Basilica of San Vitale

Published date: 09/07/2024
  • Location: Italy, Bolago, Basilicate, Italy
San Vitale dates from the greatest period in Ravenna’s history, when it played a pivotal role in relations between East and West—Constantinople and Rome. The church reflects these very different cultural influences, particularly in its stunning mosaics, which are generally acknowledged as the finest in the Western world.

Situated in northeastern Italy, Ravenna came to the fore as the Roman Empire crumbled. In 402 Ravenna replaced Rome as the capital of the Western Empire, but by the end of the century the city was in the hands of the Ostrogoths. By 540 the situation had changed again, as the Byzantine emperor Justinian took control and made Ravenna the capital of his imperial rule in Italy. San Vitale was built against the backdrop of these upheavals. It was begun by Bishop Ecclesius in 526, during the Ostrogoth period, and was consecrated in 547, under the new regime. The building was funded privately, by a wealthy banker named Julianus Argentarius, and dedicated to the little-known St. Vitalis.

The church has an unusual octagonal layout, with an outer aisle and galleries. It combines Roman and Byzantine elements, although the influence of the latter is far greater. For this reason, it has been suggested that the plans were produced by a Latin architect who had trained in the East. The mosaics, which consist of biblical scenes and imperial portraits, also have a strong Byzantine flavour. The most famous sections are the two panels showing Justinian and his wife, Theodora, emphasizing the theocratic nature of their rule. Justinian is depicted in the company of 12 attendants—a subtle echo of Jesus Christ and the Apostles—and the royal couple present the vessels that will hold the bread and wine, the symbols of the Eucharist. (Iain Zaczek)

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