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Ravenna, Italy: Exquisite Byzantine Mosaics at the Church of San Vitale

Ravenna, Italy

Once an important part of the Byzantine Empire, Ravenna boasts 1,500-year-old churches — such as the Basilica di San Vitale — that glitter with mosaics, celebrating Christ in heaven and the reign of Emperor Justinian on earth.

Complete Video Script

Ravenna is a charming if underwhelming town of 140,000 with a fascinating history, and some of Italy’s most amazing art treasures.

Ravenna is on the tourist map for one reason: its 1,500-year-old churches, decorated with best-in-the-West Byzantine mosaics.

Imagine: It’s the year AD 500. The Roman Empire has fallen in the West, barbarians have sacked the city of Rome, and Europe is falling into the Dark Ages. Yet the Eastern half of the empire, ruled from dazzling Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), has morphed into Byzantium, and becomes the pinnacle of civilization. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian then brings order and stability to this part of Europe, making Ravenna the westernmost pillar of his realm.

His church of San Vitale stands as a sanctuary of order in the midst of all that chaos. Its interior is decorated with lavish mosaics — countless vibrantly colored chips the size of your fingernail — that served as propaganda for an alliance between the Church and the Emperor.

High above the altar, Christ is in heaven — sitting on a celestial orb — overseeing creation, symbolized by the green earth below his feet. And running things here on earth is Emperor Justinian — sporting both a halo and a crown to show he’s leader of both the Church and the state.

Justinian brings together both military and church leaders — all united by the same vision. Facing the emperor is his wife Theodora and her entourage. The former dancer who became his mistress, then empress, is decked out in jewels and pearls and carries a chalice to consecrate the new church.

As pilgrims have done for centuries, visitors marvel. Appreciate the symmetry. At the top of the arch, the circle with the monogram of Christ (I for Jesus and X for Christ) symbolizes perfection and eternity. Floating above the arch, two angels hold rays of sun.

The ceiling above is a festive celebration of God’s creation, with 80 different birds from the sixth century — most still flying around Ravenna today. All creation swirls around Christ as the sacrificial lamb, supported by four angels.

Everything sparkles with colorful Bible scenes told with a sixth-century exuberance. This was a time of transition — and many consider these mosaics both the last ancient Roman and the first medieval European works of art. For instance, this image of Christ is beardless — the style of the ancient Romans, and nearby is the standard medieval portrayal of a bearded Jesus. Yet each were created by artists of the same generation.