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They Gave at the Office: Sacrifice, Gifts, and Public Relations in Ravenna mosaics

In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian and Bishop Maximian wanted to take back the body (land) and soul (religion) of Ravenna, which for 50 years had been in the hands of the Ostrogoths and their Arian heresy, which held that Jesus was purely divine and subordinate to God. With the Western Roman Empire long in ruins, Justinian, who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire, gained back the Italian peninsula for a time, and wanted to re-establish Ravenna as the western head of the empire. He set about a church building program in Ravenna which affirmed and explained not only that Jesus was both God and Man, but also that Justinian (and his wife, Theodora) might be, too.


As above...

The Basilica of San Vitale is octagonal in shape, but the focal Byzantine mosaics survive on the eastern side. There, above the altar, is an apse with is a mosaic program showing a courtly reciprocity. Christ sits on a throne that is a blue, heavenly sphere. He wears imperial purple robes. All of the the clothing that looks brown in these mosaics was understood as standing in for the royal purple, which was a color then impossible to render in mosaic tiles. This is a Christ in the Byzantine (that is, eastern empire) style: beardless, young, kingly. Everyone else in the scene is standing on earth, even the angelic attendants. As in many courts, the emperor gives gifts and receives them.


Christ holds the scroll with seven seals from Revelation; this represents the fulfillment of Christ as the Law, and you can interpret the seals either as the catastrophic events which will be unleashed to bring about Judgment Day, or as the seven eastern churches, which were all much closer to Justinian than Ravenna and Rome. Justinian and Empress Theodora never visited Ravenna.


With his right hand, Christ hands the crown of martyrdom to San Vitale, the saint who was reputed to have been martyred on the grounds where the church has been built. On Christ's left side (our right), Bishop Ecclesius gives a model of the basilica to Christ. Ecclesius was the bishop who planned the Byzantine church, though he didn't live to see it finished.


There's a transactional process expressed here, where Christ gave his life for all sinners, and San Vitale gives his life back to Christ through his martyrdom. Vitale's martyrdom endows him with power to intercede for the faithful of the church. Ecclesius is not a martyr, but the bishop of Ravenna who began the church's construction, and is shown offering up the building to Christ. Vitale is the martyr, and Ecclesius is the high-ranking official who offers his service. There are two models of being a good Christian here--offering supreme sacrifice and offering good works. The emperor Christ has already given his all, but continues to give crowns to the martyrs, and comfort to faithful servants, but he also expects worship in return.



...So Below

On a panel below the scene in the apse, there's an echo of the scene of Christ as celestial emperor. Here, we see Justinian himself, together with his army on his far right (our left). His courtly attendants are to his immediate right. The figure immediately behind Justinian's left shoulder is possibly the donor of money for the church, and the figure to Justinian's left is the bishop who finished the building of the basilica--Maximian. Justinian is centered and frontal, like Christ in the apse, and he, too, wears an imperial purple robe. He also has a wrap embroidered with peacocks (often associated with Christ and a symbol of eternal life). He has a halo, similar to Jesus'.


The halo, while certainly used in a Christian context here, is a way of invoking the pre-Christian tradition of Roman emperors having divine status. It's a way for Justinian to model himself as the embodiment of both secular and religious authorities. Maximian's robes in the mosaic are sumptuous, but not imperial. He and his monks are leading a procession, where he carries the cross for the altar, and he's preceded by a monk carrying a gospel, and a monk carrying a thurible to swing. The emperor holds the ciborium which contains the host (the bread which communion services transform into the body of Christ). Carrying the ciborium implies that Justinian is a/the high priest.


The soldiers display a ceremonial shield with the Chi-Ro pattern (the Greek alphabet's "X"--chi--super-imposed on the letter "P"--rho, forming one of the earliest symbols of Christ by using the first two letters for spelling his name). The shield casts Justinian's soldiers as a holy army; warriors for Christ. So, the not-so-subtle implication in this panel is that Justinian is Christ's representative ruler on earth, and that he has the support of both Church and military to enforce the Law. That law includes stamping out Arianism, so that orthodoxy can re-establish itself in Ravenna.


The giving and receiving symbolism of the apse is also in play here: Justinian is offering a suitable fine vessel for the host, and he is receiving control of the church through his dominant relationship to Maximian.



His Better Half

While Justinian's panel in the eastern apse places him on Christ's right, on the other side of the altar, also beneath the apse, is his wife, the Empress Theodora. She ruled by Justinian's side in a near-equal partnership that caused Justinian's courtiers no end of irritation. She is flanked by her attendants: eunuchs on her right and ladies-in-waiting on her left. She has an apse behind her, which frames her similarly to Christ in the real apse above. She has an imperial halo, which grants her the same kind of quasi-divinity Justinian claims in his panel, and she wears the imperial purple in her robe. Her attendant in the gold cloak has a dress with the same peacock design Justinian's robes have. She is about to enter into a vestibule, quite likely a church, and she carries a jeweled counter-part to Justinian's ciborium for the host: a chalice for the communion wine. This is quite a statement--she carries a key item for the mass, as a priest would. As she goes into the church, she'll pass the font of holy water on the pedestal--also important for mass.


Together, she and Justinian carry two of the three key elements for the altar--all they are missing is the cross, which is provided by Maximian, the only actual cleric among them. Yet, the mosaic depicts Justinian and Theodora as essential to the priestly procession to mass.


Theodora is offering a gift to the church, and by suggestion in the mosaic, offering the communion wine itself. Her robe's hem depicts the three kings bringing gifts to the Christ child. Even her name means "God's gift." She and her husband are linking themselves to divinity and the quid pro quo relationship rulers have with the ruled. They're giving a church, but they're expecting obedience from everyone.


Everything Old (Testament) is New Again

Extending out from the chancel, the theme of offerings expands. On one wall is a tympanum with the sacrifice of Abel, and the blessing ritual of Melchizedek. There's some serious reading backward to legitimate and explain Christian practices here.


In Genesis, Abel offers the first blood sacrifice to Yaweh, and later in the book, Melchizedek gives the first priestly blessing (of Abraham, first leader of the Hebrews) using bread and wine. This passage is used to make a claim for tithing in the time of the Second Temple, and is affirmed by Christian orthodoxy in the book of Hebrews.


In the tympanum, Abel and Melchizedek preside over a Christian-looking altar, with Abel, the first martyr (given his murder by Cain), offering the wine (blood of the lamb), and Melchizedek offering the bread. The right hand of God emerges from heaven to bless the offerings. In the arch, Moses removes his sandals because he's approaching the burning bush; and Isaiah climbs the mountain. Both prophets were told by God that his hand was protecting them.


The ulterior motive of pairing up Abel and Melchizidek in San Vitale is to refute the Arian heresy--Abel and Melchizedek's actions are combined to symbolize the human and divine aspects of Christ. The Arians subordinated Christ in the Trinity, and didn't acknowledge his human aspect. The Basilica of San Vitale probably administered many sermons getting this orthodox, imperially-supported message across.


I love the humble shepherd's shack of Abel, and the very Roman-style of the Temple on the right. The buildings reinforce the idea of a humble individual sacrifice and the authoritative ministry of the priesthood, working with the ruler.


What's being said in this? I think it's affirming an unbroken line in the practice of what worshippers give to God, and what God gives to them. Justinian and Theodora have been inserted into rite of communion in the basilica, linking the rulers a righteous, controlling authority. In the combined earthly and spiritual world, there's sacrifice and there's service. The worshippers sacrifice, but the emperor and his priests serve, interceding on behalf of the worshippers.


Give 'til it Hurts

The tympanum and archway on the opposite wall offer more refinements on the theme of sacrifice and divine gifts. This panel depicts another two stories from Genesis. On the left and in the center, Abraham and Sarah offer their best hospitality (including slaughtering a calf) to the Three Visitors, who turn out to be angels sent by God. While the Visitors are enjoying their meal, they prophecy that Sarah will bear a son. This son ensures the future of the tribes of Israel. Significantly, these three visitors next go on to Sodom, and are poorly treated, leading them to condemn the city. Abraham pleads on Sodom's behalf, but to no avail. A striking lesson is drawn here about the importance of welcoming the stranger, and giving good hospitality.


On the right-side of the tympanum is Abraham, about to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, but the Hand of God stays the knife.


This is a Test...

This is a beautiful piece, which bears looking at close-up. Abraham is fully engaged with God here, but what I love is Isaac's gaze out of the mosaic, breaking the fourth wall, as if to reassure the viewer. The ram, who's the substitute sacrifice, is pulling impatiently on Abraham's robe, looking vaguely annoyed. The mosaicist has gone out of his way to make sure that the young ram, Isaac's analog, is anatomically correct. The subtext in the tympanum is that divine authority protects earthly authority. The male succession of Abraham is a gift given after Abraham proves repeatedly that he will submit his will to God's will.


Jeremiah and Moses, in the arch above these scenes, were used by Christian theology to link the law and God of the Jews to Christianity. Jeremiah's prophesies were thought to predict the (Christian) messiah, and Moses' bringing down of God's commandments is fulfilled by Christ bringing the new and final law in the gospels and Revelation.



Meanwhile, Across Town...

I'm posting here some mosaics from the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare, one kilometer from San Vitale, mainly to demonstrate that these ideas at San Vitale were not a one-off by Justinian and Maximian. Sant'Apollinare is built in the more traditional long-house style of Roman basilicas, and the long, uninterrupted wall-space above the colonnade hosts a striking mosaic frieze on both sides. This is hard to photograph in a way that gives you some idea of the length of the processions with enough detail to appreciate in the confines of the blog format. What you see in the photo above is Christ enthroned, but on a more earthly throne than the one in the apse in San Vitale. Before him is a procession of martyrs, 24 of them, if I recall correctly. Behind them are palm trees, whose fronds are used to symbolize martyrdom, whereas palm trees are symbols of justice.



The Leader of the Pack: San Martino


The procession leads with San Martino, who famously divided his cloak with a beggar. He has it back now, in imperial purple. Number four is San Lorenzo, the martyred treasurer of the early church. Lorenzo's tunic is all gold, which seems to me also a kind of restoration in the afterlife of what was given in service. All of the martyrs have their crowns. They present them to the emperor Christ. I think this act of presentation is that same model from San Vitale of sacrifice, service, and giving between authority and subject. Note that San Martino's hagiography presents him as an avid prosecutor of heretics. This basilica is another place making a declaration that Ravenna will be scourged of its heresy under Justinian's reign.



All the Single Ladies

You can appreciate the detail work of the Sant'Apollinare mosaics in this close-up of the female martyrs on the opposite wall. Each face is slightly different, as is each gown. Like the male martyrs, their names are written above their haloed heads. Saint Agnes is cut off on the left, but you can see the mosaicist has given her a little lamb companion, a pun on her name. The easter lilies at the feet of Saint Pelagia are a symbol of Christ's pure sacrifice and his resurrection. The female martyrs here have a gendered component to their sacrifice; one not required of the men. They are recorded in hagiographies as going to extreme lengths to protect their virginity for God. I am not sure, but that sanctity might account for why they wear a second crown on their heads, in addition to the crown of martyrdom each holds.



Here is Mary, as the empress towards whom all these virgin martyrs are processing:

Her imperial robes and headdress are more modest than Theodora's, but the child is the jewel she's a setting for in this image.


She's back!

Remember above, when I told you to remember the hem embroidery on Theodora's robe? We've reached this part of the post. Take a look at it again, and now look at this section of the frieze in Saint'Apollinare.

Does it look familiar? They're facing the opposite direction, but it's the same three figures in this mosaic at Sant'Apollinare, in the same pose. These are the Magi--the three kings who visit Mary and Jesus at the Nativity, bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. You can read their names above their heads--Balthassar, Melchior, and Gaspar. They are called "Wise Men from the East" in the gospels, and the mosaicist has gone all out to make them look Eastern. They are wearing Phrygian caps (which deserve a blog post in their own right some day). Those amazing leggings are a style from Persia. Justinian might have been viewed by the people of Ravenna as a king from the east, but I think what's most important here is that kings are shown supplicating, bending low to Mary and Christ--to the King and Queen of Heaven. The Magi are kings, but they aren't invested with divine authority; they just recognize it and submit to it. Justinian and Theodora are putting themselves in processions at San Vitale, but they're priestly kings and queens.


The basilicas donated by Justinian and Theodora were not acts of piety and giving, nearly so much as they were a way to signal a huge change to the city of Ravenna, and the western remnants of the Roman Empire. These were gifts that were meant to engender gifts of service and obedience in return. The mosaic programs in these churches emphasized the divine and mortal aspects of Jesus, along with the worldly and heavenly influence of Justinian and Theodora.

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