It’s the green that gets me every time I look at photos of the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. You just don’t see that colour normally in old mosaics.
But that is Byzantine art for you and its one reason why San Vitale is the most famous monument in Ravenna and is World Heritage listed.
Some history from Wikipedia:
The basilica was begun by Bishop Ecclesio in 527, when Ravenna was under the rule of the Ostrogoths, and completed by the 27th Bishop of Ravenna, Maximian in 548 during the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna. The architect of this church is unknown, but he was certainly among the best architects of his time.
The church has an octogonal plan. The building combines Roman elements (the dome, shape of doorways, stepped towers) with Byzantine (polygonal apse, capitals, narrow bricks, etc). However, the Basilica is most famous for its wealth of Byzantine mosaics, the largest and best preserved outside of Constantinople itself. The church is of extreme importance in Byzantine art, as it is the only major church from the period of Emperor Justinian to survive virtually intact to the present day; furthermore, it is thought to reflect the design of the Byzantine Imperial Palace Audience Chamber, of which nothing at all survives.
According to legend, the church was erected on the site of the martyrdom of Saint Vitale. However, there is some confusion as to whether this is the Saint Vitalis of Milan, or the Saint Vitale, whose body was discovered together with that of Saint Agricola, by Saint Ambrose in Bologna in 393.
The construction of the church was sponsored by a Greek banker, Iulianus Argentarius, of whom very little is known, except that he also sponsored the construction of the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe at around the same time. The final cost amounted to 26,000 gold pieces. The true sponsor may have been the Byzantine Emperor, who used such church construction projects as propaganda and as a way of speeding the incorporation of new territory into the Empire.
The central section is surrounded by two superposed ambulatories. The upper one, the matrimoneum, was reserved for married women. A series of mosaics in the lunettes above the triforia, depict sacrifices from the Old Testament : the story of Abraham and Melchizedek, and the Sacrifice of Isaac; the story of Moses and the Burning Bush, Jeremiah and Isaiah, representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel, and the story of Abel and Cain. A pair of angels, holding a medallion with a cross, crowns each lunette. On the side walls the corners, next to the mullioned windows, have mosaics of the Four Evangelists, under their symbols (angel, lion, bull and eagle), and dressed in white. Especially the portrayal of the lion is remarkable in its feral ferocity.
The cross-ribbed vault in the presbytery is richly ornamented with mosaic festoons of leaves, fruit and flowers, converging on a crown encircling the Lamb of God. The crown is supported by four angels, and every surface is covered with a profusion of flowers, stars, birds and animals, including many peacocks. Above the arch, on both sides, two angels hold a disc and beside them a representation of the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. They symbolize the human race (Jerusalem representing the Jews, and Bethlemehem the Gentiles).
All these mosaics are executed in the Hellenistic-Roman tradition : lively and imaginative, with rich colours and a certain perspective, and with a vivid depiction of the landscape, plants and birds. They were finished when Ravenna was still under Gothic rule.
Inside, the intrados of the great triumphal arch is decorated with fifteen mosaic medallions, depicting Jesus Christ, the twelve Apostles and Saint Gervasius and Saint Protasius, the sons of Saint Vitale.
The theophany was began in 525 under bishop Ecclesius. It has a great gold fascia with twining flowers, birds, and horns of plenty. Jesus Christ appears, seated on a blue globe in the summit of the vault, robed in purple, with his right hand offering the martyr’s crown to Saint Vitale. On the left, Bishop Ecclesius offers a model of the church.
At the foot of the apse side walls are two famous mosaic panels, executed in 548, depicting the Emperor Justinian, clad in purple with a golden halo, standing next to court officials, Bishop Maximian, praetorian guards and deacons. The halo around his head gives him the same aspect as Christ in the dome of the apse. he is surrounded by the symbols of his power on Earth and by symbols of his spiritual power. This shows that the imperial rule of the Romans had turned in the Byzantine theocratic rule.
On the other side is Empress Theodora solemn and formal, with golden halo, crown and jewels, and a train of court ladies. She is almost depicted as a goddess. These panels are almost the only surviving examples of Byzantine secular mosaic art, and offer a glimpse into the glory, splendor and pomp of the Byzantine world.
The Basilica of San Vitale inspired the design of the church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople, then was the model used by Charlemagne for his Palatine Chapel in Aachen in 805, and centuries later its dome was the inspiration for Filippo Brunelleschi in the design for the dome of the Duomo of Florence.
And if it is at all possible to grow weary of looking up at these stunning mosaics, take some time to look down…