Archive for April, 2012
The earliest historical information we have about this church is to be found in the epigraph located in the narthex of the church, from it we are able to deduce that the bishop Ecclesius was the episcopus mandans, its construction was entrusted to Julian Argentarius, and it was consecrated by Maximian in 547 or 548. The church was built on a 5th century temple in memory of the martyr Vitale which was to be incorporated into the later structure. The church was fronted by a great quadriportico, transformed into a cloister in the 10th century. Ravenna’s most impressive monument is certainly the basilica of S. Vitale. The church is octagonal and built of large flat bricks, a type of brickwork typical of all the buildings erected by Justinian. It is constructed on two eight-sided storeys, of which the upper encircles the dome. Each of the lower side walls is delineated by two pilasters that reach to the eaves of the roof, while strong buttresses rise up at the corners, ending in a triangular tympani. Within the interior, the artists have created an architecture whose impressive volume and grandeur create, with the grace and elegance of line, a play of fully and empty spaces, the light shining down from the great windows. Standing in the middle of the basilica, one is surrounded by eight massive pillars sheathed in veined Greek marble and reaching up to the drums of the dome, delimiting two storeys of hexedrae opening, at the upper level, given onto the matroneum. The cupola is one of the church’s most significant architectonic elements: it is made up of horizontal, concentric rings of twin terracotta pipes (is decorated with frescoes done in the 18th century). Also worthy of note are the tall and elegant columns: those at groundfloor are surmounted by finely-worked impost-capitals in the form of lotus leaves; certainly they were imported from Constantinople (the impost-capital was an invention of Byzantium of the beginning of the 6th century). One enters the presbytery through the great triumphal arch whose wide intrados fascia contains fifteen medallions: the image of Christ to the top of the arch, and the Twelve Apostles and Ss. Gervasius and Protasius (the sons of S. Vitale, or so the legend goes). The cross vaulting of the presbytery is richly ornamented with motifs which converge on the center from each corner to meet a crown encircling the Holy Lamb, surrounded by conspicuous symbols of eternal life. The surface is covered with mosaics. The sacrifice motif is renewed in the right lunette, but here Abel and Melchizedek are the personages; on the extrados of the arch of the apse stands Jerusalem and Bethlehem, symbolizing the everlastingness of the faith from the ancient Jews to Christianity. In the vault of the apse, the Redeemer seated on a blue globe appears flanked by two Archangels, S. Vitale and Bishop Ecclesio. At the foot of the apse side walls are the two famous panels depicting the Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodora, together with their retinue: the Empress Theodora in the presence of a parade of the most beautiful and elegant ladies at the fabulous court of Byzantium. Unlike the presbytery mosaics where clothes cover solid bodies and the surroundings are of this world, in the two panels of Justinian and Theodora, the figures all face the front, their robes falling in stiff folds, with no hint of an underlying form, as though they were shadows in a world without boundaries and beyond time.