The golden mosaics of Ravenna – Early Christian monuments

Golden mosaic of Jesus in the River Jordan in the Battistero degli Ariani, Ravenna

Jesus is standing in the hallway like a young warrior, the cross casually over his shoulder. Also, he’s stepping on a snake and a lion. We struggle with the unusual iconography. The depiction is nothing like images of Christ we are familiar with. Never mind. It is one of those golden mosaics of Ravenna we have always wanted to see, and it is spectacular indeed.

golden mosaic of Christ in the Capella di Sant Andrea, Ravenna

We arrive in Ravenna in the evening,  after a day trip to San Marino. And we are planning to spend two days exploring the early-Christian churches and golden mosaics of Ravenna. They are probably the most visible remnants of Byzantine culture in Europe. Massive churches with a central floor plan, intricate ceiling mosaics, many of them with blue and golden stones. Eight churches and religious buildings in Ravenna belong to the UNESCO World Heritage “Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna”.

For some of the golden mosaics we have to reserve a time-slot. We have therefore planned an intricate route to give us flexibility between these timed visits.

The mosaics in and around Ravenna’s Archiepiscopal Museum

golden mosaic in the Battisterio Neoniano, Ravenna

On the ceiling of the small Battisterio Neoniano, Christ is standing naked in the River Jordan, with light-blue stones representing the water in which he is immersed. The apostles surrounding him look almost Roman. The mosaic of the Battisterio Neoniano is one of the earliest of the golden mosaics of Ravenna, and is pre-Arian orthodox.

Next to the Battisterio Neoniano is the Archiepiscopal Museum, originally the private living quarters of the archbishop of Ravenna. The warrior Christ is part of the small Capilla di Sant Andrea, the private chapel of the bishop. The chapel is, as we read, “Anti-Arian”. The Catholic Bishop built this during the reign of Theoderic the Great in the 5th century.

The Ostrogothic king Theoderic the Great was a ruler of a Germanic tribe and had made Ravenna his capital. He followed a strand of Christianity – Arianism – which most Italians regarded as heretic. Catholicism and Arianism were at odds about the Holy Trinity and the exact nature and relationship of God and Christ. Tiny dogmatic differences in our eyes and our time but very important back then. That’s why the famous monuments of Ravenna can be divided into Arian and Anti-Arian.

The Basilica di Sant Apollinare Nuovo

golden Mosaics of saints and the New Testament in the Basilica di Sant Apollinare Nuovo

The next church on our itinerary is the Basilica di Sant Apollinare Nuovo, which the Arian King Theoderic built around 500 AD. It is constructed as a three-aisled basilica. The upper part of the central nave is covered in mosaics – on the left side there is a row of female saints, while on the rights side is a row of male saints. On another wall the story of the crucifixion unfolds over several mosaic frames. Interestingly enough Petrus denying Jesus appears three times while the artists omitted the actual crucifixion. We ponder if this a typical Arian feature? Or did they only realise at the last moment a miscalculation in the image frames?

Basilica di San Vitale and the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia

In the afternoon we visit two more churches that are situated close by. For the small and very beautiful Galla Placidia Mausoleum we had to reserve a time slot. Galla Placidia lived in the fifth century and was a half-sister of Emperor Honorius. When Honorius died she became the regent for the minor crown prince and as such gained considerable political influence. She built this small chapel as a mausoleum for herself but later died in Rome and was buried there.

The Mausoleo di Galla Placidia is perhaps the most beautiful of the UNESCO sites in Ravenna. All the walls and ceilings are decorated with flowers, stars, and biblical scenes. Allegedly the songwriter Cole Porter was inspired by this chapel when writing his famous song “Night and Day”.

Christ on a blue sphere, with golden mosaic background, in the Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna

The Basilica San Vitale on the same premises is a high octagonal building with several side chapels. This church is named after another saint, St Vitale, who is said to have been buried here alive. What strikes us most here is, again, the image of Jesus in the Apse. He is sitting on a large blue sphere that resembles an inflatable exercise ball.

The Basilica di Sant Apollinare in Classe

Apse of the Basilica di Sant Apollinare in Classe

Later we take a bus to the suburb of Classe to see the 6th century Basilica di Sant Apollinare. Yes, confusingly it has the same name as the church we had visited a few hours earlier in the city centre of Ravenna. The golden mosaic in this church is simpler than in the others. The Saint is shown as the Good Shepherd with 12 sheep – who seem to be the apostles. Classe also has a history museum in a former sugar factory. The village of Classe is of some interest since it used to be one of the most important harbours for the ancient Roman fleet.

Battisterio degli Ariani

Golden Mosaic in the Battistero degli Ariani, Ravenna

On our second day in Ravenna, we have two of the UNESCO sites left to visit. Our first call is the Battistero degli Ariani. There’s another golden mosaic on the ceiling showing the baptism of Christ. The apostles surrounding the image have halos, perhaps for the first time in their depictions. And we learn that the empty chair symbolising Christ’s throne for the last judgement is a symbol of Arianism. It is covered with a purple cloth, the colour of suffering. That is because the Arianists regarded Jesus as a human, not as a god, and therefore stressed his suffering. Despite its small size, we really enjoy this octagonal baptistery and stay for quite a while marvelling at the pictures.

The mausoleum of King Theoderic the Great

Mausoleo di Teoderico in Ravenna

And then we head for the mausoleum of King Theoderic the Great. We have been familiar since childhood with the legendary character of Dietrich of Bern – a German name variant meaning Theodoric of Verona (and not Bern in Switzerland!). The hero of several mediaeval heroic songs and epics is inspired by the real-life Ostrogothic King Theoderic the Great. And that’s why his mausoleum in Ravenna was a top attraction in the 19th century!

A visit here was part of the Grand Tour, the long educational travel that upper-class people from Europe took around the classical sights of Italy. Compared to the golden mosaics of Ravenna churches and baptisteries, however, the mausoleum is a bit dull. Theoderic designed it himself, and it is definitely big. The building is two-storied and decagonal. It has a huge stone instead of a cupola. But it is lacking all decoration, and we don’t spend much time there.

More mosaics not to miss in Ravenna

Besides the mosaics of the early Christian monuments there are more mosaics to search out in Ravenna. We have been looking out for the modern street art mosaics of the artist Invader for quite a while and even downloaded an app to flash his artworks in cities all over Europe. Invader invaded Ravenna two times and left 40 pieces of street art there.

Roman mosaics in Ravenna, in the Domus die Tappeti di Pietra

And then there is still time before our train to Bologna, one of our favourite cities in Italy, leaves. So we decide to have a look into one of Ravenna’s museums, the Domus die Tappeti di Pietra. In contrast to the Byzantine mosaics we have seen so far in Ravenna, this museum has a collection of floor mosaics from the Roman era. They are less colourful but show some of the same early-Christian imagery as the church mosaics.

Are the golden mosaics of Ravenna worth a visit?

The golden mosaics of Ravenna are very beautiful. However, if you do not have a special interest in religious history or byzantine art it might be enough to visit just a few of them. The most beautiful is definitely the Mausoleo di Gallia Placidia. You could combine a visit there with one to the bigger basilicas like the Basilica di San Vitale or the Basilica di Sant Apollinare Nuovo. If you do not want to visit the other sights in Classe, the trip to Sant Apollinare in Classe is probably not so worthwhile

golden mosaic in the Mausoleo die Galla Placidia, Ravenna

How to visit the golden mosaics of Ravenna in one or two days

Ravenna is a small town and except for the Basilica di Sant Apollinare in Classe you can reach all the sights on foot. You will just have to consider your route beforehand to plan the time slots for some of the attractions. You have to make a time slot reservation for the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia and the Battisterio degli Ariani. The Basilica San Vitale, the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, the Basilica di Sant Apollinare Nuovo, the Neonian Baptistery and the Archbishop’s Chapel are only visitable on a combination ticket. Single admission tickets are not available.

To Classe there is a direct bus from the main station that runs fairly regularly.

NB: We had no sponsoring for our trip to the mosaics of Ravenna. We organised and paid all expenses ourselves.

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  1. Love this post. I can see myself getting lost in all the details, colors and symbols. I love mosaics and these seem very impressive and well preserved/maintained. I know I sound corny but I miss travelling. So much beauty in the world. Look forward to travelling again. Thanks for this.

  2. Oooohhh!!! Ravenna has been on my wishlist since forever ago, since my University days when I learned about these mosaics in Art History class. Super thanks for this detailed guide of what to expect when I finally manage to visit here. That image of Jesus as a warrior is spectacular! Basilica San Vitale is what he studied extensively about. I’m going to look into Mausoleo di Galla Placidia now that you say that it is the most beautiful.

    1. Dear Busha, the mosaics in Ravenna are really mind-blowing and very impressive. I guess it pays going a bit off-season. Some of the chapels and churches are really small and you really want to marvel at the depictions in peace and quiet.

  3. Wow! This is fascinating and such a masterpiece. I would love to see this personally and up close. I am a fan of Byzantine art. I did not realize there are so many mosaics in Ravenna. Hope to have an opportunity to visit in the future.

  4. This post brought back some great memories of seeing the mosaics in Ravenna. When we visited we did not have to reserve a time slot so we wandered from spot to spot. But I think we missed the Mausoleo di Gallia Placidia. We are not particularly religious. But we did love the colour and intricate detail created with the mosaics. We went by train from a stay nearby.

  5. It’s interesting to see how the artists interpret the story from the bible into the arts of mosaics. Jesus as a Warrior is great and him naked in the Jordan river is intriguing. And after reading your explanation about Arianism, I want to learn more about them. I want to understand Arianism in Christianity.

  6. Oh my! This is just marvellous. The art work, mosaics and the story you shared have definitely piqued my interest in Byzantine history and art. I am also intrigued to know more about Arianism. The image of Jesus as the warrior is something I have not seen before. It is so stunning. So are the art works and mosaics on the other churches and bascilica. The mosaics of Ravenna is something that I would love to explore someday.

  7. The mosaics in Ravenna look interesting! I like the image of Jesus as a warrior rather than the usual on the cross. The golden colors and details of the mosaic look amazing. Thanks for the tip to plan the route beforehand along with the time slots for some of the attractions. I am adding this to my bucket list. 🙂

  8. The golden mosaics of Ravenna look stunning and are a fantastic piece of art. I add Ravenna to my bucket list for my next trip to Italy. I had no idea that there were so many incredible iconographies there. The early-Christian churches with ceiling mosaics are worth a visit. Thanks for the tip that I have to reserve a time slot to see some of them. I want to see Christ in the River Jordan in Ravenna’s Archiepiscopal Museum and the Basilica di Sant Apollinare in Classe with its 12 sheep.

  9. Oh wow! What an amazing place and amazing experience! Now I am intrigued to read even more about the mosaics. I have to be honest and say, that this is my first time hearing about them. And I can’t believe that I have been so close to them on my previous trip. Sounds like this is something to plan thoroughly though if you need appointments and such to see everything.

  10. These mosaics are just stunning! And I love the stories and insights that go along with them (how could they leave out the Crucifixtion frame in the Basilica di Sant Apollinare Nuovo? So curious, indeed!). As a Christian, all of these mosaics and attractions would be very meaningful for me to see in person – and as someone who loves history, equally so. I’ll have to get Ravenna on my itinerary next time I’m in Italy!

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