Thursday, 14 November 2013

Stunning Mosaics in Ravenna

Ravenna was our last port of call before Venice and it has the richest cultural heritage of the five ports on our cruise. There was an abundance of Byzantine churches and stunning mosaics - thanks to Ravenna's position at one point as the capital of the Western Roman Empire.  I can only provide a snapshot of what we saw in the seven hours or so that we were in town - we couldn't get to all the places we wanted to see but at least we got a taste.

First encounter with the byzantine mosaics was in the Arian Baptistry.  The splendid mosaic in the dome showed the baptism of Christ.  I find it interesting to learn that in the Arian concept, the Son of God did not always exist but was created by God the Father.  This was obviously considered heresy by the Catholic Church and most of the other Christian denominations.  Arianism did not survive beyond the 8th century.  This Arian Baptistry was built early in the 6th century.

Baptism of Christ mosaic in the dome 

The Arian Baptistry above, beside the Santo Spirito Church, was on the way to the Basilica of San Vitale below, the must-see destination in Ravenna.  The Basilica, from the 6th century, has the most dazzling array of mosaics and is considered to be very important in Byzantine art as the only major church from the period of the Emperor Justinian to survive mostly in tact.

The Basilica was said to be modelled on the Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople and indeed, looked very much like it from what I can see on Google.  The Basilica plan was made up of two remarkable concentric octagons, and has a combination of Roman and Byzantine elements, 
making it very different from other churches in Ravenna.

Like everyone else, I was awe-struck when I walked in the unassuming side door and saw the magnificent interior

The eight pillars that support the dome were encased in gorgeous marble

The vault paintings were done in the 18th century but it was the mosaics in the apse and choir that are the most impressive.  Interestingly enough, the upper gallery was called the matroneum - meant for married women.

Beautifully decorated stucco beneath the arches

The stunning semi-dome in the apse depicting a beardless Christ

The lunettes (half-moon) all around were decorated with scenes from the Old Testament

The extremely fine work in the vault depicting the Paschal Lamb and angels

The floor mosaics are no less impressive

We could have spent hours in the Basilica admiring the mosaics and the marble - but we had to move on...
We literally stumbled into the Museo Arcivescovile (Archiepiscopal Museum) not realizing what was in it.  It was included on our Basilica ticket but we were short on time so was on the verge of bypassing it.  But  when I saw stairs like these, I figured there would be some good stuff inside - and I was right!  

What you see below is the mosaic inside the little chapel that is in the museum among other exquisite finds on several floors. 

Even more astonishing was the carved ivory throne chair - the Throne of Maximian, from the 6th century, made for the Archbishop of Ravenna (possibly in Constantinople), and apparently a gift from the Emperor Justinian.   What a find!

Just next door to the Museum is the most ancient monument remaining in Ravenna - the octagonal Orthodox Baptistry (as distinguished from the Arian one above), built in the 4th century, converted from a Roman bath.

Another baptism of Christ mosaic - it's interesting to compare it to the one in the Arian Baptistry, built 50 years later.
Linked to the Baptistry is the Cathedral built in the 18th century over the ancient cathedral which was built in he 5th century.  

The most interesting item for me was the unusual Greek marble pulpit from the 6th century - it was surmised that this may have been reconstructed from the lids of two sarcophaguses.

From the cathedral, we headed across town to the Basilica of St. Apollinare Nuovo with the intention of dropping by the tomb of Dante on the way.  We missed it somehow when we got disoriented coming out of the cathedral and ended up having to double back after visiting the Basilica.  The St. Apollinare Nuovo Basilica, originally built by the Arians in the early 6th century, was reconsecrated as a Catholic church later.  

I love the bell tower with its mullioned windows built at the beginning of the 11th century.   

Mosaics down both sides of the church - on one side the procession of 22 virgin martyrs preceded by the three magis offering gifts to baby Jesus seated on the Virgin Mary's lap;  on the opposite side, 2 martyrs approaching Christ enthroned - quite a magnificent display!

After all those awesome mosaics, it was a relief to find ourselves in the very plain but beautiful Basilica of St. John the Evangelist on the edge of town.  We wouldn't have visited if we were not early for our bus and so wandered in just to wile away the minutes as it was directly in front of the bus stop.  This reminded us of the wondrous nature of serendipitous discovery - the importance of allowing time for precisely this sort of exploration in any itinerary.  

Basilica of St. John the Evangelist

This is the most ancient church in Ravenna, built in the early part of the 5th century.  It was rich with splendid mosaics when it was built but had since been destroyed by war.  There were some remnants of the mosaics.

Remnants of ancient mosaics
Next post:  Ravenna, the town

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