Ravenna – Art History in a Few Blocks

Oct 24, 2013

Better start with a little background and review for those with less than total recall about the early Middle Ages. Ravenna was briefly the Capitol of the western Roman Empire. In the early 5th Century Rome was in trouble. Barbarians were actually at the gates including bad guys like Attila the Hun. He was bought off but more persistent guys were right behind. It was at this time that Ravenna became the Roman headquarters. By the end of the fifth century, Ravenna was ruled by the Goths who also sacked Rome and deposed the last of the Emperors. The Dark Ages were replacing Roman civilization.

What was left was the Christian church that itself had several unresolved issues. One was the controversy created by Bishop Arian in the early 4th Century. The Bishop argued that Jesus was created by God the Father and did not achieve divinity until he was baptized. Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicea to resolve the issue. The result was the affirmation of the Trinity and the determination that Arianism was heresy. Unfortunately for the followers of the Nicene Creed, the cat was out of the bag. Constantine’s son sent Arian missionaries north of the Danube to convert pagan Goths. As a result the same Goths who emerged as rulers in the western Roman Empire were mostly Arians and won the argument with the Trinitarian Roman church while they ruled. Arianism will continually pop up in church history over and over again. Back to Ravenna.

The Gothic ruler Theodoric was a fervent Arian. The churches he built and their art reflected Arian Christian beliefs. We first visited the Arian Baptistry, Jesus is shown in full frontal humanity while being baptized by John while the river god watches. The fifteen hundred year old mosaics are as fresh and vibrant as they were when first cemented on a ceiling. Theodoric also built the Basilica of Saint Apollinare Nouvo using Arian themes and figures. As the Byzantine ruler Justinian, a main line Trinitarian booted out the Goths in the mid-600s, he had the place remodeled to his theological tastes. The obvious Arian figures were painted over leaving only hands and fingers on columns pictured on the walls. The 10th century bell tower looks new next to the 500 year older church.

Theodoric’s palace ruins are next door. The place looked like it would stand one more day and even had a tower. Peggy was happy. We walked around this crumbling monument and even went up the stairs to the large collection of mosaics from the palace and some of the surrounding churches. I just kept waiting for the earthquake and the end. Peggy found plenty of pictures of mosaics that did not have the ancient Roman sophistication but then this was the Dark Ages.

Now Justinian did a little building of his own. He constructed the church of San Vitale next to the empty tomb of the Roman Empress Galla Placidia. This mausoleum was built in the early 5th Century and includes early mosaics of a beardless Jesus in the Roman style. He is pictured as the shepard of his flock. The mosaics lit through the alabaster windows are incredible in this rather humble, from the outside, structure. The Empress was actually buried in Rome around 450 and her tomb was left alone.

Justinian’s San Vitale is an eight sided Greek style “round” church. The long nave of most western style churches is missing. Instead you have a central dome with a short nave and alter. Justinian and his Empress Theodora (another great story to look up) preside over the mosaics in an imperial manner. They clearly place themselves right at the top of the Byzantine church hierarchy. The church provides the inspiration for it’s gigantic cousin, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Charlemagne was so impressed by the church when he visited Ravenna circa 800 that he had one made of his own in Aachen, Germany. He also removed quite a bit of the marble wall surface and used it in his German church.

Another early church was the Duomo or cathedral of Ravenna. All that remains of the original structure is the chapel an early archbishop and they would not let us take pictures. Trust me, it was thoroughly Arian. Next to the cathedral was another early Baptistry with cheerful dancing Apostles on the wall overlooking the large marble baptismal pool. This pond was designed for more than one at a time and Jesus is looking down from above showing how it is done.

A later church was built by the Franciscans over an earlier fifth century church. The alter is built over the sunken crypt. The water table has risen. The crypt has mosaics and a couple feet of water covering them and plenty of gold fish swimming around. I am not making this up. Near the Franciscan church lies the actual burial place of Dante. He was exiled from Florence and caught malaria and died in Ravenna. The Ravenni were sure that the powerful Florentines would snatch his famous remains so they hid him for three centuries in the Franciscan church. People forgot where he was buried and did not relocate him until the mid-19th Century. He now has a final resting place.

Enjoyed walking around this town. The sights were within easy walking distance and we only had to dodge bicycles and a few cars. There were not too many tourists. We were the only cruise ship. Plenty of school groups of all ages. Nice stop for espresso and wifi in a elegant cafe with plenty of locals and non-tourist prices. Easily made it back to the ship by catching the free shuttle back to the port. The overall impression is that Ravenna is trying very hard to make tourists eager to visit. Unfortunately, while the sights are wonderful for those interested in history, they seem to lack the appeal of a visit to the nearby Ferrari Museum. Yes, I am a snob.

I was somewhat distressed to hear some of my contemporaries complaining while we waited for the shuttle. They felt that the stop in this city was mistake because there was nothing to see and a waste of time. Needless to say Peggy had to restrain me from chastising them. There is not much you can do about the vapid. Some times it is blissful to ignore the ignorant.

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3 thoughts on “Ravenna – Art History in a Few Blocks

  1. Very impressive! I don’t know where Ravenna is and will head for a map as soon as I write this. Chris and I walked through Jamestown this morning and they were inviting kids to come to all the stores in costumes for treats. Had fun talking to persons about the old jail. Went to the pet store and found some more grass for Goldie, the other is all gone. She will be so glad.

  2. Visited the restored late 19th century jail in Jamestown. Unfortunately the graffiti art all dated from more recent criminal activity. No mosaics or religious art to speak of, but a local gentleman with no front teeth did say, “Jesus Christ,” while telling us about his missed opportunity to play rhythm guitar for Stevie Ray Vaughn. Perhaps I should visit Ravenna.

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