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.
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
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
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”.
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
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
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
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.
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
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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