Torcello says, “NO PHOTOS!!!” 😎

It takes FOUR angels to hold up the triumphal arch of the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello in the Venetian Lagoon.

One of my mentors, John Dominic Crossan, said that the church on Torcello was not to be missed. It is the oldest church in the Venetian Lagoon (639 AD) having been settled by dry-landers fleeing barbarian invasions in the in the fifth, sixth, seventh…centuries and settling in the marshlands. In fact, that is the reason Venice exists. It was not a Roman settlement, but was a refuge for people from the Veneto seeking refuge.

Dom is probably most fond of the basilica on Torcello because it has an immense anastasis — a representation of the resurrection being a communal event in which Jesus empties the underworld, including all of the folks like Adam and the prophets who hadn’t had the advantage of knowing Jesus, the “second Adam,” (and accepting him as their personal Lord and Savior 😉) There is a tradition called “the harrowing of Hell,” in which Jesus descends into the netherworld and releases souls during the days between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. I’ve noticed that sometimes art in a given location will include both the harrowing of Hell and also the empty tomb. But sometimes, as at Torcello and in the Byzantine east, one sees just an anastasis.

When there is no empty tomb representation, it signifies an eastern way of thinking about resurrection. (See Dom and Sarah’s fine book, Resurrecting Easter to learn a whole lot more about this!) And this is magnificently the case on Torcello. Since it is such an early offshore church, I took the risk of taking photos while the guards either had no sight lines to me or weren’t looking. (I used my iPhone to avoid suspicion, so the photos don’t have the resolution they do when I use my camera.) It is a real buzzkill to hear someone scoldingly shouting “No photos!!”

ASIDE: There is no reason on God’s green earth that they should prohibit photos. It doesn’t degrade the mosaics (and one of their frescoes was in direct sunlight!) and if it because it is such a scared place, why does almost every church allow non-flash photography? If they (and the catacombs) were really serious about not photographing their walls, they could easily provide a website with jpegs available for public use. But I digress…

The rear wall of Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello, with the crucifixion in the uppermost register, then the anastasis, then the Last Judgment.
Jesus lifting Adam, David, et al. up from the underworld. The Greek iconographic letters also identify this as an anastasis (looking like +HANAS).

So, let’s do some SAYS, MEANT, MEANS with this image.
SAYS: It is a Byzantine mosaic of the late 12th or early 13th century. There is no “empty tomb” imagery present. Within the image Jesus is standing atop the broken gates of the underworld and typical of iconography of the anastasis, there are locks, keys, and tools under Jesus’ feet. (Look carefully at the image of Hades: tiny, shriveled, headless.) Jesus has his hands on Adam’s wrist, with Eve following close behind.
MEANT: Jesus is victorious over the grave…not just his own grave, but the graves of all time and all people. God’s “no” to death isn’t simply for Jesus, but extends to all of humanity (at least until we get to the Last Judgement below!).
MEANS: What does this image of resurrection (probably not what you saw in Sunday school or have heard preached every Easter) say to you? How is it different than the empty tomb stories that you’ve heard across the years? Perhaps you interpret the resurrection metaphorically, and if so, what does the anastasis say to you that may be different from what you’ve thought about resurrection since you were young? For me the image insists that Jesus is in charge and powerful, in fact he is “the Lord of the living and the dead.” It has some good news that resurrection wasn’t just a one-off for Jesus coming out of the tomb and leaving it empty, but that ultimately, we all rest in God, who is not only the one in whom we “live and move and have our being,” but also in whom we die, that even past the moment of death, we are with God.

The apse mosaic of Mary holding the Christ child is magnificent: she is surrounded by a simple gold background. It’s not busy. The other really cool thing that is happening in the upper corners is the annunciation. The archangel on the left is delivering the news to Mary, who is in the upper right corner. The apostles stand below her.
Christ the all-powerful pantocrator is on the apse mosaic in the side chapel. This has recently been restored with the help of an American-based organization, Save Venice. In 2019, there was a foot of seawater in the basilica, and as the salt leaches up into the stone and brick, it disintegrates the building materials.

Geeking out about a 4th c. church

Stairs leading to the excavation site of the original basilica of San Crisogono in Rome. OSHA would never let this happen; Thank God I’m in Italy!

I’m staying in Trastevere, which derives its name from trans-Tiber, across the river from central Rome. It’s a wonderful neighborhood, much favored by American tourists and expats. I had a conversation with an Italian gentleman last night, and he said he calls Trastevere “the American consulate,” because my fellow countrymen like it so well. (What’s not to love? Great food, quaint streets…old churches.)

I spent this morning walking through the rain to reach one of the oldest churches in the city, the Basilica of San Crisogono. The current basilica isn’t so old…it’s from the 12th century. When the constructed the “new” basilica, they filled in the old one, and it wasn’t unearthed until an archeological dig in the early 20th century.

The ancient basilica (blue) doesn’t align exactly with the new (12th c.) one.

We don’t know very much about Saint Chysogonos (Crisogono), other than that he was martyred (in 304 or 305 AD) during the Diocletian Persecution up in Aquileia. As previously noted, Aquileia has a rich Christian heritage and was a key city until Attila arrived with the Huns.

After tracking down the sacristan of the church, I paid my €3 and he showed me the door to some dusty steps and just pointed the way. And eerily closed the door after me. It was incredible! In fact it was so good that I shot two five-minute videos to include here, just because I want to share what it is like to be in a place where our Christian forbears worshipped so long ago. (The brochure from the church said it may have been the “first parish church in Rome.” Maybe.) I was so excited, in fact, that I shot one video horizontally and the other vertically, and I kept referring to frescoes as mosaics, and even misspoke and said that Pope Sylvester baptized Jesus. (We know it was John the Baptizer, but I caught myself…Sylvester baptized Constantine.)

Many early churches in Rome had their start as the homes of Christians in which worship was conducted, and once the Edict of Milan was promulgated, some of them had purpose-built churches that grew from the domus or house. This site is different, because the early basilica may have been intentionally created as a Christian place of worship. (Scholars debate this issue.)

At any rate, I hope you enjoy these videos. I am very excited to share them with you!

The first part…wait until you see what I found in a starcophagus!
An English art historian and guide was leading a tour and asked how I knew to come here, and I said from Matilda Webb’s “Early Churches of Rome.” She said, “Well don’t tell anyone.” Shhhhh…

The beauty of Ravenna

The Emperor Justinian (483 – 565) and his clerics, Apse mosaic of the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

It wasn’t my first trip to Ravenna, but I saw some things I hadn’t seen before. And I also got some images that I hadn’t captured before. Rather than do a whole lot of analysis, I thought I’d share some video (sorry if it gives you motion sickness at points) of a few amazing places.

Here is a little background on Justinian, the emperor who was based in Constantinople, but who (along with his wife and former dancer, Theodora) provided material support for the mosaics at the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. Justinian (actually his generals, including Belisarius) recaptured much of the western empire (from North Africa to Italy to Dalmatia) from the hands of the Ostrogoths and Visigoths and Vandals. The other thing for which he is remembered is the recodification of Roman law, which still holds sway in some countries. The Code of Justinian unified hundreds of year of Roman civil laws, bringing them into a single code.

So, here are some videos that walk you through three buildings: the Basilica of San Vitale, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (386-450, daughter of the emperor, Theodosius), and the Arian Baptistery. (The Visigoths who controlled Ravenna were Arians, who unlike orthodox Christians in Rome, weren’t as sure about the coequal status of Jesus and God, the first person of the Trinity.)

San Vitale 1…watch for Justinian!
Watch for Theodora. Apparently, Gustav Klimt sat for hours studying her, and you can see the influence in his “Lady in Gold.”
More from San Vitale
The oratory of St. Andrew, the bishop’s prayer chapel.
The Arian Baptistery. Look for the crab claws atop the head of the river god!

In the Upper Register…

The ceiling of St. Andrew’s oratory

Ravenna has some of the most important (and beautiful) Christian art anywhere. Its mosaics, many from the fifth and sixth centuries, are visually stunning. It amazes me that they have endured across the millennia (except for one church that was hit by Allied bombing during World War II…they aimed for the rail station and missed).

Ravenna is near Classe, which had been the home of the Roman Adriatic fleet since the time of Augustus. Ravenna itself was the western capital of the Roman Empire when the eastern capital was Constantinople. Obviously, it was a crucial city. Even if the history books didn’t tell you so, you’d be able to guess it by the size and ornament of the churches here. It also has art from Arian Visigothic rulers as well as from Catholic rulers. (BTW. I recommend Judith Herron’s Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe; it’s wonderful history.)

One of the great sites is the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. I had been there before and seen the parade of saints and martyrs leading toward the magi, Jesus, Mary, and the apse. Those are the elements of the main, noticeable register of mosaics, but I took time during this visit to observe the uppermost register, and I was surprised to see that most of the panels exhibited the life of Jesus and the stories we hear about him in the biblical narrative. There are roughly 28 panels overall, and I’ve selected some to describe below.

The images below are in the uppermost register, above the windows and just below the ceiling. (Sorry if the photos are a little less crisp than they should be…tough to shoot!)

That may not sound unusual to you, but most of the art I’ve been seeing deals a lot with the nativity (where Jesus is often on the ground, apparently having missed the manger), Mary (and oftentimes her enthronement), the crucifixion (lots and lots), and the occasional empty tomb. Like the Apostles and Nicene creeds, they trip blithely from “born of a virgin” to “was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” For my theology, this really misses much of the point: we are to emulate Jesus, to try and pattern our lives based on what he taught, not simply venerate and worship him. Then again, Jesus is a politically risky figure, especially when the Empire has at least nominally embraced him. More often than not, it is easier for the “powers that be” to deal with him when he is a babe in arms or when he’s been arrested and put on a cross and relegated to heaven. That said, Jesus is wearing purple in each of these panels, which symbolize royal power. (“The kingdom of God is among us!”)

Why do you suppose that the leaders who commissioned these mosaics, unlike their counterparts elsewhere, chose to illustrate the life of Jesus? I suspect that someone wanted people to “get it,” since most were illiterate, even some of the leaders. That is a guess as to what it meant. Something else bizzare: there is no crucifixion, but rather Jesus bearing the cross en route to his execution. What did it mean not to include a representation of Jesus on the cross?

I also noticed that many of the images relate to Mark’s Gospel, the earliest to have been written, though there is a bit of John thrown in for good measure. That says something, too. I hesitate to say it, but the images seem to identify and portray the (mostly) historical Jesus. I also noticed that Jesus is never alone: there is always a disciple in the scene with him. Does that mean that disciples of Jesus are meant to continue doing what Jesus did while he was among us?

As you look at the images below, I invite you to look deeply, remember the story each represents, and what it means in your life today. Does the image throw any light on the text you read in the gospels? If you were going to retell the stories about the life and acts of Jesus, what images would you choose?

And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. Mark 1.17 (All citations are NRSV.)
And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. Mark 2.4
“I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” Mark 2.11-12

For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” Mark 5.8-9

She said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Mark 5.28-29
And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men. Mark 6. 42-44
Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. John 4.13-14
They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene. Mark 15.21
(This is the only crucifixion scene among the panels. And Jesus appears to have grown a beard!)
But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Mark 16.6

Early Christianity meets Attila the Hun

The mosaic pavement of the Basilica of Aquileia

You may never have heard of Aquileia, a village at the very northern end of the Adriatic Sea. Even some Italians have never heard of Aquileia! It is at the crossroads of eastern and western Europe within sight of the Alps. That made it quite a desirable location. In fact, it was initially settled in about the 9th c. BC and it was invaded by Celts in 186-183 BC. It eventually became the fourth city of Rome on the Italian peninsula, but that didn’t stop the attacks. It was besieged by the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, and 452 AD, after three years of siege, it was conquered and sacked by Attila the Hun. Later came Lombards, Franks, and Hungarians, but still Christianity persisted in Aquileia.

If fact, Christianity was practiced surreptitiously in Aquileia before Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 AD, allowing Christians to practice their faith openly. We hear a lot about pre-Constantinian Christianity in Rome and Milan, but less so elsewhere in Italy. There is a domus (house) under the basilica in Aquileia, and it is not unreasonable to suspect that it was a house church before Christianity was legitimized.

It is amazing how quickly Patriarch Theodore started building…between 313 and 320. So, what we are able to see in Aquileia is very early, which is one aspect that makes it so precious. I’ll take you on a short underground journey to explore what archeologist are finding about the earliest layers of home and church here. Check the video below.

This is where Christians were worshipping perhaps even before the religion was legitimized by Constantine in 313 AD.

The basilica was renovated and expanded after Attila’s raid to encompass a nave and two aisles with a mosaic floor. It was updated again in the ninth century and destroyed by an earthquake in 1348. The mosaic pavement was buried under a meter of detritus. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that archeologists began to unearth the magnificent mosaic floor, which was completed in 1915. This goes back to the time of Patriarch Theodore himself.

A dedication mosaic, recognizing Theodore and using the Chi-Rho symbol that Constantine had seen prior to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

I’ll show you with the video below what the mosaic pavement (the largest in the west) looks like. It contains one primary biblical story: Jonah, whom we see relaxing under an arbor with a ”bush” to provide shade. And then in the central part of the nave, we see Jonah being hurled overboard into the mouth of a very large fish. Why do you think those early Aquileian Christians would have seen that as the primary biblical image for their basilica?

The other symbol you’ll see here, in Ravenna, and in Florence is actually called a Solomon’s Knot. There is some assertion that it is Celtic in origin and that it forms the basis for other Celtic knotwork. At the basilica, they interpreted it as representing both creation and divinity. It’s definitely prechristian, and it also appears in Judaism.

Look for Jonah and those cool Solomon’s Knots!

You may notice the complete absence in the early mosaics of any pictures of Mary, Jesus, or the crucifixion. This is startling when you will later see how the cult of Mary came to dominate some religious art, as in Siena, and how the crucified body of Jesus has come to be the most recognizable symbol of Catholic Christianity. There are some good shepherd images, however. Clearly, these Christians hadn’t gone in for the enthroned Christ in glory imagery. Later Christians, however, did include a fresco of Mary (enthroned?) holding Jesus and surrounded by a mandorla (the almond-shaped ring around them emphasizes spiritual power and also indicates Byzantine influence). Imagery changes because theology changes. If you were going to put an image or design in the front of your church, what would you choose?

Seeking Redemption

The Scrovegni Chapel was built as a son’s attempt to atone for his father’s “white-collar crimes.” Reginaldo Scrovegni charged outrageous interest to those in his debt, so the church would not allow him the rite of Christian burial. In the hope of saving him from eternal damnation, his son, Enrico, commissioned Giotto to decorate the chapel.

I’ve waited to see the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua for many years, and our evening visit did not disappoint. The chapel is located where a Roman arena once stood, as did the Scrovegni’s palazzo, which was torn down in the 1820s.

I love the way Giotto uses color, even using lapis lazuli pigment in the blue sky. Even though perspective in painting had not yet been formalized, Giotto was pioneering the practice. He also uses light in ways that seem to bring his frescoes to life in ways that no earlier painter had. Giotto (and his assistants) painted the chapel in two years, from 1303 to 1305. Rather than say he presaged he Renaissance, I think it is fairer to Giotto to appreciate his art for itself. Clearly, Renaissance painters were standing on the shoulders of giants.

I’m not going to do much analysis of these pictures, other than to say we know what they meant: they were an attempt to buy salvation for someone who apparently did not “forgive his debtors as he wished to have his debts forgiven.” The narrative they tell mirrors the historic creeds: born of virgin, suffered, was crucified and rose again. Not much on what happened between his baptism and the last week. Hmmm…

The other thing I have not included is the uppermost register, which is a retelling of the extracanonical story of Mary, her parents, marriage, etc. The lowest register shows virtues on one side along with their corollary vices on the opposite wall. I also have not zhuzhed up the color like some books have done (or even like the iPhone’s algorithm). I have brightened a few since I shot these at night. Enjoy!

Why does old Joseph look more tired than Mary?
Note the cute donkey…you’ll see him later, too!
Jesus is still naked, and they haven’t gone to “splash and dash” baptism in imagery…still immersion.
Cute donkey again!
Table already overturned.
Washing feet on Thursday.
The beloved disciple “listening to the heartbeat of God.”
Never the last word.
Real, human grief.
…and the men standing back watching.
Noli me tangere.