Archive for Constantine

Venetian Red in Ravenna: All That Glitters

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Mosaic, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: During July Venetian Red continues to post on topics of interest in Italy.


The Presbytery and Apse of San Vitale (constructed 526-547 CE)
(Photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

To stand in the presbytery of San Vitale in Ravenna is to be struck nearly dumb by the basilica’s dazzling mosaic program. Narrative compositions complemented by decorative motifs cover literally every square centimeter of the surrounding walls. Individual tesserae—in shades of turquoise, green, red, brown, black, white, and of course gold, glittering gold—skillfully placed, create a riot of color that magically blends into a gorgeous chromatic harmony.

The sheer physical grandeur of the space and its uncompromising sensuality is almost overwhelming. It’s an exquisite feast for the eyes; they strain to take in all the heavenly morsels.

Exterior View, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

But oh the morsels! The side walls of the presbytery contain Old Testament stories of sacrifice—on the one wall, Abel sacrificing a lamb paired with Melchesidek offering bread and wine; on the other, Abraham visited by angels in the valley of Mambre with the Sacrifice of Isaac. Each lunette created by these scenes is crowned by a pair of angels, holding a medallion with a cross and depictions of Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles with their animal symbols.  The narrative program soars skyward to the cross-ribbed vault of the presbytery, which contains paradisiacal scenes of fruits, flowers, birds and angels. Appropriately, the four wedges of the vault converge in the center in a crown that encircles the Lamb of God.

View of Presbytery Arch
Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Christ Medallion, Presbytery Arch
Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

The apse feature perhaps the most famous panels in San Vitale—on the left, Emperor Justinian with court and church officials; on the right, Empress Theodora, looking all the world like a goddess, surrounded by her court. Between them, a clean-shaven Christ the Redeemer sits with open arms majestically facing the congregation, flanked by San Vitale (accepting the martyr’s crown) and Bishop Ecclesius (who began construction of the church in 526) holding a model of the church in his hands.

Emperor Justinian with entourage, 526-547 CE
Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Emperor Justinian with Entourage (detail), 526-547 CE
Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Christ the Redeemer, Apse, 526-547 CE
Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Inside the triumphal arch that separates the presbytery from the octagon-shaped nave are 15 mosaic medallions—12 apostles and the two sons of San Vitale rise along the arch to meet Jesus Christ.

Presbytery Vault showing Lamb of God medallion, 526-547 CE
Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

The artisans of San Vitale didn’t stop at the walls. The Byzantine-styled column capitals as picturesque as anything Romanesque, featuring crosses, vegetation and peacocks (the latter being references to Paradise). The floors too are covered with wonderful, though less colorful designs, inspired by Roman mosaics.

Capitals with peacocks and other paradaisical motifs, 526-547 CE
San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Floor Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna, 526-547 CE
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

The mosaic program at San Vitale was meant to convey a single idea—the redemption of mankind by Christ. One cannot help but believe that Bishops Ecclesius and Maximian intended this awe-inspiring experience. Perhaps they reasoned that, if the attention of their congregation were to wander during a service, it should come to rest on instructive scenes of miraculous beauty. Thus, the mosaics of San Vitale served many purposes—they were a reminder to the 6th century world of the meaning of the Eucharistic rite, the glory of a newly-sanctioned religion, and of the idea that beauty is created by man in service of the divine.  Today, whether enjoyed within a religious or secular context, the art here is among the most beautiful on any wall in Italy.

Interior of Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, ca. 417
East Wall with upper lunette depicting apostles;
lower lunette depicting The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence

Amazingly, San Vitale is just one of the eight similar buildings in Ravenna, many of which also house some of the best-preserved Byzantine style mosaics outside present-day Istanbul. The group also includes the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, the Arian Baptistery, the Neonian Baptistery,  the Archiepiscopal Chapel, the Mausoleum of Theodoric, and the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe. Citing “outstanding universal value” UNESCO designated the group a World Heritage Site in 1996.

The Good Shepherd, ca. 417
Mosaics, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna
(Photo © Ancient Mosaics)

Dome Mosaic, ca. 417
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna
(Photo © Breic, Flickr)

Not only are the mosaics an artistic treasure, but they have historical significance as well.  Three people responsible for the buildings—Emperor Justinian I, Galla Placidia, and Theodoric the Great—were key players in the drama that was the decline of the Roman Empire.

Ravenna and the Decline of the Roman Empire

Though Gibbon puts the fall of the Roman Empire at 476, in many ways the Empire was already declining by the reign of Diocletian (284-305 CE). The Emperor divided the by-then unwieldy empire into a tetrarchy, ruled by himself and three subordinates. This only served to further destabilized the empire, making it actually harder to manage. Though largely a tolerant ruler, Diocletian nonetheless was persuaded to wage a series of horrific persecution campaigns against the Christians that lasted from 303-311.

Constantine’s Hand, Capitoline Museum, Rome
(Photo ©Liz Hager)

On the heals Diocletian’s abdication (305 CE) and dissolution of the Tetrarchy, the new Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity (311) and proclaimed tolerance against the religion in his 313 Edict of Milan.  Additionally, as a strategic move, he established his power base on shores of the Bosphorus, building a new city on the ruins of an old, Byzantium. And though in the 4th and 5th centuries Rome was still the seat power for the Western half of the Empire,  she competed openly with factions ruling in Constantinople.

View of the nave mosaics, ca. 561
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

Though historians now dispute the notion that Ravenna was ever the capital of the Western Roman Empire, there is no argument about her military importance in the 4th and 5th centuries as the first line of defence against invading Goths or about her administrative importance as conduit between Rome and Constantinople.

View of the nave mosaics, ca. 561
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna
(Photo © 2006 Mary Ann Sullivan)

The Goths—divided into two main tribes, Visigoths and Ostrogoths—repeated attacked the Roman Empire in the 4th century.  Forces led by Visigoth Alaric I finally succeeded in sacking Rome in 410 CE.

Ravenna Sidebar: Whether she went willingly or not, Galla Placidia—daughter of Emperor Theodosius I and sister to the then current Emperor Honorius—left Rome with the Goths. Alaric died shortly thereafter. His brother-in-law Ataulf succeeded him and married Galla Placidia in 414 in an attempt to strengthen alliances in the Empire. Ataulf was killed a few years later, the Goths surrendered, and Galla Placidia returned to Rome as part of the treaty.  Her brother, Emperor Honorius, then forced her into marriage to co-Emperor Constantius III in 417. She was soon widowed. A devout Christian, Galla Placidia committed herself thereafter to building churches in Rome, Ravenna and Jerusalem, while exercising the duties of Regent (until her son Valentine III reached his 18th birthday).

The final blows were dealt in 476 when Romulus Augustus was deposed and exiled by Odoacer, a Germanic chieftain. Julius Nepos, the legitimate emperor recognized by the Eastern Empire (i.e. Byzantine) continued to live in Dalmatia until he was assassinated in 480.  The Western Roman Empire continued under Ostrogothic rule until Theodoric the Great was defeated by the forces of the Byzantine forces in 554, led by Justinian I.

Baptism of Christ, Cupola, late 5th century
Arian Baptistry, Ravenna
Erected by Theodoric the Great
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Ravenna Sidebar: Justinian (reign 527–65) took a leading role in shaping church policy. As an adamant defender of Christian Orthodoxy, he attempted to rid the Empire of the last vestiges of paganism and opposed competing Christian sects, including the Arians and the Monophysites.Justinian’s reign is further distinguished by an exceptional record of architectural and artistic patronage and production in Constantinople and beyond, including most famously Hagia Sofia.

In 540, the Byzantine general Belisarius conquered Ravenna, a critical step in Justinian’s campaign to reclaim Italy from the Ostrogoths. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the Ravenna Bishops must have been thankful that their city had fellow Christian protectors. It is clear that various buildings received his indirect patronage (for propagandistic purposes?) or perhaps curried his favor. The portraits of him in San Vitale and Sant’Apollinare Nuovo tell us so.

Portrait of Justinian,
Sant’Appolinare Nuovo, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

With Justinian, the Byzantines had effectively became the Roman Empire.  While Byzantine emperors never gave up the idea of reconquering Rome, as the centuries wore on, the Byzantine Empire declined in political influence and became more isolated from Europe. Still, as the mosaics in Ravenna remind us, at one time their power reached the glittering heights.

Wider Connections

David Talbot Rice—Art of the Byzantine Era (World of Art series)
World Heritage sites
Dante online
Bryon and Ravenna
PDF—The Art of Gold in Mosaics

Luxury Goods from the Ottoman Court

Posted in Ceramics, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, People & Places with tags , , , , , , on May 14, 2008 by Liz Hager

© Liz Hager 2008, All Rights Reserved

One of the many intricately tiled wall designs at Topkapı Palace.
Note the overall emulation of rug design and the ogival motif created by the central vines. (Author’s photo.)

When I finally got to Istanbul last year after many years of delay, I fell utterly and unreservedly in love with the city. As with all world-class cities, Istanbul is a mass of contradictions.  Like Mexico City, it’s big and sprawling (17 million people by some estimates), both decadent and modern, often along the same block. Istanbul offers up the usual downsides of a large city (noise, intense pollution, hoards, hawkers and hustlers). But these soon seem minor inconveniences as you are buoyed along in the current of the city’s incredible historic legacy,  visible around most every corner (not to mention underground). Over the past 7000+ years, hoards — Phoenicians, Hittites, Greeks,  Romans, Seljuks,  Byzantium Christians, and Ottomans—have colonized  the city, leaving all manner of historical footnotes. More than once, I found myself wishing I had brought along my 9th-grade ancient history textbook, just to help keep them all straight.

Undisputedly, it’s the handiwork of the Ottomans on most stunning display in the city.  After a few days of museums, palaces, and mosques, I was reeling, visually intoxicated by the multitude of Ottoman-era ceramics, rugs, embroideries and finely appointed costumes.  The intricacy of Ottoman ornament is truly astonishing. Even the Sultan’s grillwork was wrought with an elaborateness that immediate elevates it to high art.

Outside of the knotted rugs, Iznik pottery must be Ottoman Turkey’s greatest glory.  The distinctive tiles and tiles were originally made in the city of Iznik, just across the Sea of Marmara from Istanbul.  A city with its own venerable history, Iznik lived a good part of its life as Nicea, a place of great import to the early centuries of the Christian religion.  In 325, the Roman Emperor Constantine convened the hugely- important First Council of Nicea, which brought rival factions together in a resolution of conflicting beliefs. With the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine Empire in the 14th century, Nicea became Iznik. Although pottery had been made in the city since Byzantine times, it was under the Ottomans that the pottery developed its distinctive look. İznik vessels were originally made in imitation of the highly-prized Chinese Ming porcelain, the latter available as early as the 14th century to Ottoman sultans via the Silk Route trade.  Before 1520, Iznik ware was decorated mainly in blue (cobalt oxide) and white. Over time, the color palette extended beyond these to  include purple (manganese), red (silica and iron oxide), green (copper oxide), turquoise, grey and black.   Interestingly the Iznik potters could not replicate porcelain (made of clay), so they “faked” it with glass and sand. A minor point in the face of such stunning surface designs.

To be sure,  there are loads of places in Istanbul to see beautiful Iznik tiles and porcelain. But there is no place more stunning than Topkapı Palace, built by Sultan Mehmet, to celebrate his conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The palace was home to successive rulers until the victory of the Allies in WW1 dissolved the Ottoman Empire. The palace, now a museum, is extensive and complex, rooms follow rooms which lead to courtyards and more rooms. At every turn is a stunning full-wall Iznik tile design. Look up and you’ll see tile decorated ceilings. It seems as if every nook and cranny covered with tile, a pasha’s feast for the eyes.  And, if that weren’t enough, inside the old palace kitchens is a large display of 15th and 16th c. Chinese porcelain, a fitting homage to obsession that begat a style.


Iznik Plate in the Istanbul Archeology Museum (Author’s photo)

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