Today, the city of Ravenna is one of the many small towns dotting the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. It is nestled about 79 kms or 49 miles away from Bologna and doesn’t often find itself on tourist itineraries. This modern reality stands in stark contrast to its early medieval position! In the mid sixth century CE, Ravenna was made the capital of the Byzantine Empire by Justinian I. To show off the wealth of his nation state and to glorify God, Justinian built a magnificent church in 547 CE. It was dedicated to an early Christian martyr named Vitalis on the site of his sacrifice. The Basilica of San Vitale still stands and its glorious, golden mosaic program is one of the best examples of Byzantine Art to survive to the modern day. Although there are many stories depicted on its walls, the most important program shows Justinian and his empress, Theodora, claiming their power as leaders of Byzantium.
Typically, the term “basilica” conjures images of a long, rectangular shaped building that is bisected by another rectangle to create a cross shape. However, San Vitale is built in the Byzantine style. It is built using an octagonal plan and was one of the first churches in this style to utilize flying buttresses. This building is crucial to our understanding of Byzantine architecture because it is one of the few churches from Justinian’s reign to survive and is believed to have been based on the plan for his audience chamber, which does not survive. However, there are still Roman elements to this building, held over from the days of the once great western portion of the empire. The most notable ones are the dome and the shape of the doorways. This combination of styles was used to show that although Justinian was ushering in a new era of rule, he was a part of the Imperial Roman tradition that had stood for centuries.
The show stopping mosaic program in the Church of San Vitale is a set of two panels showing processions of the Emperor Justinian and his wife, Empress Theodora. Art historians have studied these panels for centuries, dissecting and decoding the vast amount of symbolism. In the Justinian panel, the emperor stands with two important groups of people, his soldiers and the clergy. The emperor stands out from the crowd with his purple chlamys and jeweled stemm. He holds a bowl for the bread of the Eucharist and fascinatingly, is adorned with a halo. There is no doubt about his power. This is additionally marked by his position in the mosaic. On the surface level, he is placed in the middle, literally making him the center of attention. But, subliminally, Justinian was showing viewers that he controls the power of both the church and military. As emperor of the Byzantine Empire, he held all religious, administrative, and military authority.