the mausoleum in ravenna -- 7/13/21

Today's selection -- from Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe by Judith Herrin. Empress Galla Placidia was a major figure in Roman politics. Born around 390, she was the daughter of the Roman emperor Theodosius and the mother of Emperor Valentinian III. She was a deeply religious Christian and is known for building the Mausoleum in Ravenna:

"Galla Placidia is forever associated with the Mausoleum in Ravenna that bears her name. With its resplendent starry sky and blue and gold decoration, bordered by brilliantly coloured, geometric trompe-l'oeil patterns, garlands of flowers and fruit springing from baskets, it remains to this day one of the most beautiful burial places ever built. Who wouldn't want to be laid to rest under such an array of stars, doves, deer and vines, with the Good Shepherd, the Gospel writers and St Lawrence for company?

"In the building's compact cross shape, dimly illuminated by light glinting through the alabaster win­dows (not original), three huge sarcophagi are clear -- one in each arm of the cross. But despite its name, this chapel was not planned as the final resting place for Galla Placidia; it was part of a larger basilica dedicated to the Holy Cross, which no longer survives. When the empress died, she was buried in Rome in 450. The astounding decor­ation of what is now called her Mausoleum is a stellar part of her achievement. It is not simply an unequalled example of early Chris­tian art. It is an architectural witness to her claim on imperial power, her grasp of the 'imperial feminine' and her belief in the utmost importance of the hereafter.

"This Mausoleum was originally connected to the church of the Holy Cross, one of the major monuments built by the empress between 425 and 450. Excavations indicate that the church was constructed in the form of a huge cross, with a corridor across the west end that linked the Mausoleum, to the south, with a chapel dedicated to St Zacharias to the north, now lost. The walls were decorated in coloured marble revet­ment, stucco and mosaic, with hexameter and pentameter verses carved on the arches, and an image of Christ acclaimed by angels above the four rivers of Paradise derived from the Book of Revelation.

"In his description of it, [Andreas] Agnellus [of Ravenna] adds, 'some say that the Emp­ress Placidia herself ordered candelabra to be placed on four round slabs of red marble ... with candles of specific measure ... and she would pass the night praying in tears for as long as those lights lasted'. Since the Mausoleum includes a figure usually identified as St Law­rence, approaching the grid over a great fire on which he suffered martyrdom, the chapel may have been dedicated to him. Many theories claim to establish who was buried in the three sarcophagi, but they too remain disputed. Because the floor level has risen very considerably above its original foundation, the chapel today appears rather squat. But the mosaic decoration has ensured its place among the best known and beloved monuments of early Christendom.

"When Ravenna became the centre of imperial court life in the early fifth century, builders and craftsmen of all architectural and artistic techniques had come to the city in hopes of employment. Across Italy, bishops were constructing churches and octagonal baptisteries that often portray white doves flying over an impressively contrasting dark blue starry sky while saints prayed. Whether teams of craftsmen moved from site to site to create these elegant dome and apse decorations or local artists were inspired by new models to emulate a particular style, Ravenna clearly had access to the best. What remains is breathtaking, yet it is also a signal of how much more we have lost."



Judith Herrin


Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe


Princeton University Press


Copyright 2020 Princeton University Press


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