Byzantine Art: San Vitale Mosaics

Little Christian art survives from before the legalization of Christianity in AD 311, but notable examples of Byzantine art remain.  It flourished from 330 CE, the year Constantinople was founded, until the Turks overtook the city in 1453.

During this vast expanse of time, Emperor Justinian (527-565) and his wife, Empress Theodora, were avid patrons of the arts, restoring much of the Roman Empire’s power in “the golden age of Justinian“.

The accomplishments of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora include:

  • saving Constantinople from barbarians;
  • quelling the Nika Revolt in 532, a week-long riot that was the bloodiest and most destructive to date in Constantinople’s tumultuous history;
  • codifying and expanding Roman law in a document, Code of Civil Law, that remains the core of many European legal systems;
  • restoring or constructing more than 30 Orthodox churches in Constantinople alone, heralding the Byzantine architectural style; and
  • commissioning some of the most brilliant mosaics ever produced in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, in the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai, and in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna.

The exterior of the church of San Vitale (above, left) is, in accordance with Byzantine architecture, unpretentious and unadorned — offering no hint of the dazing mosaics inside. In the opinion of Thomas Hoving,

“The interior of S. Vitale is ablaze with the tightest, most refulgent, most exciting mosaics of the Christian world – they look like frescoes that have been brilliantly back-lighted.” (1)

The overarching themes of the San Vitale mosaics are Christ’s redemption of humanity, and its reenactment through the Eucharist or Holy Communion.  Key mosaics include:

Christ with St. Vitalis and Bishop Ecclesius

Mosaic in apse, 14 feet in diameter. Church of San Vitale.  c. 547.

Mosaic in apse, 14 feet in diameter. Church of San Vitale.  c. 547.

During this period in Byzantine art, Christ was depicted in various ways.  Here in the apse vault, he is shown at the Second Coming as beardless and youthful; he straddles the universe while the four rivers of Paradise flow beneath his feet. 

On his left, an angel introduces Bishop Ecclesius who was alive when construction of San Vitale church began; accordingly, he presents Christ its architectural model.

At Christ’s right is Vitalis, the patron saint of the church who receives the martyr’s wreath from Christ. As Fred S. Kleiner observes about this configuration,

The arrangement recalls Christ’s prophecy of the last days of the world: “And then they shall see the son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.  And then shall he send his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of Heaven” (Mark 12:26-27). (2)

Note that Christ appears with a halo and wears an imperial purple robe.

Emperor Justinian and Attendants

Emperor Justinian and Attendants.  Mosaic on north wall of the apse, Church of San Vitale.  c. 547.  8' 8" by 12'.

Emperor Justinian and Attendants.  Mosaic on north wall of the apse, Church of San Vitale.  c. 547.  8′ 8″ by 12′.

On the north wall of the apse is Emperor Justinian, similarly adorned with a purple robe and halo.

He is flanked by six soldiers and six bureaucrats and ecclesiastics, referencing Christ’s twelve apostles.

It is impossible to miss the message that he, Justinian, is God’s earthly representative.  Justinian grasps the paten, the bowl or plate that holds communion bread.  Only one additional person is identified, Bishop Maximianus; he was responsible for completion of the San Vitale church and has the honored position at Justinian’s left.

The artists – unknown because art throughout most of the Middle Ages was unsigned – created three groups of people:

1. Emperor Justinian and his attendants;

2. clergymen; and

3. the imperial guard, whose shield shows the monogram of Christ, chi-rho-iota.

Look at the position of the feet for a subtle indication of rank: in each grouping, one member’s feet precede the feet of those following.  As Fred Kleiner observes, the position of Maximianus and Emperor Justinian is confounding: while Justinian seems to behind the Bishop, the paten is in front of the Bishop’s arm, making the Emperor in front.  “Thus, symbolized by place and gesture, the imperial and churchly powers are in balance.” (3)

And Emperor Justinian’s right to rule is intact.

Empress Theodora and Attendants

Empress Theodora and her entourage are shown in the south wall of the apse, across from Justinian and his retinue.  Both processions enter the apse to oversee the Eucharist, with Justinian proceeding left to right and Theodora right to left.

Empress Theodora and Attendants.  Mosaic on south wall of the apse, Church of San Vitale.  c. 547.  8' 8" by 12'.

Empress Theodora and Attendants.  Mosaic on south wall of the apse, Church of San Vitale.  c. 547.  8′ 8″ by 12′.

While neither ever visited Ravenna, their presence is eternalized in this hallmark of Byzantine art.

Theodora is also depicted with the same halo and purple robe as Christ and Justinian, providing chromatic unity among all three mosaic panels. She and her attendants wait in a courtyard for the Emperor to commence the procession, a nod to her inferior status  reinforced by the attendant who holds back the curtain to usher Theodora into the church proper.

But it’s remarkable that a woman was memorialized like this, curtain or not.  Not only were 4th century women not considered on par with men in nearly every respect, but Theodora had a decidedly unroyal background.

Born into a family headed by a father who was a bear trainer at the Hippodrome, Theodora opted for her mother’s profession – acting – upon his death.  Acting, typically a cover for prostitution, was deemed so lowly that it was illegal for senators to marry into this depraved class.

After falling in love with Theodora, however, Justinian persuaded his uncle, Emperor Justin, to change the law prohibiting such marriages.  He and Theodora wed in 525 AD, and by all contemporaneous accounts, were faithful and devoted to each other.

Empress Theodora grasps a bejeweled chalice of wine for the Eucharist (detail, left). Her influence is further reinforced by the magi bordering her robe, intimating that Empress Theodora shares the lofty position of bearing gifts to Christ.  Not bad for a woman once known as a harlot.

Enjoy reading about famous artwork?

Subscribe to this blog, Famous Paintings Reviewed, and join this community of art history fans.

Join here

Footnotes:

1.  Hoving, Thomas. The Greatest Works of Western Civilization.  New York: Artisan, 1997.  page 37.

2. Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History.  Enhanced 13th ed. Wadsworth Cengage, 2011.  p. 316-17.

3. Kleiner, p. 317.

By |2018-03-23T23:13:34-04:00November 8th, 2012|Art History Beyond Europe & Before 1400|4 Comments

About the Author:

4 Comments

  1. Ludmila November 9, 2012 at 1:44 pm - Reply

    Beautiful, exquisite, God-inspired images. I’m happy to see them if only virtually. Narration is professional, and with gripping flair.Can’t help sharing this post with others.

  2. Patricia Ballinger November 12, 2012 at 4:16 pm - Reply

    Could not come at a better time since I have several classes in which we are looking at Byzantine Art. Besides these are some of my favorite since I have had the honor to actually see them once in person. Simply magnificent! I enjoyed the questions you posted on the bottom and plan to share this with my students and see what they can come up with – thank you Susan for another excellent masterpiece newsletter.

  3. Brian Buckley November 12, 2012 at 4:17 pm - Reply

    Great article. I have had the pleasure of visiting Ravenna and seeing San Vitale first hand. The Mausoleum of Sta. Constanza is also spectacular. Check out this Youtube link.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QI823w5jHhY&feature;=fvwrel

  4. Susan Benford November 15, 2012 at 4:18 pm - Reply

    I’ll be candid about my profound jealousy that you’ve seen these mosaics in person.

    The YouTube film mentioned above – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QI823w5jHhY&feature;=fvwrel

    indicates how the gold mosaics lighten up the entire church. Incredible!

    And many thanks.

    Susan Benford

Leave A Comment