Mosaics of San Vitale





Mosaics of San Vitale

ERIK BUNGO

The church of San Vitale in Ravenna was dedicated to St. Vitalis. After the discovery of the bones of the reputed martyrs Agricola and his slave Vitalis at Bologna in the fourth century, Vitalis was widely venerated in the west. The church of which he is the patron saint in Ravenna was begun by Bishop Ecclesius in the second quarter of the sixth century, when the Goths still ruled there. Funds for its construction were supplied by Julianus Argentarius. The church was completed and consecrated by Bishop Maximian in 547/8, after control had passed to the Byzantines . San Vitale was built on an octagonal plan (Ills. 1), with eight heavy piers supporting the drum and dome. The inspiration for the central plan likely came from the east, for Ecclesius had recently returned from a visit to Constantinople, but the construction is Roman. Of special interest are the mosaics of the sanctuary and apse. The mosaics in San Vitale cover the entire sanctuary (Ills. 2,3). In different symbols and images, they all convey one idea: the redemption of mankind by Christ and the sacramental re-enactment of this event in the eucharistic sacrifice. The compositions must thus be understood as the setting for the rite celebrated in this room and as closely related to it.
In the vault there appears the Lamb of God in the midst of a wreath, which is supported by four angels standing on globes. The image of the lamb was introduced into the Roman rite only at the end of the seventh century by Pope Sergius I, a Syrian . But, in the liturgies of the East, this symbol of the Christian sacrifice appears at an earlier date, and we are justified in interpreting its representation in San Vitale as alluding to the eucharistic liturgy (Ills. 4).
The first arcade of the sanctuary is decorated with fifteen medallions, showing the images of Christ, of the twelve apostles, and of Gervase and Protase, who, with their father Vitalis, were venerated in this church. In the ancient liturgy of Ravenna, all these saints are mentioned in the so-called "diptychs," the "Book of Life," listing the names of those whom the church wishes to remember at every Mass (Ills. 4, 5).
The next bay on either side shows, above the columns supporting the arcades of the galleries, two sacrificial scenes from the Old Testament. On our left, the three angels appearing to Abraham in the valley of Mambre (Genesis, chap. 18), and Isaac whom his father is about to sacrifice; on our right, Abel offering a lamb, and Melchizedek with his sacrifice of bread and wine. Above them, there appears the hand of God, the traditional symbol of the divine presence and of God\'s acceptance of the sacrifice (Ills. 6, 7).
All four scenes allude to the eucharistic sacrifice. To make this significance plain, an altar is depicted between Abel and Melchizedek, on which are placed a chalice and two loaves of bread, identical in shape with that which Melchizedek offers and also with the eucharistic bread which the church used during the sixth century . The altar motif appears again in the opposite mosaic: Isaac is shown kneeling upon an altar, and even the table behind which the three angels are seated resembles the simple wooden altar of Christian antiquity. The three round cakes which Sarah has placed before the heavenly messengers are marked with the sign of the cross and recall again the eucharistic hosts of that time. In patristic exegesis and in Christian art and literature, the four scenes depicted are among the most frequent symbols of the eucharistic sacrifice.
Above these mosaics and flanking the graceful arcades of the gallery, the four evangelists are represented: Matthew and Mark on the left wall, John and Luke on the right. All four appear seated in a mountainous landscape, holding their Gospels on their knees. Their symbolic animals are seen above them; writing utensils are placed at their sides (Ills. 8, 9). The relation of these figures to those below is obvious: as the two tables which Moses received on Mount Sinai contained the Old Law, so the New Regulation is contained in the Gospels. In the later Middle Ages, Christian art expressed this relation by depicting the apostles