Monday, October 26, 2009

The New Rome


What was the capital of the Roman Empire? Rome, you say, of course. True, but so was Ravenna, for a brief period as the Western Empire tottered on its last legs. In 402, the Emperor Honorius packed up and moved the capital here, to Ravenna. His sister, Galla Placidia, seems to have been in charge of things for a while.

She built a final resting place for herself, rather small -- possibly even an emperor's sister didn't command the resources for a larger one by then -- but it was showy enough, all the walls and ceiling covered with mosaics. It still stands, with a sarcophagus that historians say isn't really hers, but the glittering stars and deep blue sky on the ceiling are almost close enough to touch, a heaven that seems to be within our grasp.

We visited Galla Placidia's mausoleum today, and three other monuments and basilicas of late antiquity: San Vitale, the "Orthodox" Baptistry (so called because the establishment Athenasians were in charge of it, in contrast to the "protestant" Arian sect of Christianity), and San Appolonare Nuovo. All contain richly decorative mosaics that were intended as messages of spiritual urgency.

Those other monuments were built around a century later, after the Western Roman Empire went into its final sleep, during a period when Ravenna was ruled by Ostrogoth kings and later by exarchs from Constantinople.

Regardless of whether one is a believer or not, all these works of art are inspirational: they seem to glow from within: they contain the world of their time and place that mattered to rulers and ordinary people, from Jesus and saints to the oriental opulence of the Emperor Justinian, the Empress Theodora, and their richly adorned courtiers. But there is also "pure" design, landscapes, clouds, birds, swags of fruit, even geometrical and abstract ornamentation.

It's something of a miracle that they have lasted for one thousand five hundred years, so that we can gaze with wonder on them just as when they were created.

In these buildings, we are at a turning point in history, between the trailing artistic motifs of classicism and a new, almost entirely different way of seeing and feeling that we call Byzantine. The sense of craft being exercised at a cusp of ages can be seen in another, less important but interesting, way. Some of the saints and individuals portrayed carry scrolls, awkwardly unrolled. Others, even in the same scheme, hold the cool new thing, a book (codex).

The earlier, more traditional mosaics are expressive in a way that seems more natural and has been "modern" since the Renaissance. The people who are pictured gesture and relate to one another. Comes the Byzantine and we are in a new mode of seeing, thinking and worshiping.

The ordinary falls away: there are, at least in art, no more trivial moments, only very serious ones. The people portrayed, mostly in groups, are statuesque, formal, seeming to float more than stand. Jesus, the saints and apostles, the exotically robed aristocracy of Constantinople, look directly at us. Through us? We are such stuff as dreams are made on, they seem to say, and only the light of God can open our eyes to what is real.



Dennis Mangan said...

That famous mosaic in Ravenna, the one showing Justinian and Theodora, also depicts Belisarius, one of the greatest generals of that or any other age. He defeated the Persians, Visigoths, and Vandals, expanding the Byzantine Empire to about its greatest extent.

Anonymous said...

The cathedral that Justinian built in Constantinople is now a mosque.

Rick Darby said...


Interesting, I didn't know that. As usual on returning from a trip, I want to research many things I saw.