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detail of mosaics in San Vitale, Ravenna (Sharon Mollerus)
The Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna was started in 527 by Bishop Ecclesio and completed by Bishop Maximian in 548. A Greek banker, Julian the silversmith, underwrote the building of this church as well as the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe. This church is the only one to survive intact today from the era of Emperor Justinian and has the largest collection of well-preserved Byzantine mosaics aside from the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The church has an octagonal shape and its architectural style combines Roman structural features with the decorative style of the Byzantines. Legend places the church on the site of Saint Vitalis’ martyrdom, although the identity of the saint is in question.The intrados is an arch of medallion mosaics with a bust of Christ at the top and with other apostles, including St. Gervase and St. Protasio, the first martyrs of Milan, cascading down. The vault features the haloed mystic lamb surrounded by a wreath of leaves and fruit on a tapestry of stars with painted angels supporting the dome. Four peacocks, symbols of the Resurrection, adorn the vault, along with coupled doves.The vault of the apse features the Redeemer flanked by two angels. Christ is holding the roll of seven seals and is seated on the celestial globe of his creation. To his right, he offers the martyr’s crown to St. Vitale, and on the left, Bishop Ecclesio, who promoted the Basilica, is offering his church to the Lord. The garden depicts flowers and four rivers. Beneath this vault are the famous mosaics of the emperor and his wife. The powerful Byzantine Emperor Justinian (526-65), known for his lawmaking, is shown with the clergy and soldiers. Justinian’s wife, the Empress Theodora, formerly a courtesan and actress, is depicted with the ladies of her court. Justinian is holding bread and Theodora a cup, symbolizing their participation in the Eucharist.A mosaic from the presbytery recounts the three angels announcing the birth of Isaac. Another shows the sacrifice of Abel and the offering of Melchizedek at the same altar. Photos on the following pages.
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