Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ravenna, part 2

In the first part, we glimpsed the mosaic wonders of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna.  Now here's more, if you can stand it.

There are two baptistries in Ravenna, remarkably similar in size, shape and decoration, but differentiated by subtleties of doctrine.  The older building is the Neonian Baptistry, finished by Bishop Neon as part of a great basilica somewhere around 430 AD.  The basilica was destroyed in the 18th c., but though sunk 3 meters into the earth, the baptistry remains.
The Neonian Baptistry

Ceiling of the Neonian Baptistry.  The 12 apostles surround the
scene of John the Baptist and Jesus.
Neonian Baptistry detail.
 Jesus is standing in the River Jordan, which is personified at the right by a figure holding reeds and a garment.

For most of its Christian history Ravenna was held by so-called Orthodox or Latin doctrine rulers.  But from 493 until he died in 526, Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths (and no relation to upcoming Empress Theodora), ruled in Ravenna.  He was an Arian Christian as were most Goths  (See this article for an explanation of Arianism).  However, he was tolerant of other religions—to the point of forcing the city to rebuild synagogues burned down by rioters.  He established an Arian section for the Goths with its own baptistry and left the orthodox buildings alone.  The Arian Baptistry is remarkably like the Neonian one, and the mosaic work might well have been done by orthodox Christian artisans, since that’s where the expertise lay.  The Neonian Jesus is bearded while the Arian Jesus looks young, a subtle feature which supports Arian doctrine, as does the empty throne awaiting His future.
Arian Baptistry ceiling—and bare walls.
Arian Baptistry detail: John the Baptist with a beardless Jesus,
 a dove anointing with holy water, and a large figure of the River Jordan at left.

A throne awaiting Jesus 
There was once a large religious complex attached to the Arian Baptistry.  Though it is lost, another of Theodoric’s churches remains, the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, a true basilica  in form and another astonishing repository of Byzantine mosaics.  Here there are scenes showing parables and miracles of Jesus; saints, prophets and evangelists; Theodoric’s palace and the port city of Classe; and an abundance of other decorative features.  In the lowest band above the colonnades are two processions of nearly identical figures, 26 saintly martyrs on the right approaching Jesus enthroned; and on the left, 22 virgin martyrs led by the Magi toward the nativity of Jesus.

Sant'Apollinare Nuovo
Upper bands showing miracles and saints.
Originally, Theodoric's palace with Ravenna behind.

Boats in the nearby harbor of Classe
Jesus and two of his four angels

St. Martin, for whom the church was once named, leads the
procession of 26 martyr saints.

Some of the 22 virgin martyrs, led by...

The Magi following the star to...

Mary and Jesus

Although the upper registers of mosaics in S. Apollinare Nuovo are likely much as they were first made in 504 AD, the processions of martyrs were probably added 50 years later, and other changes were made when Emperor Justinian, a fervent Orthodox and anti-Arian Christian came to power.  Some overly-Arian representations were removed or altered, and members of Theodoric’s court were expunged from the view of his palace, replaced with draperies.  But a few disembodied hands and arms remain on of the columns.
Theodoric's palace reworked but with leftover disembodied hands.
In our one-day trip we didn’t visit all the ancient sites in Ravenna.  Five kilometers away is Sant’Apollinare in Classe, contemporary with San Vitale (549).  Here again are exquisite mosaics, though as the guide books say, the vast areas of lower walls, now bare, were probably stripped of their mosaics by conquering Venetians in about 1450.  We did stop by Dante’s mausoleum, but not Theodoric’s from 520, which is capped with a mystifying single 30-ton stone, the mystery being how they got it up there.  Despite these misses I rate Ravenna as an excellent day-trip candidate.  It is compact enough that it is perfectly feasible to visit all the UNESCO sites and more in one day, even if, like us, you pause often and use binoculars to study the delicacy, grace, and engaging mosaic details of style and color.   

Dante's mausoleum
A coloration study made for restoration work at Sant'Apollinare Nuovo
I couldn’t help but envision the 6th-century artisans, working from scaffolding laced together with reeds, selecting, cutting with an iron blade and placing just the right color and size tessera time and again.  This vision was made more remarkable when contrasted to an excellent presentation in the National Museum showing the technology and study involved in the latest mosaic conservation and repair efforts at Sant’Apollinare Nuovo.  Because the walls behind the mosaic had to be repaired and reinforced, the mosaics were removed.  But first tiny cameras were inserted into cracks to analyze the layers of masonry behind.  Each small group of  tesserae was photographed and recorded for color, size, material and condition before sections of mosaic were temporarily glued to an overlayment and cut free of the wall behind.  The modern artists had the luxury of cleaning and repairing these sections under good light on a laboratory tabletop using modern tooling rather than perched precariously on pole scaffolds carefully choosing and placing stone pixels. 

1 comment:

  1. Amo, amo, amo Ravenna! Went there 3 times and I did see Thedoric's tomb. It is an amazing piece of rock--like Mycenae or Stonhenge. How did they move those gigantic stones?!? Theodoric's is carved to look like a nomadic tent. You can go in under this roof-sized rock. Really cool! Anyway, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is my favorite. I always wondered how they worked in the dark. I feel like the building should be turned inside out!