Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Basilica of San Vitale

The Basilica of San Vitale is the point where Christianity, which had originally emerged as a non-visual/non-iconographic religion, became harmonized with the late period antique art and Roman mosaics to form classical middle age Christian art and iconography. Mosaics of Basilica can be referred neither as the early period Christian art nor as the late period antique Roman art. The magnificent one thousand five hundred years-old mosaics on its walls symbolize a transition. Stories we will see for one thousand years after the Old and New Testaments, in the hands of the artists whose names we do not know began to find shape here in Ravenna. Whereas the Christian church fathers, who appeared in their togas among the flowers, trees and birds of the antique pagan art, told the people of Ravenna about the new ruler of “Sky”, the Christ; Emperor Justinian, who was pictured in purple clothes with a crown on his head, called himself as the new ruler of “Earth”.

Ravenna is a small coastal town at northeast of Italy where you can reach in 3 hours from Florence by car. From 5th to 7th centuries, it was used as the capital of Western Roman Empire and then, Italian State of the Byzantine for a small period. This was how it came to possess this masterpiece, the Basilica of San Vitale and those magnificent and astonishing mosaics. 

The Basilica of San Vitale was named after Saint Vitalis. Its construction started in 526, when Ravenna was under the control of Ostrogoths. The rich Greek banker Julis Argentarius financed the basilica. One of the main properties of the basilica, which was constructed on an octagonal base, is that, its throne and reception rooms were similar to Chrysotriklinos part of the Great Palace in Constantinopolis, which have been vanished without a trace. If Chrysotriklinos had managed to survive today, it would be at where Topkapı Palace is today and it would most probably be much more beautiful and flamboyant than that, as its mosaics would be the same style as the ones in San Vitale but this time, they would be inside the throne room of the Great Palace in Constantinopolis.
Wall mosaics at Arian Baptistery/ Naked Jesus Christ is 
being  baptised in a river, the Pagan God of Rivers, 
Okeanos is  on his right

The parts of Basilica that have survived today are the apse and altar found on the right side of the Basilica that is engraved with mosaics. As I have mentioned at the beginning of the article, these mosaics have Pagan features. In this regard, you can find a unique Pagan-Christian hybrid art in Ravenna. In the dome of the Arian Baptistery, which is 500 meters away from the Basilica, Jesus Christ is pictured as naked in a river. John the Baptist is on his left side and Pagan God of River, Okeanos is on the right. After that, we do not see such a mixture of Pagan-Christian art in the Middle Age. In the following centuries, Pagan times would be cursed as times of perversion and its traces would be removed from Christian iconography in time. Referring back to our Basilica, San Vitale, we can see several peacocks on the mosaics of its walls as common in Orthodox churches. As well as the several popular stories of Cain and Abel and the prophets Isaac and Abraham from Old and New Testaments, on the arch of the first part of the altar at the right, towns of two Abrahamic religions are pictured in representation of all humanity; there is Jerusalem representing the Jews and on the opposite, there is Bethlehem representing the new Christians. The message intended to be given with the 12 men’s mosaics representing the 12 Israeli tribes and the Moses next to those mosaics is clear: the Moses, who had been law-maker with his famous 10 commandments was now replaced by the new law-maker Roman empires and all societies (Christian and Jewish) were living under the command of Roman Empire.

Mosaics of the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora, which are the very source of the fame of the Basilica, are on the altar of the structure. One has goose bumps when looking at the faces of the couple who have been on the mosaics in Italy for 1500 years, are also from Istanbul. In my previous articles, you can find information on the most interesting couple of not only the Byzantine but also Roman history.

Emperor Justinian is in the middle in his purple clothes, Commander Belisarius  and soldiers on his right, Banker Argentarius, Bishop Maksimianus and clergymen on his left, respectively
Justinian and Belisarius duo expanded the lands of empire significantly, just like the old days they took over Italy and almost all of the Northern Africa. Thanks to the duo, Rome managed to take the Mediterranean region under control for the last time in its history (By the way, as Romans had ruled the Mediterranean region for centuries, they called the Mediterranean Sea “Mare Nostrum”, which meant “Our Sea”). Although Justinian had Belisarius judged for fraud and sent him to jail for a few years as he thought he had gained too much power, he restored his honour and gave him a place in his palace. Justinian and Theodora are buried under today’s Fatih Mosque whereas Belisarius and Antonina are buried in Kadıköy.
Empress Theodora in the middle, her guards on her right,
Antonina and bridesmaids on her left
On the right side columns of the altar; Justinian is pictured with the soldiers on his right and the clergymen on his left; Theodora is just on his opposite with her bridesmaids. Chief Commander Belisarius in on the right of Justinian, Ravenna’s most supreme religious official, the Bishop Maksimianus is on his left. Financer of the Basilica, the banker Julius Argentarius is between Maksimianus and Justinian but at the back. As Argentarius used his money to find a place for himself in the picture, he looks weirdly shy, almost irrelevant. On the opposite, the wife of Belisarius, Antonina is next to Theodora. Thanks to these magnificent mosaics, now we know how Justinian, Theodora, Belisarius and Antonina looked like. I think Byzantine mosaics are kind of funny in that, the feet of people look like they are on air, stepping on each other. You can see the same flying feet on the walls of the Chora Church in Istanbul. 

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