Imperial Iconography in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna
Basilica of San Vitale is a small domed church, which has an octagonal plan which is rather unusual for Italy. The building combines Roman elements: the dome, shape of doorways, and stepped towers; with Byzantine elements: polygonal apse, capitals, and narrow bricks.
When we entered the church, we were astonished by its sophisticated multidimensional space. A two-story arched gallery enclosed the central aula beneath the great cupola. San Vitale’s apse mosaic dates from 526 to 547. It has a great gold fascia with twining flowers, birds, and horns of plenty. A youthful clean-shaven Christ, the Redeemer, is sitting on the blue sphere of the world. Jesus is flanked by San Vitale (who is being handed a martyr’s crown), two angels, and Bishop Ecclesius, who presents the model of the church.
At the foot of the apse side walls, there are two splendid mosaic panels, executed in 548. They represent an outstanding example of imperial iconography of the Late Antiquity. The right wall is decorated by the mosaic of Emperor Justinian with a golden halo and his entourage. The emperor stands in the center, with soldiers on his right and clergy on his left, emphasizing that he is the state and religious leader of the empire. The emperor wears imperial purple and holds a large gold paten, the plate on which the bread is placed for Mass. To his left stands Maximian, Archbishop of Ravenna, holding a jeweled cross.
The left wall mosaic depicts the Empress Theodora with her court. Corresponding to Justinian’s paten, the empress holds the cup of communion. A small depiction of the Three Magi is “embroidered” on her robe in order to associate the imperial couple with the biblical kings who brought gifts to the Christ Child.
These mosaic panels have something in common with magnificent mosaics of the Basilica of St. Apollinare Nuovo. Here and there, we observe two great processions. In St.Apollinare Nuovo, there are processions of male and virgin saints moving slowly towards Christ and the Virgin and Child, correspondingly. Not only Archbishop Maximian wanted to surpass Theodoric’s mosaics in splendor, but to place his royal patrons on a level with divinities.
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