The Basilicas of Ravenna

A colleague emails me last night and noted that most of the mosaics in Ravenna have undergone significant restoration and conservation work.  Some of the earliest efforts to restore the mosaics and architecture date to the 18th century (and this discounts much earlier work that sought less to conserve older decoration and more to beautify the space of worship) and continues today.  As a result, like historians reading a text or archaeologist reading data, we should always be skeptical of what we see in front of us.

The churches of Ravenna, then, often serve to provide impressions of the architecture, decoration, and organization of the past. In the two better-preserved (and conserved!) basilica  style churches are particularly valuable spaces for contemplating the processional character of the Early Christian liturgy.  Marble colonnades separate narrow aisles from the main processional axes of these buildings.

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At St. Apollinare Nuovo (above), female and male saints depart from the port city of Classis and from the palace at Ravenna respectively.

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These processing saints follow the course of the liturgical processions toward the eastern apse and terminate at the virgin and Christ outside the sanctuary area of the church.

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The processional mosaics are best visible from the aisles as was the main processional movement of the early liturgy. In contrast, the colonnades obscured the eastern destination of these processional rituals emphasizing the movement toward the east (and toward salvation) perhaps even more than its ultimate goal.

While we do not know exactly what adorned the eastern end of St. Apollinare Nuovo as the eastern end of that building has seen significant modification, we have a better idea of the eastern end of its sister church St. Apollinare in Ravenna’s port city of Classis.  The colonnade of the nave separates narrow aisles from the broad central bay and simultaneously directs the viewer’s gaze to the east and obscures a clear view of the sanctuary.

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Here a massive cross floats above the head of the saint on the half dome of the eastern apse:

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Angles holding pennants inscribed with the sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy in Greek!) stand guard on either side of the main apse and ensure that key phrases in the liturgy echo always in the church.

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In the 7th century, the imperial family, arranged in processional order themselves, joined the vigil at the eastern end of the nave.

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The Centrally Planned Buildings of Ravenna

It was pretty exciting finally to visit Ravenna!  I can hardly believe that I wrote a dissertation on Early Christian basilicas without having spent time in this Adriatic city.  But I did, and I guess I can justifying by saying that the basilica style churches are hardly the star of the show in this one-time imperial city.

Centrally planned buildings are the order of the day in Ravenna.

Centrally planned buildings still standing in the city date from 4th to 6th centuries. The most modest, perhaps, is the cruciform (so-called) mausoleum of Galla Placcidia which probably dates to the early or middle 5th century:

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It is adorned with spectacular mosaics:

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Centrally planned mausolea were common in throughout the Roman period and continued into the 6th century at Ravenna with the spectacular mausoleum of Theoderic, the Gothic king:

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The best known centrally planned buildings in Ravenna are related to Christian ritual.  It’s possible that parts of the famous Neonian or Orthodox baptistery date to the 4th century and the mosaics likely date to the late 5th.  The building is an octagon surrounding a similarly shaped font.

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The nearly contemporary Arian baptistery shares a similar plan (although the outer shell has been lost) and decorative program:

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The most spectacular of the centrally planned building is the 6th century church of San Vitale.  The building is another octagon with an important group of 6th century mosaics preserved in its eastern end.  The interplay between the outer octagon and inner, domed core frames dynamic perspectives both on the central space and the sacred eastern end.

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Of course, Ravenna also had its share of basilicas, but more on them tomorrow…