The Church of San Vitale remains one of the earliest and most prized structures of Byzantine Art. Built in the Etruscan and later Roman city of Ravenna, Italy, San Vitale stands to be one of the city’s most celebrated possessions. Two-hundred years after Constantine, the creator of Byzantium, Ostrogoth ruler Theodoric the Great made Ravenna the capital of his kingdom. Theodoric was of Arian faith where Christ was seen as a creation of God the Father and was subordinate in the hierarchy of the Holy Trinity. Theodoric the Great died in 526 CE and in 539 CE, Orthodox Christian Justinian from Constantinople sent his own general Belisarius to reconquer Ravenna from the Ostrogoths and reinstate Orthodox Christianity. Ravenna then became somewhat of an extension of the great city of Constantinople and the art clearly indicates a time of transition from the Early Christian to Byzantine era. (“Building the Dream”) Shortly after Theodoric’s death, Bishop Ecclesius, along with a hefty contribution by a banker named Julianus Argentarius, began construction of a church to commemorate Ravenna’s celebrated martyr San Vitalis. At that time, the cross-shaped basilica plan was popular. Instead of a wide central nave flanked by two aisles, a transverse aisle, and an apse at the end, San Vitale was designed around a central nave with two concentric octagonal walls. The central nave is surrounded by two superposed ambulatories while the triforium, the smaller of the octagonal shapes, is supported by eight curved and marble-columned exedrae. San Vitale features traditional Roman architectural techniques such as groin vaults, arched doorways, and a dome-covered clerestory. The lower ambulatory is interrupted by a triumphal arch that precedes a chancel and a cross-vaulted apse. On the opposite side of the apse lays an off-axis narthex. To the left of the apse sits a prothesis where bread and wine are prepared for the Eucharist. To the right, a diaconicon houses books and vestments. The exterior walls are made of various bricks taken from ancient Roman buildings and have amphorae built in to add extra support to the structure. Tan terracotta adorns the roof and many windows are arranged to provide light to the numerous mosaics inside. The true beauty and value of the San Vitale is not held in the exterior view but rather in the ornate and intricate mosaics displayed inside. The walls of the church are richly ornamented with colorful tesserae that make up scenes from both the Old and the New Testament. Many of these scenes show continuous narratives such as the Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, the story of Cain and Abel, and Moses and the Burning Bush. Above three large windows is a large apse mosaic depicting the Second Coming. Christ is dressed in Tyrian purple sitting on a blue celestial orb of the Earth atop the Four Rivers of Paradise with an angel on either side of him. He is holding the Book of Revelation and the Seven Seals and is handing a crown to San Vitalis to his right. Bishop Ecclesius is shown handing the church to the angel beside Christ. On the cross-vaulted ceiling above the chancel is an image of the Lamb of God wearing a halo, the lamb representing Christ who was sacrificed for the redemption of mankind. The lamb is surrounded by a laurel wreath that represents the triumph of Christianity and décor colored in shades of green, blue, and gold. The wreath is guarded by four angels standing on globes that refer to the image of a young Christ sitting on the celestial orb of Earth. The image of Christ as young and beardless was common throughout ancient Roman art. The San Vitale features both a young and an older Christ marking the transitional period between ancient Roman art and early medieval works of art. The entrance to the chancel vault is marked by a triumphal arch decorated by fourteen medallions with the Apostles and Saints important to the development of the church. An older portrayal of...
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