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Ancient Roman Mosaics at Ravenna

Ravenna, Italy

As Rome fell in the West, it lived on in the East (ruled from Constantinople). In the middle was Ravenna, famous today for its late Roman and early medieval churches decorated with exquisite mosaics.

Complete Video Script

[115, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, c. AD 450, Ravenna] Rome's decline was gradual and fitful. But emperors still commissioned great art. In Ravenna, this 5th-century mausoleum was intended for the sister of one of Rome's last emperors. Its precious mosaics, while dating from the fall of Rome, are considered the finest from ancient times. The light that sneaks through the thin alabaster panels brings a glow and a twinkle to the early Christian symbolism. The dome is filled with stars. Doves drink from fountains, symbolic of souls finding nourishment in the word of God.

[116] This fifth-century work shows the standard ancient Roman portrayal of Christ as the good shepherd. Jesus, dressed in gold and purple like a Roman emperor, is the king of paradise welcoming the faithful, who were represented by lambs, and surrounded by this timeless beauty.

[117, Justinian Mosaic and other mosaics from the Basilica of San Vitale, AD 547, Ravenna] This church captures the last chapter of Roman glory. Its sanctuary, an oasis of order, was meant to assure everyone that — despite the chaos around them — all was right with the world. Its familiar Roman mosaics — countless vibrantly colored cubes the size of your fingernail — give the church an ethereal glow. Christ is calmly in charge, overseeing the peaceful world below. And running things here on earth is his partner, the last emperor to rule a united Rome, Justinian. Sporting both a halo and a crown, he unites both Church and state… supported by bishops and generals, who, with steady gazes, radiate a sense of stability.

[118, Theodora Mosaic, AD 547, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna] Facing the emperor is his powerful wife, Theodora, and her elegant entourage. The former dancer who became his mistress, then empress, is decked out in rich jewels and pearls and carries a chalice to consecrate the new church.

[119] The art here is propaganda: a celebration of the Roman world. Everything is in good order…the ancient portrayal of Christ symbolizes perfection… the stylized cross is flanked by two angels, declaring victory… the ceiling is a festival of God's creation, with nearly a hundred different birds — most still flying around this part of Italy. And everything swirls around a sacrificial lamb — which symbolizes Christ — supported by four angels.

[120] Notice how this Christ is beardless — the style of the ancient Romans — while, just steps away, this bearded Christ is the standard medieval portrayal of Jesus. These are some of the last artworks of ancient Rome and the first of medieval works to come, bridging the ancient and medieval worlds. With its harmonious atmosphere, it's a poignant reminder of the peace and stability of a Roman order that was coming to an end.