Byzantine Empire started when the Roman Emperor Constantine moved the capital of Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium. Byzantine Architectures was very similar to Roman architecture, but got certain influences from Near East and used Greek cross plan in church architecture. When the Church of San Vitale was built, Ravenna was under the control of Byzantine Empire, which is why San Vitale would be similar to the Byzantine architectures instead of having the same plan as other churches in Ravenna.
The construction of Church of San Vitale, dedicated by Bishop Maximian in 547, was begun long before Maximian’s arrival at Ravenna, even before the city was recaptured from the Goths in 540. Construction of this church began under Bishop Ecclesius after King Theodoric’s death in 526. The person who funded this great project “was a certain Julianus called Argentarius – ie a banker, not a bishop” (Lowden, 127). He provided more than 26000 gold coins to proceed with the work. San Vitale was built “in honor of Saint Vitalis, who was martyred at Ravenna in the second century” (Kleiner, 316). The “raison d’être” of the Church of San Vitale was to hold the relics of Saint Vitalis. Vitalis was not as famous or important as other famous saints, such as St Lawrence, thus originally there was only one small cross-shaped martyrium chapel built for him at Ravenna. But now a new church was constructed for him. There is no reason found to explain why his relics grew to the importance of requiring a magnificent new church. But according to one legend, he was the father of Gervasius and Protasius, two important Milanese saints, and all three of them are martyred in this church. This might be the reason why a church was specially built for St Vitalis (Lowden, 127). Its design is different from the sixth-century churches in Ravenna and was considered to be unlike any churches in Italy. It is not a basilica, but a central-planned church similar to the Justinian’s churches in Constantinople.
The Church of San Vitale is a central-domed octagon extended by semi-circular bays, surrounded by an ambulatory and gallery, all covered in vault. The main source of light comes from the clerestory and there are windows on the side walls, too. The regularity and angularity suggested by the exterior is different from the interior, which is dominated by curves. There are seven curving exedras on the sides of the central space which the double arcades will lead the eye up to vaulted semi-domes, arches, and thence to the central dome. The lower part of the church was originally reverted with colored marbles, which most of them were lost through out the ages, and now parts of them were restored. The presbytery (the part of a cathedral or church east of the choir, in which the main altar is situated) was also covered with marble and costly opus sectile in a geometric pattern. In the middle level, the presbytery was covered with mosaics. “The mosaics that decorate San Vitale’s choir and apse like the building itself, must be regarded as among the most climactic achievements of Byzantine art” (Kleiner, 316). But the original decorative scheme for the upper surface of the main body of the church remains unknown (Lowden, 127).
The most famous parts of the Church of San Vitale are the mosaics. “The imperial panels in the church of S. Vitale at Ravenna are perhaps the most famous of all Byzantine mosaics” (Treadgold, 708). Two panels face each other, one on each side of the apes. The left one was covered with mosaic Emperor Justinian and his Attendants and the right one was cover with mosaic Empress Theodora and her Attendants. Both the emperor and empress can be identified by the imperial purple robs they wear and halos behind their heads. The attendants who accompany Justinian parallel Christ’s twelve apostles. Therefore, the mosaic serves both political and religious reasons of the emperor. In the mosaic, the positions of the figures are important. They express the ranking of all figures (Treadgold, 708). Justinian is at the center, wearing purple robe and with a halo in order to distinguish from other dignitaries. At his left is Bishop Maximianus, the man responsible for San Vitale’s completion. Although the emperor appears to be slightly behind Maximianus, the large golden paten he carries overlaps the bishop’s arm. “This symbolized by place and gesture, the imperial and churchly powers are in balance” (Kleiner, 317). In these mosaics, classical elements of art mostly disappeared. For example, no shadows are presented, faces of figures are more stylized, and there is little naturalism. There is no background indicated. In the mosaic Emperor Justinian and his Attendants, the artists wanted viewers to think the procession is taking place in San Vitale, thus the emperor would appear forever as a participant in this church, symbolizing that he will be the proprietor of this church and the ruler of the empire forever (Treadgold, 708). This one of the most important reasons why San Vitale was built: to glorify the Emperor Justinian and the whole empire under his rule.
The opposite wall of the apse contains the mosaic that depicts Empress Theodora, who was considered to be one of the most remarkable women of the middle Ages (Kleiner, 317). Similar to her husband, she is accompanied by her retinue. She carries Chalice, the golden cup with the wine (symbol of Christ’s blood) while Justinian carries the paten containing the bread (symbol of Christ’s body). While most parts of the Theodora mosaic exhibit the same style as the Justinian mosaic, the women are shown within a background. It depicts the scene that Empress Theodora was waiting to follow emperor’s procession, which shows she was outside the sanctuary at that time. The fact that she is outside in the courtyard showed that her rank was not quite equal to her husband (Treadgold, 708). Even though Justinian and Theodora’s mosaics are considered to be one of the most important and most famous mosaics inside the Church of San Vitale, Justinian and Theodora never actually came to Ravenna or participate in any events, which mean those two panels are not the historical record of San Vitale. (Lowden, 134). So those two panels are built in order to ensure Emperor Justinian’s rule over Ravenna and glorify the whole empire under the rule of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora.
The Church of San Vitale is one of the most important architecture during Byzantine period. The plan of San Vitale is borrowed and used by constructions, such as the Palace Chapel of Charlemagne in Germany. All visitors would marvel at its intricate design and magnificent golden mosaics. But beauty is not everything San Vitale has; political and religious meanings also play a big role while Church of San Vitale is constructed.
- Kleiner, Fred. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Global History. Ohio: Wadsworth Publishing, 2009.
- Lowden, John. Early Christian & Byzantine Art. London: Phaidon Press, 1997.
- Treadgold, Warren. “Procopius and the Imperial Panels of San Vitale.” The Art Bulletin. 79 (1997): 708-723