Golden Splendor: Power and Art in Byzantine Ravenna

Analisa Soverns-Reed

Justinian and Theodora

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.
Golden Splendor: Power and Art in Byzantine Ravenna
Emperor Justinian Panel

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Golden Splendor: Power and Art in Byzantine Ravenna
Empress Theodora Panel

By placing Theodora as his essential equal and direct counterpart, Justinian was making yet another statement

Theodora’s panel faces her husbands, flanking the chancel (space around the altar) with power. Like her husband’s panel, the empress stands in the center of the work. She is dressed, like Justinian, in imperial purple and absolutely dripping with jewels. This shows not only her power, but the wealth of the empire. Fascinatingly, she is also about equal in size to her husband. This was quite unusual for the period as the emperor was almost shown as the largest figure in a scene. Called hierarchy of scale, this technique shows the most important person as the largest figure. Here, Justinian was making a statement that his wife held equal power to himself. There are several other figures in this panel. On one side, her attendants dutifully wait by her side. On the other side, two church officials guide her towards an open curtain. In Theodora’s hands, she carries a chalice for the wine of the Eucharist. Again, this shows her as the counterpart to her husband, who carried the other piece for the sacrament ceremony. By placing Theodora as his essential equal and direct counterpart, Justinian was making yet another statement. His marriage was not made for political reasons. Theodora was the daughter of a bear trainer of the Green Faction of the Hippodrome. Her mother’s name has been lost to history, but records indicate that she was an actress. All in all, Theodora was of low birth and in the eyes of many, not fit to be an empress.
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Much of what we know about Theodora’s life comes from a primary source by Prokopios of Caesarea, a historian living in Constantinople. His words were not kind and often unflattering. Prokopios mainly wrote about Theodora’s time working in brothels and performing racy versions of myths, including Leda and the Swan, on stage. Between these details, Theodora had a dismal, social reputation. So, it was quite surprising when she married the emperor! Especially because a Roman law, passed in the time of Constantine, prevented anyone of senatorial rank or higher from marrying an actress. So, in 524 CE, Justinian passed a counter law that stated that actresses could marry above their rank with permission from the emperor. Conveniently, he was also the emperor and thus granted Theodora permission to marry. Together, the couple created a vision of a united Byzantium. By controlling both the church and the state, they would reclaim and grow the power of their empire. Only about a century before, the Ostrogoths had decimated the Italian peninsula. It was their duty to regain control! By building San Vitale, and other buildings like it and then placing their images in the Church, Justinian and Theodora were literally putting themselves in a position of power to be the ones to save Byzantium.
Golden Splendor: Power and Art in Byzantine Ravenna
Close up of Theodora
Golden Splendor: Power and Art in Byzantine Ravenna

Analisa Soverns-Reed

Analisa Soverns-Reed is an art historian, educator, and digital humanist. She holds degrees in both art history and education and uses that background to build her project, Accessible Art History. Her goal is to create easy to understand art history content over a variety of social media platforms including Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and podcasts. This allows anyone that is curious to learn about her favorite subject! Analisa’s speciality is medieval art, but she loves all periods of art history!
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