Church of San Vitale (527-546)

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The apse: Christ with St Vitale and Bishop Ecclesius

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The buttresses are later additions

Forever unfinished, San Vitale is a centrally planned church with circular chapels huddled up against the central space. There are Baroque frescoes and other stuff in one half, but that wasn’t what I had come to see.

San Vitale was begun when the Visigoths still ruled Ravenna; at that time, both Arians and orthodox Catholics lived side by side. The mosaics in the main part of the apse are the earliest and show the naturalistic early Christian style moving towards Byzantine. Christ is still young and beardless, but the figures, while far from rigid, have lost some of the earlier movement. A later mosaic of Christ shows him bearded and more careworn.

On either side of the apse are wonderful mosaics of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora and their retinues. They were never in Ravenna, but their “presence” in the apse reflected their sacredness.

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Again, the colour, design, liveliness and luxury seduce you . . . which was, no doubt, partly the intention. This total immersion style of decoration lasted for centuries: I had a flashback to Mystras and the ruined churches with paintings from the 14th century, which had cast off Byzantine rigidity and rediscovered some of the fluidity of earlier art.

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