The Church of San Vitale, located in northwestern Ravenna, is a remarkable example of Late Antique architecture. While it was begun when Ravenna was still under Ostrogothic rule, it is Byzantine in style and similar to the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus built by Justinian in Constantinople around the same time. It first served as the martyrium of Saint Vitalis, Ravenna's patron saint, and was later part a Benedictine monastery some time before the mid-tenth century until it was dissolved in 1860. It is now one of the eight Early Christian monuments of Ravenna, which were added to UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996.
While it was built during the reign of Justinian (527-565), there are many aspects about San Vitale that remain uncertain, including the precise date of its construction and its connection to Constantinople. Work on the church began under Bishop Ecclesius (521-532) after returning from Constantinople and was financed by a Greek speaker from the east named Julianus Argentarius. Even though Ravenna was then the capital of the Ostrogoth kingdom, Byzantine political influence was growing there during the regency of Queen Amalasuntha (526-534) and would ultimate be conquered in 540. The church, though, was consecrated much later by Bishop Maximian in 547. Bishop Victor (538-545) probably played a substantial role in the construction of San Vitale, as his monograms can be found on the impost blocks of its capitals. This lengthy period of construction, possibly due to the Gothic War and the Justinianic plague, has led to debate, particularly as it relates to the church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople, another double shell building with a very similar design. As Bishop Ecclesius left Constantinople before Sergius and Bacchus was completely, it suggests that it could not have served as a direct model. There were, in fact, other churches with somewhat similar plans (including San Lorenzo in Milan and even San Costanza outside Rome) that also could have influenced the design of both churches.
It is clear that the design and decoration of San Vitale was directly influenced by the latest trends in Constantinople. It is extensively decorated with marble from Proconnesius, an island in the vicinity of Constantinople, and reflects Constantinopolitan designs also found in Sergius and Bacchus. San Vitale also has split-palmette capitals that first were used in the Church of St. Polyeuktos in Constantinople built a short time earlier. San Vitale was built as the martyrium of Saint Vitalis, not as a palatial chapel, as has occasionally been suggested. Nonetheless, Charlemagne used San Vitale for the model of the chapel for his palace in Aachen in the 8th century, and the Chrysotriklinos (“Golden Hall”) of the Great Palace, build during the reign of Justin II (565–578), also followed a similar plan. Once it was completed, San Vitale was part of a remarkable complex of buildings that included the Santa Croce complex and Santa Maria Maggiore. San Apollinare in Classe, which was begun by Bishop Ursicinus (534-536) and consecrated by Bishop Maximian in 549, is also a contemporary church.
San Vitale, unlike other churches in Ravenna, is truly Byzantine in design. This octagonal double-shelled building is strikingly similar to the Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople that was built around the same time. It has a diameter around 40 meters, while its octagonal naos has eight inner piers joined by arches that support a dome on squinches. Two-story, triple-arched semicircular exedrae between the piers extend outward and are surrounded on two levels by an ambulatory and a second-story gallery. The columns at the gallery level are slightly shorter than those of the ground level which serves to accentuate the sense of verticality. On its eighth side is an arch leading to an elaborately decorated high vaulted presbytery (bema) and apse with a circular interior and polygonal exterior. The apse is flanked by pairs of small apsed rooms and round domed chapels. The chapels, which have rectangular arcosolia to the east and niches on each side, were used as mausolea as well as chapels with altars and screens. The chapel to the south of the apse served as the mausoleum of bishops Ecclesius, Ursicinus, and Victor.
Its similarity to Sergius and Bacchus has also led questions about the origin of its architect. While similar in plan and design, there are some notable differences in San Vitale. All niches of San Vitale are semicircular, while the niches of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus are of alternating rectangular and semicircular plan, with arcades only at the gallery level. The proportions of San Vitale are also much steeper than Sergius and Bacchus. Most notably its dome is made of tubi fittili, hollow terracotta tubes inserted into one another, rather than the brickwork typical of Constantinople. Of course many elements of San Vitale were imported from the area of Constantinople, including marble columns, capitals, and paneling. Its brickwork is also similar to Byzantine masonry, with thin bricks and wide mortar joints rather than the short, thick bricks prevalent at the time in northern Italy. Even if its architect was sent from the East by Constantinople, certainly local craftsmen at the very least were essential for its construction. Conversely, even if San Vitale was built by a local architect, it is clear that many features of its design were influenced by or even finalized at Constantinople.
San Vitale was designed with doors on all seven walls of the octagon, including two leading to the narthex. The apse has three broad windows at ground level and another three windows above the springing of the apse, while the six walls of the ambulatory and galleries have two or three windows. Its dome (9 m diameter, 28.7 m height) is pierced by eight large windows that provide direct light to the naos. The light from all of these sources creates the effects of light and shadow throughout the building, while the multiple doors and window also give the space a sense of openness. It has a long, double-apsed narthex to the southwest, which once connected to a colonnaded atrium. There are also triangular vestibules between the narthex and octagon that connect to round stair towers leading to the gallery. Both the narthex and the atrium are asymmetrical aligned, both to each other and the apse, possibly due to a preexisting structure or street that prevented construction on an axis. As the exterior corners of the octagon were heavily buttressed to provide support for the dome, the off-axis narthex also helped provide similar support.
Most the original building has survived except for the medieval vaults that replaced its wooden ceilings over the ambulatory and gallery. Major changes were made in the vaulting of the ambulatory and gallery, while its exterior buttresses were added perhaps in the late 12th century. Its southern stair tower was also transformed into a campanile, which collapsed in 1688. Major restoration occurred in the 16th century, while several chapels were added to the church in the 18th century. In the mid 19th century, its mosaics were restored. In the early 20th century, excavations were made while the church was reconstructed in its presumed original form. Additional restorations at later dates included lowering the pavements to its original level and reconstituting the narthex. A small rectangular chapel was also discovered under the original floor of the church, which is believed to the original chapel dedicated to St. Vitalis in the 5th century.
San Vitale was lavishly decorated with marble wall revetment, mosaic and marble pavements, columns and impost capitals, stucco decoration under the arches, painted glass windows, and figural mosaics in the presbytery (bema) and apse. The Proconnesian marble elements, including columns, capitals, and chancel furnishings, followed the latest Constantinopolitan styles. There are fourteen Proconnesian columns for the triple arcades at the ground level, fourteen slightly smaller columns on the level of the gallery, eight columns for the triple arcades leading to the presbytery, and two colonnades for the windows above the apse. Most imposts are carved on their main sides, with monograms of Bishop Victor on the ground floor arcade, and two imposts with the monogram of Julian the banker on the gallery level. The imposts of the presbytery have pairs of lambs flanking a cross facing the altar and doves flanking vases on the opposite sides. There are twenty paneled impost capitals and sixteen mask acanthus capitals, along with fold capitals (as in Sergius and Bacchus) on the north side of the presbytery gallery. The capitals on the ground level have basket patterns with split-palmette (as in St. Polyeuktos), while the capitals in the presbytery have acanthus borders surrounding scrolls of a different type of acanthus as well as some geometric motifs. All of the capitals and impost blocks were originally painted, as can be seen in the restored example in the presbytery. San Vitale also had Proconnesian marble liturgical furnishings, including an altar, ciborium, and transennae (now in the Museo Nazionale). The frontal panel on the altar today, decorated with a large cross flanked by sheep and hanging crowns, was probably the back of the original altar.
The original columns, capitals, and impost blocks are still in place, but most of the wall and floor coverings in the church today are modern reconstructions. Elaborate cornices run around the walls and piers of most of the building. Marble revetment, which originally covered the lower sections of the wall, was made of Proconnesian marble (white with gray veins) and marble from lasos in Caria (deep red with white veins). High quality stucco was also used to decorate some sections of the church, as traces can be found in some of the arcades, window arches, and in the southern triangular vestibule of the narthex. The wall below the mosaics in the apse was originally decorated with opus sectile, with large roundels of porphyry, with smaller marble pieces and mother of pearl. The current decoration below the apse and the synthronon of the apse are reconstructions. The floors were decorated with mosaic in eight triangular slices radiating out from a central medallion. Six segments were remade in the 1540s, while the other two were remade in the early 18th century. In 1931, excavation revealed two segments of the original floor, after which the entire level was lowered to the original level, with the two 18th century segments being replaced with restored original mosaic. The apse and presbytery floor was created between the 1910s-1930s.
The apse, the walls of the presbytery and the triumphal arch are covered with mosaics. The mosaics, which have been restored many times, probably date a couple of years before the church was consecrated by Bishop Maximian in 547, though the panel with Justinian and Bishop Maximian was perhaps made around the time of consecration. It is highly likely that the dome originally had mosaics as well, though no traces have survived. At least two styles of mosaics have been identified; the first style uses gold for the backgrounds and glass tesserae for human figures, while the second style uses green for the backgrounds and uses stone for the skin of human figures. Much of the imagery is related to the celebration of the Eucharist that took place in this space, including the magnificent depictions of Justinian and Theodora with their court.
Beardless Christ seated on a blue globe holding a scroll closed with the seven seals of the Apocalypse
Flanked by Angels and St. Vitalis (left) and Bishop Ecclesius (right)
Liturgical Procession of Justinian and Imperial Court
Liturgical Procession of Theodora and Imperial Court
On each side of the apse are depictions of Justinian and Theodora with members of their court in a liturgical procession. At the center of the northern panel is the emperor Justinian, wearing a white tunic and a purple chlamys, with a gold and gemmed tablion on his shoulder with a red stone and pearl brooch. He also wears red and purple shoes and a crown with red and blue gems and pearls with pairs of pearl pendilia on each side. Justinian holds a large gold paten which he offers in the direction of Christ. Unlike the other figures, he is not turned towards Christ, but rather faces outward. To the left of the emperor is a man holding a golden cross labeled MAXIMIANUS, depicted as a balding man with blue eyes wearing a white tunic with a gold chasuble over it, with a pallium draped over his shoulders. It is possible that this figure originally depicted Bishop Victor. The position of the bishop’s feet seems to indicate that he leads the entire procession. To the right are two deacons, dressed in white, holding a jeweled Gospel book and a censer (the tonsure of one of the deacon’s is a later modification). Justinian is followed by members of his court on the left; first three officials and then several guards. The official on the right is a man (possibly the general John, nephew of Vitalian, or the church's patron Julianus Argentarius) with gray hair wearing a white chlamys and a gold fibula, while the officials on the left (probably Belisarius and possible his son-in-law Anastasius, grandson of Theodora) each wear a white chlamys and a gold fibula, with a purple tablion and embroidered segmenta on their shoulders. The guards stand behind a shield bearing the Chi-Rho monogram and have long spears over their shoulders; they wear short, brightly-colored tunics and golden torcs around their necks. A similar depiction of guards can be seen on the base of the Theodosian obelisk erected more than a century earlier in Constantinople.
The empress Theodora and her court are depicted on the southern side of the apse. There is depiction of a doorway with a curtain on the left with a marble fountain in front of it. A beardless official, probably a eunuch, is depicted wearing a white tunic and gold chlamys with purple tablion; he opens the curtain as he looks towards the empress. The next figure, also probably a eunuch, is depicted wearing a white tunic and gold chlamys with purple tablion and an embroidered segmenta. The second eunuch, Theodora, and a female attendant stand under a marble niche with a shell-shaped conch. Empress Theodora, who holds a gold chalice, is depicted wearing a white underdress, a purple chlamys (with images of the Three Magi offering gifts to Christ), jeweled shoes, a jeweled collar, an emerald necklace, earrings (of emerald, pearl, and sapphire), and a jeweled crown with long pearl pendilia. Her face is narrow and she has a halo. There are seven women on the right, with the first two given more space than the other five. It is possible that the woman on the right of Theodora, Antonina, the wife of Belisarius, and the other woman is Joannina, her only daughter. The faces of the women, who are not very differentiated except by the wide variety of designs and colors of their clothing, have passed through another doorway, with has a curtain of red, white, and blue.
At the center of the half dome of the apse is a beardless Christ seated on a blue globe. He wears purple, gold-bordered robe and has a halo with a gemmed cross surrounding his head. He holds a scroll closed with the seven seals of the Apocalypse in his left hand and extends a crown towards the martyr St. Vitalis with his right hand. There are red and blue clouds in a gold background above his head, while beneath the globe are the Four Rivers of Paradise. Christ is flanked by two angels dressed in white with staffs in the crooks of their arms. They gesture towards the outermost figures St. Vitalis (labeled SCS VITALIS) on the left, and Bishop Ecclesius (labeled ECLESIVS EPIS) on the right. St. Vitalis is depicted as a gray-haired man with a halo, dressed in Byzantine court costume, while Bishop Ecclesius is depicted as a man with graying hair dressed in purple chasuble (his tonsure is a medieval modification). He holds a model of the Church of San Vitale, which offers to Christ. All of the figures stand on a rocky landscape with lilies and roses. The border of the apse is decorated with intersecting cornucopia, with a Chi Rho monogram held by eagles at its apex. There are two more borders, one with medallions and leaves with a green background, and another with blue and green gems and pearls with a red background. The strips of the windows of the apse have gold columns encrusted with gems and mother of pearl, which are also depicted in the each side of panels with the imperial processions.
At the center of the vault of presbytery is the Lamb of God in central medallion, supported by angel standing a blue globe on each side. The vault is divided into four sections, separated by bands decorated with peacocks, flowers and fruits. Each of the triangular planes has alternating green and gold backgrounds filled with acanthus scrolls inhabited by birds in the gold backgrounds and animals in the green backgrounds, which taken together illustrated Revelation 5:13. Above the half dome of the apse is a pair of winged angels, holding an eight-arm cross, while similar pairs of angels are on the northern and southern walls of the presbytery, holding a medallion with a gemmed cross with Alpha and Omega on each arm. On each side of the angels are Jerusalem and Bethlehem, depicted as walled cities decorated with gems and pearls. On each side of triple-arched windows are grapevines emerging from large baskets, while above them are acanthus vines emerging from chalices. A similar motif is found on the lunettes above the upper arcades of the presbytery.
The many figures in the presbytery appear in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which describes Moses, Abraham, Abel, Melchisedek, and the Prophets as types of the priesthood of Christ. The lunette on the north wall has two scenes from the life of Abraham, the Feeding of Three Strangers (Genesis 18:1-15) and the Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22: 1-13). The majority of the lunette is taken up by the scenes of feeding the strangers, who depicted wearing white and with gold halos, seated on a table with three loaves of bread inscribed with crosses. Two of the strangers raise their hands in blessing, while the third gestures to the bread. Abraham, depicted with white hair and beard wearing short brown tunic, is on the other side of the tree, offers a cooked calf to the strangers. Sarah, who is depicted wearing a similar costume as Theodora’s companions, stands and laughs in small hut. On the right side of the lunette is the Sacrifice of Isaac, which depicts Abraham wearing a white robes, raising a sword over his son Isaac, who wears a short brown tunic while bound and kneeling on an altar. The Hand of God is depicted among red and blue clouds, gesturing to Abraham to sacrifice a white ram at his feat rather than his son. All of the scenes in the lunette take place on one green landscape which has lilies and roses along with bushes and rock formations.
On the left side of the lunette is Jeremiah (labeled IEREMIA), depicted with white haired and bearded, standing with a open scroll next to a tower with a crown atop it. The east side depicts Moses (labeled MOSE) receiving the Law from the Hand of God, while looking back to the scene of the sacrifice. Below his feet is a crowd represented the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai. The lunette on the south wall has an altar (with a golden chalice and Eucharistic bread) at the center; on the left Abel (dressed in skins with a scarlet cloak) raises a lamb, and on the right the priest-king Melchisedek (haloed, wearing eastern-looking garments) holds up bread. They stand on a green landscape which has lilies and roses. Behind Abel is a hut similar to the one in which Sarah stands, while behind Melchisedek is a representation of a temple, with columns flanking a door and a superstructure like a basilica. On the right is Isaiah (labeled ISAIAS), depicted similarly as Jeremiah, except with he holds a closed scroll. On the left Moses is depicted untying his sandal, looking over his shoulder to the Hand of God, with burning bushes on each side. Below is another depiction of Moses with three sheep; he feeds one sheep with his right hand and holds a scroll in his left hand.
The four evangelists are depicted on the upper zones of the presbytery. On the left side of the northern wall is John, depicted with white hair and bearded, and an eagle above his head; he is seated and reading a codex with the words SECUNDU[M] IOHANNEM with a writing desk in front of him. On the right is Luke, with an ox above him, seated in the same landscape next to a capsa of scrolls, holding an open codex with the words SECUNDUM LUCA. On the left side of the southern wall is Matthew, sits in a landscape next to his desk and a capsa of scrolls writing in a codex, in an illegible script (possibly intended to be Hebrew) as he looks a winged man, who gestures towards him. On the right is Mark at his desk, holding an open codex with the words SECUNDUM MARCUM and gesturing to the lion above him. In the foreground of each landscape are rivers, which might represent the Four Rivers of Paradise.
There are busts of the apostles on the triumphal arch. At the center of the triumphal arch is Christ, depicted as bearded, holding a book, wearing purple, and set against a gold background, with a cross-inscribed halo. The apostles look in the direction of the vault. The borders of their medallions alternate white and gold, while the background of the medallions is turquoise. Their names are written on either side of their heads; in addition to the apostles are the sons of St. Vitalis, Gervasius and Protasius, depicted as beardless youths.
Vault with Lamb of God, flowers, fruit, birds and other animals, illustrating Revelation 5:13
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”
Triumphal Arch with medallions of Apostles and Christ
South (left to right): Petrus, Andreas , Iohannis, Bartolome[us], Mattheus, Thaddeus, Ge rbaius
North (right to left): Paulus, Iacobus, Philippus, Thomas, Iacobus Al[phaeus], Simon Chan[aneus], Protasius
Vault of Presbytery
Lamb of God in Central Medallion, supported by an angel standing a blue globe on each side
Triumphal arch with Christ, St. Peter and St. Paul
North Wall with Abraham and the Feeding of Three Strangers and the Sacrifice of Isaac
Prophet Jeremiah (left) and Moses received the Law (right); St. John (upper left) and St. Luke (upper right)
South Wall with Abel and Melchisedek
Moses standing on Holy Ground (left) and Prophet Isaiah (right); St. Matthew (upper left) and St. Mark (upper right)
Lost marble inscription of the narthex
Julianus Argentarius built the basilica of the blessed martyr Vitalis from the foundations, authorized by the most blessed Bishop Ecclesius, and decorated and dedicated it, with the most reverend Bishop Maximian consecrating it on April 19th in the tenth indiction, in the sixth year after the consulship of Basilius. (Translated by Deliyannis)
Beati martiris Vitilis basilicam, mandante Ecclesio uiro beatissimo episcopo, a fundamentis Iulianus argentarius aedificauit, ornauit atque dedicauit, consecrante uiro reuerendissimo Maximiano episcopo sub die .xiii. <kal. Maiarum> sexies p.c. Basilii iunioris.
Presbytery imposts with lambs flanking a cross and doves flanking vases
Impost monogram of Bishop Victor and split palmette capital
Impost monograms of Julianus Argentarius and fold capitals
Reconstructed marble revetment and floors of the naos
Mosaic floor from earlier chapel (possibly dating to 5th century)
Altar panel with a large cross flanked by sheep and hanging crowns
Sarcophagus of Exarch Isaac
Fifth century sarcophagus with Adoration of the Magi, Chi-Rho Monogram flanked by peacocks, and Daniel with Two Lions, Christ raising Lazarus from the tomb
Inscription of Exarch Isaac (625-643)
+Here lies the distinguished commander
For eighteen years for the serene emperors
A great jewel of all Armenia
At the moment of his glorious death his wife
Continuously wails for the loss of her husband
Where the sun rises and in the west
guarding Rome unharmed and the west
Isaac, the ally of kings
for he himself was Armenian from a noble family
Susanna, chaste in the fashion of a holy dove
of a man obtaining glory resulting from toils
for he commanded the forces of the west and east.
(Translation by Schoolman)
Ἐνταῦθα κεῖται ὁ στρατηγήσας καλῶς
τρὶς ἕξ ἐνιαντοῖς τοῖς γαληνοῖς δεσπόταις
ὁ τῆς ἁπάσης Ἀρμενίας κόσμος μέγας·
τούτον θανόντος εὐκλεῶς ἡ σύμβιος
πυκνῶς στενάζει ἀνδρὸς έστερημένη,
έν ταῖς ἀνατολαῖς ἡλίου καὶ τῇ δύσει·
Ῥώμην τε φυλάξας ἀβλαβῆ καὶ τῆν δύσιν
Ἰσαάκιος, τῶν βασιλέων ὁ σύμμαχος,
Ἀρμένιος ἦν γαρ οὗτος ἐκ λαμπροῦ γένους
Σώσαννα σώφρων τρυγόνος σεμνῆς τρόπῳ
ἀνδρὸς λαχόντος ἐκ καμάτων εὐδοξίαν
στρατοῦ γὰρ ἦρξε τῆς δύσεως καὶ τῆς ἕω
Photo by Paolo Monti (1965)
From T. G. Jackson (1913)
By Harald Sund (1913)
From Mantellio (1900)
By Harald Sund (1913)
From T. G. Jackson (1913)
From Yriarte (1878)
From Barberis (1900)
C.C. Amos (1901)
C.C. Amos (1901)
J. Kurth (1905)
Plan by Deichmann
National Museum of Ravenna
Bronze Cross from the roof of San Vitale
Marble Transennae (Presbytery Partition) from San Vitale
Angel Mosaic from vault of San Vitale
6th century ?
Ravenna in Late Antiquity by Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis
Byzantine Architecture by Cyril Mango
Architectural Decorum and Aristocratic Power in Late Antique Rome, Constantinople, and Ravenna by Kaelin Jewell
Ravenna: Hauptstadt des spätantiken Abendlandes by F. W. Deichmann
Age Of Spirituality: Late Antique And Early Christian Art Third To Seventh Century edited by Kurt Weitzmann
The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian edited by Michael Maas
Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium edited by Alexander Kazhdan
“Style and Meaning in the Imperial Panels at San Vitale” by Sarah E. Bassett
“Procopius and the Imperial Panels of S. Vitale” by Irina Andreescu-Treadgold and Warren Treadgold
“Reassessing the Sarcophagi of Ravenna” by E.M. Schoolman
Book of Pontiffs of the Church of Ravenna by Agnellus (translated by Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis)
San Vitale Photo Album (Byzantine Legacy Flickr)