Angelo Lorizzo, The mosaics of Ravenna,
Longo editore, trans. By Peter Fischer, p. 38-41
The church of San Vitale (526-548) has been described as «beautiful like an oriental dream», and it is here that all the splendor and brilliance of Byzantine mosaic can be seen at its best.
Octagonal in shape, the building has a simple and austere exterior, and the regularity of its architectonic lines, broken only by the apse, produces a pleasing play of volumes. In the interior, it is the apse which is covered by magnificent murals.
While the scenes decorating the presbytery are marked by a lively naturalism derived from the Hellenistic-Roman current, those in the apse proper assume a hieratic solemnity, and show the elements of linearity and abstraction which are typical of the Byzantine current.
In the curve of the arch opening into the presbytery, fifteen medallions are arranged: at the top, the bust of Christ, flanked by the twelve apostles as well as the saints Gervasius and Protasius
In the presbytery, a lunette on the left-hand wall illustrates two scenes from the life of Abraham: the hospitality he is offering to the three angels who have come to tell him that Sarah, his wife, is to bear him a son, and then his readiness to carry out the sacrifice of Isaac in obedient submission to the will of God. It is a skilful composition, neatly fitted into the curved space prescribed by the lunette. There is still a landscape alive with air and atmosphere, full of rocks, flowers and trees, which provides a naturalistic setting for figures which are not yet stiff and frontal, although they are pictured in various positions, in full or in three-quarters profile, and the garments, following and suggesting the anatomical shape of the body, are not yet rigid, frozen shells of the kind seen in the mosaics of the apse itself.
Above the lunette, two angels are holding a clipeus (shield); on the left is the Prophet Jeremiah, on the other side, scenes from the life of Moses : below, the representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel assembled around Aaron, and above, Moses receiving the divine law on Mount Sinai.
Still further up, at the side of a graceful triforium, are St. John and St. Luke, the Evangelists, with their usual symbols above them. Creeping along the arch above the triforium are vine tendrils full of grapes and birds, rising from a kantharos (vase with handles) flanked by two doves.
In the lunette on the other side of the presbytery is a picture of the sacrifices of Abel and Melchizedek. On one side, Abel, dressed in a skin and a red mantle, is coming out of a humble hut, about to offer a lamb in sacrifice to Christ, while on the other side, the High Priest Melchizedek, dressed in luxurious vestments, is emerging from a rich temple and offering a loaf of bread, raising his eyes to the sky where a divine hand is appearing. At the sides, there is again a prophet, Isaiah, as well as more scenes from the
life of Abraham: below, Moses tending the flock of his father-in-law, and above, Moses on the point of going into the burning bush. At the side of the triforium on this side are the other two Evangelists, St. Mark and St. Matthew, and around them again the same ornamental motifs as on the opposite side.
Up in the vault of the presbytery, above all the men and animals and things, the dominating image of the mystic lamb is enclosed in a clipeus supported by four flying angels : angels which are set against a golden background bedecked with elegant, gold-glittering acanthus scrolls.
Two more angels supporting a round clipeus, again on a gold ground, are seen above the triumphal arch which connects the presbytery with the apse.
In the centre of the apsis conch— a real divine apparition. Christ, youthful, beardless and dressed in purple, is seated on a globe, flanked by two archangels. His right hand is offering a triumphal crown to St. Vitalis who is standing at the far left, while on the opposite side Bishop Ecclesius, the founder of the church, is shown holding a model of the building itself.
The vast expanse of gold against which these figures are set is, however, interrupted by some stylized clouds floating overhead, airy in blue and pink, still an element of naturalism of a kind of which nothing is left in the mosaic decoration of the walls, where the reign of the gold background is absolute.
If the celestial court dominates the centre of the apse, the two lateral panels underneath display all the pomp and circumstance of a royal court on earth. They depict the Emperor Justinian and his Empress, Theodora, in the act of handing over liturgical vessels : gifts which Byzantine Emperors often presented to major churches on the occasion of their consecration.
Justinian, his head crowned by a diadem and enclosed in a halo, is wearing an ample purple gown and carrying a golden paten in his hands. Following him are high-ranking dignitaries and a group of imperial bodyguards. To the right, between two sub-deacons and a man whose identity is disputed, there is the figure of Bishop Maximianus, who consecrated the church, and whose name appears in large letters above his head.
As the Emperor represents the secular power, the regalis potestas, so the bishop represents the ecclesiastic authority, the sacrata auctoritas . His face, unlike the somewhat stereotyped ones of the others, shows obviously individual features and is illuminated by penetrating blue eyes.
Generally, the panel is pervaded by a lively sense of colour, strictly applied also to the robes which fall stiffly around the bodies of the figures who are presented in a frontal posture, one beside the other.
The same frontality and stiffness, combined, however, with an even livelier sense of colour, can also be observed in the Theodora panel, which is dominated by the Empress as the only real protagonist of the composition. Dressed in resplendent regal robes studded with precious jewels, and wearing an equally magnificent diadem, she is carrying a golden chalice. She is preceded by two civil dignitaries, and followed by a number of richly dressed ladies of the court.
The figures, lacking any physical plasticity or material presence, are here completely subordinated to the rhythm of the lines, while colour revels in the luxuriance of jewels, of pearls, of gold, and of the mosaic smalti themselves; and all this combines to evoke a wonderful dream in which the earth is lifted to heaven, and heaven descends upon the earth, and the sacred joins the profane, and the profane the sacred, in a sublime symphony.