Byzantine Surprise

October 23, 2014 / Art & Archaeology
Ravenna, Emilia-Romagna

Take this image of Emperor Justinian. Don’t know about you, but to me the guy looks like he’s either horribly hungover or just barely survived a debilitating bout of the flu. I’m thinking “Justin, groovy crown and all, but you’re not looking too hot there, buddy. Would someone get some vitamin C in the guy already!”


So when you’re near Ravenna, of course you have to go see the mosaics, yet you also know what you’re in for and can’t help but feel a bit circumspect. I mean, I get the symbolism and all, but more flocks of sheep and grisly martyrdom scenes? That said, it is Ravenna, so of course you go.

For work reasons though, this time it really had to be just a toccata e fuga (a touch and go). Hmmm… what to see in a short amount of time?

The signorina at the ticket office suggests the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Small, but very well preserved and beautiful, she says.


I grab my ticket, reading up on Galla on the walk over. I learn she was the daughter of Emperor Theodosius I, consort to Ataulf (King of the Goths), sister of Emperor Honorius, then Empress herself and wife of Emperor Constantinius III, as well as mother of and regent for Emperor Valentinian III. She was a key player in international diplomacy and the management of the Roman Empire in the early 5th century.

The mausoleum is small building just off to the side of the Basilica of San Vitale, and it contains three sarcophagi supposedly holding Galla, her son or brother, and her husband.

A short walk there and a duck through the door and…


.. and sure enough, there they are! A flock of sheep, as well as a mosaic of some horrible gridiron rack thing over a glowing bed of coals… Beautifully done granted, but sheesh!


And so this time it’s the decoration in between the vaults and along the arches that catches my attention. I don’t remember this from other mosaics I had previously seen, or maybe the “filler” mosaics in Galla’s mausoleum are particularly well done. But no matter what, I stand corrected and am humbly reminded how modern and stunning Byzantine mosaics can be afterall.

Not bad for 1200 year old artwork.




by GB Bernardini

Editor, Italian Notebook

9 Responses to “Byzantine Surprise”

  1. Shall I respond by measure of time or barrels of wine??? In any event, they are breathtakingly splendid!

  2. frank ruggiero

    We were ther and it is truly.beautiful. We found that it was in Ravenna that Lasagna was created!!
    Louise & Frank Ruggiero

  3. I love surprises, don’t you? And what a lovely surprise indeed! I was here eons ago but would love to go back. Mosaics are fascinating! Grazie GB!

  4. Ann Waggoner

    A MUST place to visit as frequently as possible. The mosaics always leave me in awe!

  5. Diane Ambrosino

    I appreciate the author’s attention to the decorative mosaics. However, early scenes of Jesus with sheep like the one shown here are excellent examples of the simplicity of early Christian understanding and messaging. This one is particularly lovely. Such early depictions were devoid of church doctrine, emphasizing a pure message of love and caring rather than one evoking fear and trembling so prominent in later Christian art.


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