Ravenna: In search of Byzantine mosaics – San Vitale

The Basilica San Vitale has been inaugurated during Byzantine Rule, by Bishop Maximian in 547. The Ostrogoths had  started building San Vitale in 526.

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).


San Vitale is a beautiful octogonal building with mosaics in the choir

The building plan of San Vitale combines Roman and Byzantine elements. A Roman element is the use of clay pipes for the dome. A Byzantine element is the octogonal plan. Charlemagne liked the octogonal plan of San Vitale so much that he modeled his palatine chapel in Aachen after it (Rizzardi, p. 74 and Dresken-Weiland also mentions that).

Inside the choir is beautifully decorated with mosaics. They are the best preserved Byzantine mosaics from Early Christianity (id est around 500, Rizzardi, p. 72).  Let us discover the San Vitale choir with the mosaics shining in green-blue-golden-white.


Central cupola of the choir topped by the Lamb of God

In the center of the cupola the Lamb of God or Agnus Dei looks down at us as a symbol for Christ. He is flanked by four angels that stand in beautifully decorated gardens with birds and animals. The portrait of Christ himself is in the arch, along with the portraits of the apostles – next to Christ Petrus (grey hair) and Paulus (bald head).

In the front niche sits Christ, flanked by the two archangels and then to the left San Vitale (his martyrium is said to have happened here) and to the right the Bishop Eclesius who initiated building the cathedral. They all stand on a meadow with flowers and birds.


Both sides of the choir are dedicated to the Byzantine emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora

To the left of the choir there is a mosaic panel that shows the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the middle amidst his men and warriors. The Bishop Maximianus who inaugurated San Vitale in 547 is labeled.

To the right stands his wife Theodora amidst her escort. She is said to be the daughter of a bear trainer and she became a very influential empress in Byzantium.


At the entrance to the choir: Biblical scenes

At the entrance to the choir there are two Biblical scenes.

The first scene below shows Abel sacrificing a lamb and Melchisedec bringing bread and wine. To the left from the scene stands Moses as a good shepherd (caressing a sheep) and again Moses taking off his sandals to climb Mount Horeb where he finds the burning bush. To the right above the prophet Isaiah looks down at the scene with Abel and Melchisedec.

The second scene centers around Abraham. He is serving food to the three vagabonds that turned out to be angels. Three bread loaves are on the table and Abraham brings a lamb while his wife Sarah watches the guests from the doorstep. To the right, the hand of God is stopping Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac. Above the scene are the prophet Jeremiah (left) and to the right Moses receiving the Ten Commandments.

Another overwhelming assemblance of mosaics in Ravenna after the baptisteries and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia… and there will be more – we have not yet seen Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and Sant’Apollinare in Classe.

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.


2 thoughts on “Ravenna: In search of Byzantine mosaics – San Vitale

  1. Another good post of a great site!

  2. Always love seeing pictures of San Vitale. Good Post!

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