Ravenna: The heritage of Galla Placidia and Neone (Roman times)

Let us recap: In March 2018 we spent five days in Ravenna to see the town with its eight sites of UNESCO World Heritage:

  • two from the Western Roman Empire (402-476): the Mausoleum Galla Placidia and the Orthodox or Neonian Baptistery.
  • four from the Ostrogothic Rule (493-540): Theoderic’s Mausoleum, the Arian Baptistery, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (remodeled during Byzantine times) and the Archbishop’s Chapel.
  • two from the Byzantine Rule (540-751): San Vitale and Sant’Apollinare in Classe (both started during Ostrogoth times, but inaugurated in Byzantine times).

Let us start with our impressions from Roman times, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and the Orthodox (Neonian) Baptistery. The latter we will compare later with the Arian Baptistery.


The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia – solemnity in blue and golden colors

Galla Placidia was the daughter of Theodosius, the last emperor of the unified Roman Empire . In her second marriage Galla was the wife of Constantius, Magister Militum of Honorius, the first emperor of the Western Rome Empire (after the partition of Rome in 395). For some years Constantius ruled together with Honorius. Galla’s son, Valentianus III, became emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 425. Until 437 and until he was 18 years old, she managed the empire. During this time – in 425 – she had her mausoleum built. This is the outside view of the mausoleum with its four transepts. The transepts are ornated with blind columns and arcades.

Inside, we find a solemn atmosphere primarily in the colors blue and golden. The cupola is a blue sky filled with stars, with the cross in the middle and the four evangelists in the corners. I love the decoration band around this sky full of stars.

Below the cupola there are four mosaics with two men, a fountain and pigeons. In two of the mosaics, the pigeons are drinking from the water. These two pigeons drinking water decorate many, many souvenirs in Ravenna – cups, plates, mouse pads, scarfs, tablecloths, t-shirts etc. The elegant men next to the pigeons have not been identified.

Two of the mosaics in the four transepts show deer drinking water alluding to the psalm “like a deer drinking from a stream, I reach out to you, my god.”

The third transept hosts the mosaic depicting Christ as the good shepherd – he is caressing one of his sheep – and the animal obviously enjoys that.

Last the fourth transept shows the martyr Laurentius or Lawrence moving towards his martyrium, the grill, which is next to a bookcase with the four gospels.

The decoration in primarily blue and golden colors creates a solemn atmosphere. Very, very beautiful. Galla Placidia was surely an intelligent woman, but in addition she had a good taste. We looked around and around, we checked out every detail and, after having stepped out, I had to go back to get another glance.


The Orthodox or Neonian Baptistery – another “aaahhhh”

The Orthodox Baptistery is the second testimony of Ravenna as the capital of the Roman empire. It has been accomplished by Bishop Neone (450-476). This is why it is also called “the Neonian Baptistery”. The baptistery is what remains from the Basilica Ursiana which in the 18th century has been replaced by a new cathedral. This is the view from outside.

An interesting detail are the pilaster strips (Lisenen) and round-arch mouldings (Rundbogenfriese) – blind columns and arcades. This decoration has been in use in ancient Roman times, in Byzantium and in Ravenna. In Ravenna the Langobards picked it up and integrated it in their Lombardian architecture. From here the Romanesque architecture spread throughout Europe in the 11th century.

As this is a baptistery, the decoration centers around christening. The top of the cupola shows Christ standing in the river Jordan. He is being christened by Saint John, while the god of the river Jordan watches the procedure. Around this scene the apostles form a procession.

The outer circle contains a band of four double niche constructions alternating between a desk with the bible surrounded by two chairs (see below) and the throne of Christ in a garden (see above).

Windows give light to the baptistery. Next to the windows are plaster figures – perhaps prophets.

Below the windows are absidioles that once were much higher and contained (lost) mosaics showing biblical scenes. The spandrels connecting the absidioles are decorated with mosaics showing (unidentified) men sourrounded by blue and golden.

When entering the baptistery, I opened my mouth – aah – and just stared up at the cupola. Far away I heard a voice say something, but I did not listen. Only after some time I understood that this voice wanted me to show my ticket or buy one. A ticket? I came back to the world – oh yes, the cash point is inside the baptistery. The voice was very friendly, repeated “ticket please” and obviously enjoyed that I was so much overwhelmed by the beauty of the mosaics.

We will return to the scene of christening shown in the Orthodox Baptistery and compare it to the same scene in the Arian baptistery.

Clementina Rizzardi: “Ravenna, Eight Monuments World Heritage”, Municipality of Ravenna
Carola Jäggi: Ravenna, “Kunst und Kultur einer spätantiken Residenzstadt”, Schnell+Steiner, Regensburg 2016
Jutta Dresken-Weiland: “Die frühchristlichen Mosaike von Ravenna”, Schnell+Steiner, Regensburg 2016.

4 thoughts on “Ravenna: The heritage of Galla Placidia and Neone (Roman times)

  1. […] the christening scene in the Orthodox Baptistery from my previous blog? Saint John holds a bowl to baptize Christ and the pigeon flies above – to me it seems to […]

  2. marilyneb says:

    How wonderful to have five days in Ravenna. You have captured the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia beautifully. It’s such a lovely spot.

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