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.
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?
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