When I’ve told people my itinerary there’s often been a kind of unspoken question – or two questions really. Where? and Why there?
If you look at my post Geometry or Symbol? from 24th June you will get some historical background. Suffice it to say that here are some of the oldest existing church buildings in the world (5th and 6th centuries) decorated with wall and ceiling mosaics that are regarded as the best Byzantine mosaics outside Constantinople. There are eight buildings in the town and its surroundings which are listed by UNESCO as World Heritage sites and six are within half a mile of the town centre – and I visited all six on Tuesday.
Go to the my blog to see some pictures but here are a few more. I was very glad of my new camera with a very fast lens (f1.4) as it provided me with some good detailed photographs despite the low light inside the buildings. Here is a view inside St Vitale. It is octagonal in shape and has three tiers of columns with walkways rather like balconies. I have put the central mosaic of Christ in glory on the post mentioned above, and there are plenty of spectacular mosaic pictures in this church. But the one I have chosen to show here represents the story of Abraham.
I find it difficult to get my head around the fact that these mosaics were created five hundred years before the battle of Hastings! Here we have two scenes in one tableau. On the left and centre is the story from Genesis chapter 18 of the three visitors (angels?) to Abraham and Sarah. Sarah finds the promise of a son difficult to believe because of their great age. But a son they have – and then it seems that God asks them to give him back (see on the right – Genesis chapter 22). In the biblical story there is a tension between the Isaac as the fulfillment of the promise and the testing of Abraham to let go of that promise. Quite apart from the issue of child sacrifice, its deep stuff. In the church’s reflection on this story the three visitors have often been seen as a prefiguring of the Trinity (as in Anton Rublev’s famous icon painted nearly a thousand years later). But also notice the bread with crosses – no, not not cross buns, but Eucharistic bread. Again, here is imaginative meditation on the biblical story where promise of God’s future is found in Jesus, the bread of life. Just as God met with Abraham and Sarah through a meal in which they provided the menu, so still God promises to meet with his people in table fellowship when they bring bread and wine in remembrance and thanksgiving.
There are two free-standing baptistries amongst the buildings I visited. In each, the dome above the central tank had a mosaic of the baptism of Jesus. Here is one of them.
These early mosaics represent a transition between Roman pagan art and Christian representation. The medium of mosaics is inherited from the Romans – but so are some of the artistic conventions such as the figure on the right who is apparently the spirit of the Jordon river. Whenever I see pictures of Jesus up to his waist in water but with John the Baptist dribbling water over his head, I think, ‘What a waste of a good river!’
Another church in Ravenna is Sant’ Apollinare. It is a genuine basilica in that it has a central nave with an apse and two colonnaded side aisles, like the Roman public buildings on which the first church buildings were modeled when Christianity became recognized in the fourth century. Along the nave wall above the pillars on each side is a superb mosaic frieze the full length of the church. On one side martyrs are bringing gifts to Christ in glory. Here is a detail of the adoration of the kings – yes, already the wise men are kings – this would have been significant in this particular church which was first built as a royal chapel – even kings must bend the knee before King Jesus.
Outside in the cloisters, sunlight was filtering through vine leaves – and the grapes looked as though they were nearly ready to pick…. My train the next morning left at 06.07 so I set my alarm for 4.30. Ravenna was a bit of a hassle to reach by public transport, but well worth the effort. The early train meant that I was in Assisi by 9.45 so the early start gave me an extra day – but I needed a long siesta that afternoon…