are mother of pearl discs. She wears a crown and halo and holds the vessel of Eucharistic wine. The three Magi are shown bearing their gifts in the gold border at the hem of her robe. Justinian and Theodora are the formal officiants in the ceremony. Green earth surrounds Theodora and the figures, while a striped canopy covers her court ladies, and an elegant cupola covers Theodora. At the far left, a fountain with an eagle on top provides clear, fresh water. A mysterious space is revealed beyond the open curtain.
The mosaic “Lamb of God” on the surface of the dome contains an exquisite pattern of flower and animal figures. Each flower and animal is a symbol. The figure of the Lamb of God with a halo, stands at the center of the starry heaven. The dome is divided into four sections. Four Orans, praying figures with raised arms, stand on sky globes and praise the Lamb. Orans were among the most common and earliest figures found in Early Christian art. The crisscrossing mosaic includes flowers and fruit and the image of a peacock at each corner. The Greeks believed that the flesh of the peacock did not decay after death. The peacock became a symbol of immortality for Christians.
The Mausoleum of Galla Placida and the Basilica of San Vitale are two of the eight Byzantine Christian monuments designated UNESCO World Heritage structures in Ravenna: “The early Christian religious monuments in Ravenna are of outstanding significance by virtue of the supreme artistry of the mosaic art that they contain, and also because of the crucial evidence that they provide of artistic and religious relationships and contacts at an important period of European cultural history.” (UNESCO, December 1996)
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.