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Video transcript

we're in the Italian city of Ravenna standing outside of the Church of San Vitale this is a really important 6th century Church it's just really old and it's unusual in that it's a centrally planned Church that means its focus is on its center instead of a basilica which has a long or longitudinal axis right when we think about a church we generally think about a building that's shaped like a cross and it has that long hallway the nave this doesn't have that instead it's got an ambulatory or an aisle that surrounds its central space in this particular case on the east side of the church there's also an extension with an apse at the end looking at the outside of San Vitale we see that it has eight sides so it's an octagon and within that octagon is a smaller octagon that rises higher the exterior of the church is brick those bricks were taken from ancient Roman buildings and reused here in the 6th century the walls are pierced with lots of windows and that's especially important because the interior is covered with some of the most magnificent mosaics that survived from the early medieval period and of course you'd want that light glistening on the gold and beautifully colored mosaics let's go inside and have a look we've walked into the church and the center towers over us and yet these apps like shapes that are supported by columns undulates and moves around us there are massive piers that help support the building but there's also a real delicacy look for instance at the way that the columns are doubled that is stacking of one set of columns above the next and they move in and out back into the space of the ambulatory on the ground floor and then up into the gallery above but the real gem in this church can be seen on the East End let's walk over there the eastern end of San Vitale is completely covered in dense mosaic these tiny pieces of glass and glass sandwiching gold that reflect the light walking up towards the apse now the semicircular space there are three large windows and just above that large apps mosaic and in the center we see Christ dressed royally in purple sitting on an orb the orb of the earth of the universe below flow the four rivers of paradise and on either side of him an angel Christ is holding the book of the apocalypse with the seven seals visible and his right hand he's handing a crown to San Vitalis who was adopted as the primary martyr of this city and on the other side we see a crazy as he found it and sponsored the building of this church and we see him handing the church to the angel beside Christ every surface here in the apse is covered with imagery with figures with decorative patterning the only surfaces that really are stone are of a very decorative marble cut to pare and create wonderful abstract designs it is this lush glorious space here in the city that's distant perhaps from the capital of the empire but that speaks to its importance right above the altar we see an image of the Lamb of God and the lamb of God refers to Christ is wearing a halo this idea of Christ as the sacrificial lamb sacrificed for the redemption of mankind the lamb is surrounded by a wreath of victory in this case the idea of the triumph of Christianity itself and that wreath is held in place by four angels who stand on globes that refer to the globe upon which Christ in the apse sits and then we see Christ again but this time bearded older in the archway at the beginning of the chancel right the triumphal arch has Christ in the center it's really a kind of bust length portrait and his body is surrounded by a mandorla kind of rainbow colored halo and then moving down the arch on either side are fourteen figures including the Apostles you see scenes from the Old Testament specifically ones that prefigure the life of Christ and Christ's sacrifice and we see scenes from the New Testament there are also fabulously decorative columns made out of a high quality marble was brought from the east what's most remarkable about these columns for me it is that we've really left behind the classical orders these are not Doric they're not ionic they're not Corinthian they are early Christians trying to invent a new eigen ography for their architecture and on top of the Capitals we see something called impost blocks that help make the transition up to the arches the two most important mosaics in San Vitale thank the apse and those show the Emperor Justinian and his Empress Theodora now Justinian and Theodora never actually came to Ravenna and they're in the mosaics we think to reassert their control over the city for much of the 400s Ravenna was under the control of a goth Theodoric and Theodoric was an Arian that is he didn't follow the orthodoxy the Orthodox doctrines of the church and basically the Aryans believed that Christ was the creation of God the Father and therefore was subordinate in the hierarchy of the Trinity Christ was it co-equal with God the Father the way he is in Orthodox Christian belief and so Justinian the emperor in Constantinople in the early 500s since his general Belisarius to conquer Italy to reconquer Ravenna and re-establish Orthodox Christian belief here in Ravenna and the Aryan belief was suppressed and so what we're seeing here is the reassertion of Eastern Imperial control that is Justinian is in Constantinople in the east and he is saying I'm in charge even here in Ravenna in Italy spiritual power go hand in hand with political power with the power of the Emperor we see Justinian in the center wearing purple the color that is associated with the throne and he's surrounded by his court but they're also religious figures representing the church and there are soldiers three centres of power the church the Emperor and the military we can see that some of the figures are treated more individualistically than justinian Maximian are more individualized and it's possible that people at the time would have looked up and recognized the other figures who are lost to us today but the figures from the army are much more anonymous Justinian the Emperor authority is divine you can see a halo around his head and he holds a bowl associated with Eucharist which is handing in the direction of Christ in the apse right this is a bowl that would have contained the bread for the sacrament of the Eucharist he's in the center of the composition he's frontal but really all of the figures in this mosaic are frontal they are schematic abstracted this is the medieval we've left the classical tradition of naturalism behind and so if we look closely at the figures we can see that there's no real concern for accurate proportions their feet don't really seem to carry the weight of their bodies they seem to float in a eternal space and not in an earthly space next to Justinian we see the bishop Maximian with his name above him although that was added later and beside him other clergymen Maximian holds a beautiful jeweled cross and he wears the same purple that the emperor wears associating him with the power of the emperor in Constantinople their figures next to him hold a jeweled book of the Gospels and the figure at the far right holds incense burner what we're seeing here is the Emperor leading a procession for the enactment of the sacrament of the Eucharist and in fact the Eucharist would have been performed in the sanctuary the figures stand in front of a field of gold which is very much a Byzantine tradition and when we say byzantine were referring to the capital of the empire which is constantinople which we now call istanbul you'll notice that the tesserae that is these small pieces of colored glass many of them with gold leaf that is actually fused almost like a sandwich in between two pieces of clear glass are set into the wall at angles so the light reflects off them in a way that is complicated and beautiful and creates a sense of the liveliness of the surface and that would been especially true when it was illuminated by candles and by lanterns let's walk around to the other side and take a look at the panel devoted to Theodora Justinian's wife to the right of the apse windows we see the panel of Theodora the Empress and it mirrors the panel was just an inn so we have an idea that Theodora Justinian's Empress ruled as co-equal to Justinian that she was a very powerful woman even though she was reputedly of lower-class that she was an entertainer apparently there are some colorful descriptions of her past she's wearing incredibly elaborate clothing and jewelry with rubies with emeralds with sapphires and very large pearls an in back of her head just like Justinian is a halo which speaks not to her own divinity but to the divine origin of her authority like Justinian who's carrying a bowl that held the bread for the Eucharist Theodora is carrying the chalice for the wine for the Eucharist and like Justinian too she's surrounded by attendants that symbolize the imperial court a curtain is raised as though she is about to take part in a ceremony related to the Eucharist I'm really taken by the elaborate Byzantine costume well there's a sense of trying to bring the richness of the imperial court in Constantinople here to Ravenna
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