The Ravenna Mosaics and What to Expect (Special Edition Article)

Posted by Powee Celdran 

God is in the mosaics of Ravenna” -Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987)

Welcome to another article by the Byzantium Blogger! Alright, so this is my first travel article for this blog site; however, I already do travel articles with my other site, Far and Away, but since this is mostly about the art and mosaics of the Byzantines and will have a lot of mentions of Byzantine emperors and contemporaries, instead of a general tour of a city, I am putting this article on this site. So, as I’ve been talking about making an article about Ravenna, Italy, the real deal of this city is really its ultra-stunning mosaics and nothing more. The mosaics is what makes this city in the east coast of the Emilia-Romagna region popular and nothing else, as the churches with its exteriors look like they could be anywhere the former Roman world and the streets of the city could look like any generic Italian town. In truth, Ravenna’s city streets and atmosphere is nothing much mainly because it was bombed during World War II but miraculously its 5th– 6th century mosaics still survived and remain intact till this day. Earlier this year, I have read Judith Herrin’s “Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire” and the whole of chapter 6 is dedicated to the mosaics of Ravenna and its history, and after reading it gave me a reason to travel all the way to Ravenna, which is a bit out of the way. To be fully honest, yes, the mosaics are literally impressive, all the way to the point where you will start feeling headaches from looking up at them. In Ravenna, not only one place (such as the Basilica di San Vitale) has the full set of Byzantine mosaics, almost all the main churches do and 8 landmarks in the city are considered to be UNESCO world heritage sites. Everything is walkable in the city center of Ravenna, but the churches are the only best places to stop in unless you visit the Tomb of Dante and the Mausoleum of Theodoric. In history, Ravenna has been an important trading port along the Adriatic Coast from the time of the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages with many canals coming from the sea flowing through the city- similar to Venice- up until sometime in the 15th century when the water dried up making the harbor pushed a lot farther, leaving only canal connecting the city to the Adriatic Sea. Anyways, Ravenna is I guess the only place in the world to see mosaics fully intact, more than Constantinople (which of course had more mosaics than Ravenna back in its day). It is also one of the few places on earth to see a lot of the late Roman and early Byzantine era, when Byzantium was still very much Roman before becoming very “Greek” in culture. Ravenna is also the place where different empires- Imperial Rome, Western Roman Empire, the Ostrogoth Kingdom, the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Lombards- meet over different periods leading to differences in art styles. Now, let’s begin the article!

Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols
Map of the sites of Ravenna


Other related Byzantine articles: 

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium

The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire 

The Byzantine Emperors

An Overview of Byzantium 

Byzantine art, architecture, and fashion 

Traveling the Byzantine World (from Far and Away)

Byzantine Mosaics in Rome (from Far and Away)

Up next: Byzantine Science and Technology


Ravenna’s origins are unknown but it is said that its first settlers were the Etruscan people from Umbria as well as Thessalian Greeks. In the 1st century BC, the Roman built Ravenna as a port town becoming a municipium or city in 89BC. The original Roman city of Ravenna was a port as it was made up of several islands on the bay with small bridges connecting them and from the salt trade, it grew rich. However, today the water dried up and the port that was once the Roman port of Classe is farther from the center. Ravenna then became important in the 5th century after the Roman Empire was divided between east and west; the story here takes place when Western Roman emperor Honorius moved the capital to Ravenna in 402 as it was a strategic position along the sea compared to Rome which was more prone to attacks, and which it indeed was attacked in 410 by the Visigoths. Ravenna lasted as the western capital as Rome declined in power but at the end of the Western Empire in 476 when the last emperor Romulus Augustus was overthrown by the Germanic general Odoacer in Ravenna becoming the 1st king of Italy, who was then overthrown by the Ostrogoth Theodoric who made himself king of Italy (493-526).

Near the train station of Ravenna is something dating back to the time of the Western Roman Empire, which is now the 14th century Gothic brick church of San Giovanni Evangelista, but the original church dates back to the 5th century, built by the empress Galla Placidia. The only remains of the 5th century there is the floor while the mosaics on display date back to the 13th century as they depict the 4th Crusade and capture of Constantinople in 1204. Although near this brick church is the much more impressive Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, dating back to the early 6th century built by the Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great as the church of his palace found right next to it. Theodoric, an Ostrogoth barbarian was a very civilized person who built many structures and repaired the Roman aqueducts but was an Arian Christian, a follower of the Arian Heresy of Arius the 4th century theologian believing that Christ is the son of God but not divine. Theodoric was as well, founding the Ostrogoth Kingdom of Italy was one of the founding rulers of the European kingdoms, together with Clovis I of France who was his contemporary, while Byzantium was quickly rising under the reign of Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus. Part of what made King Theodoric a civilised person and an admired of Roman culture was that he was educated in Constantinople as he was sent there at a young age as a hostage to the imperial court. Being an admirer of the Romans (and Byzantines of Constantinople), Theodoric built many grand monuments and churches in Ravenna and wrote to the eastern emperor Anastasius I (the emperor with mismatched eyes), “Our royalty is an imitation of yours, a copy of the only empire; and insofar as we follow you do we excel all other nations.” The Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Basilica, which is a UNESCO world heritage site was at first an Arian church before becoming an Orthodox Christian one (then later Roman Catholic) after the Byzantine conquest of Belisarius under Emperor Justinian I in the 530s. The exterior of the church looks quite simple and so is the main nave without the mosaics lining both walls, partly because the apse and its mosaics were damaged during World War I. However, when seeing the mosaics, you will already be stunned and this not all yet on the Ravenna mosaics. Here there are layers of mosaics descending down the walls and they mostly have gold a background. The characters on the wall mosaics include early Christian saints, the 3 Magi, prophets, and 2 versions of the image of Christ- one being a young beardless man and one being older with a beard- as this was part of the Arian belief of Jesus being man and not divine. The mosaics here do not only show characters but structures as well such as Ravenna’s old port of Classe depicted with ships and the palace of Theodoric. Another image here near the entrance is a lone panel depicting the emperor Justinian of the Byzantine Empire (r. 527-565), although it said to be originally a mosaic of Theodoric but after the Byzantine conquest, the face of Justinian was overlaid showing the emperor as an old man, which is true since he lived until his 80s.

Streets of Ravenna
Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo


Close to the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo is the Arian Baptistery (Battistero degli Ariani in Italian), the proximity between these 2 UNESCO world heritage sites show that in the beginning of the 6th century, the Arian Christian community lived together apart from the Chalcedonian Orthodox Christians. The Arian Baptistery outside is also an octagonal shaped brick building and beside it is the Church of Spirito Santo, once an Arian cathedral commissioned by King Theodoric as well. The Arian Baptistery doesn’t have much inside it except for its well-preserved impressive mosaic ceiling, and before when the was water below at the baptismal font, the mosaics would reflect on it. The mosaic on the ceiling depicts Christ on the River Jordan half submerged and strangely unclothed and looking very much younger than the actual age he is usually depicted as he is seen without a beard. To the right of Christ is St. John the Baptist, to the left is an old man who is the personification of the River Jordan and above is the Holy Spirit. Surrounding the center of the ceiling are the 12 Apostles led by St. Peter and St. Paul (on opposite sides of the throne) in opposite directions. The rest of the interiors are just brick walls, but in the past, they’ve been covered with mosaics. A short walk away from this baptistery goes to the Orthodox Baptistery or the Baptistery of Neon. But before reaching this other UNESCO world heritage site, you will come across other Ravenna landmarks, which on the other hand are not world heritage sites but still important. These include the Piazza Garibaldi, the Piazza del Popolo or the main town square, and the Tomb of Dante Alighieri. It was here in Ravenna that Dante wrote the 3rd and last part of “The Divine Comedy” which is entitled “Paradise” (Paradiso in Italian) and in 1321 he died in Ravenna being exiled from Florence, his home city for writing against a powerful family there.

Now slightly to the west of it is the Baptistery of Neon (Battisterio degli Ortodosi in Italian), which was the Orthodox baptistery and the most ancient monument that remains in the city being originally a Roman bath. The Orthodox Baptistery on the other hand shows something different yet so similar to that of the Arian one. This baptistery also has an octagonal shape but its interiors are much larger and more detailed than the other one. Inside, you will see the same figure of Christ at the center of the ceiling being baptized in the River Jordan half submerged in the water with St. John the Baptist, the old man who personifies the river, and the Holy Spirit above with a gold background but here Christ is depicted in what Christians picture him, which is a much older man with a beard. Surrounding the central image is the same circle of the 12 Apostles led by St. Peter and St. Paul facing each other, but here there is not throne dividing them and the background is dark blue. Not only the ceiling here has mosaics but the base of it as well which depict the Gospels and even the arches and corners have intricately made colorful tiles as well covering every little space. Beside this Baptistery of Neon (named after the late 5th century Bishop Neon who completed it) is the Duomo or cathedral of Ravenna which was during the time of the Ostrogoth rule the cathedral for the Orthodox Christians of Ravenna, but part of it today is the Archiepiscopal Museum (Museo Arcivescovile in Italian) which holds the relics of early Christian saints, mosaics from the old cathedral of the Orthodox Christians of Ravenna, and the ivory throne of the bishop given as a gift by Emperor Justinian I from Constantinople. A part of the museum is the remains of the Cappella di San Andrea, the private chapel of the bishop of Ravenna and up to this day, the mosaics even at a curved ceiling remain intact. The mosaics here have a different touch to them as some parts depict birds but images of the saints are still seen in circles lining the arches of the narthex. The most distinct feature in the mosaics here is the image of Christ above the doorway where he is seen dressed up like a warrior in Byzantine (late Roman) style armor instead of wearing robes as he is usually depicted. This image was done this way since the bishop wanted to see Christ as the defender against the Arian heretics ready to fight them at any time.

Ceiling mosaics of the Arian Baptistery
Ceiling mosaics of the Orthodox Baptistery
The Duomo beside the Orthodox Baptistery


After quite a walk from the area of the Duomo are the main highlights of Ravenna, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and the Church of San Vitale, known for its impressive Byzantine mosaics. The ancient but intact mausoleum and the large church are side by side with each other sharing the same courtyard. Both the church and the basilica use the Romanesque style brick architecture, and the mausoleum looks like a small cross-shaped house outside but its interiors are breathtaking. The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (Mausoleo di Galla Placidia in Italian) is a UNESCO world heritage site that dates back to the mid-5th century built by the Empress Galla Placidia (r. 423-437) being the regent empress for her young son Valentinian III until he was old enough. Galla Placidia, the mother of Emperor Valentinian III was also the daughter of the last emperor of the full Roman Empire Theodosius I (r. 379-395) before the full east-west division after his death in 395; she was also the sister of Western emperor Honorius (r. 395-493), the half-sister of Eastern emperor Arcadius (r. 395-408), and wife of the Western Emperor Constantius III (r. 421); she died in 450 and the story goes that she had the mausoleum built for herself and family. However, you will not find her sarcophagus here as it has been moved to Rome but the tomb of her son Valentinian III (or said to be the tomb of Honorius) and of her husband Constantius III are found inside. Earlier on, the mausoleum was connected indoors to church of Sta. Croce beside it, which was also commissioned by Galla Placidia but is now in ruins. The floor of the mausoleum today is 5ft higher than it was in the time it was built as it had to be raised due to the rising levels of the Adriatic Sea. When entering the mausoleum, you will see one of the finest pieces of Byzantine mosaics, and this one is found at the 4 arched ceiling of the 4 sides, showing what happens to be a dark blue sky filled with circles which are supposed to be stars. This mosaic patterns turns out to be one of the symbols of Ravenna and one of the finest examples of Byzantine mosaics. However, this is not it as the central part has a dome with the same dark blue mosaic ceiling with gold tiles representing the stars, and at the center is a gold cross. The arches are as well lined with mosaics depicting nature with one even depicting something that looks like modern art while the semi-circle edges of the mausoleum depict images of the apostles, other saints, and another one with St. Lawrence next to a flaming grill beside a bookcase containing the 4 Gospels of the New Testament. One of the semi-circles here shows an image of Christ, this time as The Good Shepherd surrounded by a flock of sheep instead of a warrior in armor. Here, Jesus is depicted with a staff looking authoritative while his body looks realistic as it shows movement.

Meanwhile, next to the mausoleum is the Basilica of San Vitale, which I could say is the actual highlight of Ravenna. San Vitale is also one of the UNESCO world heritage sites of Ravenna and it dates back to 526 (the same year as the death of Theodoric) and finished in 547 when Ravenna was already under Byzantium after being captured by Belisarius. The story of Belisarius’ capture of Ravenna for Byzantium in 540 is written by the historian Procopius who says that while the reconquest of Italy was ongoing, Emperor Justinian I ordered him to march into Ravenna and capture the Ostrogoth monarch in power which was Vitiges and the conquest turned out to be successful. The exteriors show an example of early Byzantine architecture, having 8 sides, small arched windows, flying buttresses, and a belltower looking like the Galata Tower of Constantinople, while the church building looks a bit like the church of Hagia Eirene in Constantinople. The church is said to be erected on the site of the martyrdom of St. Vitalis but it is confused whether it was St. Vitalis of Milan or St. Vitale of Bologna who was martyred together with St. Agricola. When entering, the mosaics will already immediately stun you as you face the church’s altar area as every space is filled up with colorful mosaics. The entrance arch already shows a full set of mosaics with the image of Christ above the arch and the images of the apostles descending down the arch. The 4 corners of the mosaics in the presbytery have the images of the 4 Evangelists (St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John) and their respective symbols, while at the center of them are open arches with mosaics lining their narrow ceiling, and at the ceiling above are alternating leaf patterns with the Lamb of God at the center. Other images depicted on the mosaics are the Old Testament prophets and scenes from the Old Testament. Meanwhile, the apse shows Christ at the center dressed in the imperial purple which happens to look like brown, to his left are 2 angels and above the blue and red lines represent clouds, while below him is a sphere representing the earth which must is a possible hint to whether the Byzantines believed the earth was round. The far right figure of the apse is Bishop Ecclesius of Ravenna presenting the model of the church and to the far left is St. Vitale who Christ is going to give the crown on his hands to. Below the apse is already the windows but, in the space leading to the apse, it was maximized with 2 panels facing each other depicting the imperial court of Emperor Justinian I of Byzantium (r. 527-565) which was made after the conquest of Ravenna, but strangely the emperor never even stepped foot in the basilica or to Ravenna in his lifetime. The panel on the left shows Emperor Justinian I being the central figure dressed in purple robes that looks like brown, but the image of the Bishop Maximian of Ravenna looks larger as he was the bishop when this church was consecrated in 547, then behind Justinian and Maximian is either the image of the eunuch general Narses or the financial donor Julius Argentarius who spent 26,000 gold coins to create the mosaics of the church. Beside Justinian on his left include the general Belisarius who he places his feet over, and beside Belisarius is most likely Justinian’s court financer John the Cappadocian, and beside him are the palace guards or Excubitors with the Byzantine PX symbol on the shield (the PX being the first 2 syllables of Christ’s name in Greek “chi” and “rho”) while to the right of Maximian are clergymen. Across this panel is the panel of Empress Theodora, the wife and brains behind Justinian who was 18 years younger than him and also died 17 years before he did and together they had no children. Theodora is the tall central figure also with halo, just as Justianian is, although she has a dome also above her head while to her right is Antonia the wife of Belisarius, and to the left is most possibly the historian Procopius of Caesarea, and on the right side are other female courtiers of Constantinople. Justinian and Theodora happened to be the most influential rulers of Byzantium even though both began as commoners (Justinian being an Illyrian peasant and Theodora being a circus performer). Justinian was most famous for introducing the code of laws and during his reign Byzantium was at its largest. Both the emperor and the empress are facing each other on 2 opposite side and appear to be offering gifts to the saint this church is dedicated to. On the other hand, the rest of the basilica’s interiors have Baroque frescoes lining the dome and parts of the ceiling which date back to the 18th century. Aside from San Vitale, the other Byzantine era church in Ravenna is found a few kilometers away from the city center south at Classe. This landmark is the Church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe which has a surviving colorful Byzantine mosaic apse and a panel depicting the court of the Byzantine emperor Constantine IV (r. 668-685).

So, after the golden age of Byzantine Ravenna in the mid 6th century during the reign of Justinian I, Byzantine power eventually began to decline with the presence of the invading Lombards from the north. After 584, the Byzantine emperor Maurice (r. 582-602) changed the province of Ravenna into the Exarchate of Italy governed by an exarch with about the same power as the emperor over the army and civil services in Italy, while another exarch ruled in North Africa. Byzantine rule in Ravenna and the rest of northern Italy ended in 751 when the Lombard king Aistulf captured the city forcing the exarch to surrender, meanwhile the Byzantine emperor Constantine V in Constantinople did not send an army to help defend Ravenna. Some years later in 774, Charlemagne the Frankish king conquered Ravenna from the Lombards as part of building the Holy Roman Empire, meanwhile Ravenna was handed over to the pope by Charlemagne as part of the Papal States. Under Charlemagne and his successors, some items in Ravenna including marble columns and the equestrian statue of Theodoric were moved to Aachen, then the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. After this, Ravenna lost most of its significance but the mosaics remain in place; for the next centuries Ravenna became part of the Republic of Venice during which more buildings were built such as the fortress of  Rocca Brancaleone near the tracks across the large Mausoleum of Theodoric, another of the 8 UNESCO world heritage sites.

Exterior of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
Ceiling mosaics of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
Basilica di San Vitale Romanesque exterior
Full view of the presbytery of San Vitale and its mosaics
Mosaic panel of Emperor Justinian I, Belisarius, Bishop Maximian, churchmen, and Excubitors 
Mosaic panel of Empress Theodora, Procopius, and courtiers
Byzantine exarch of Ravenna


Now as I finish this article, I still have quite a lot to say about Ravenna and what to expect. First of all, Ravenna is quite underrated despite being one of, if not the best place in the world to see Byzantine mosaics (even the street signs have mosaic replicas on them), this is surely because its location is a bit out of the way, not near the main cities of Italy such as Rome, Florence, or Venice, but if you are in Bologna it is quite near. However, even if it is out of the way it is still a must visit for the mosaics that even 19th century Austrian artist Gustav Klimt was inspired by them to create his famous works. Since Ravenna has been the capital of 3 powers: The Western Roman Empire, Ostrogoth Italy, and Byzantine Italy, there is a complete reason for the city to have breathtaking colorful mosaics (which were even more in number ack then) and even after more than a thousand years they still remain preserved well. More importantly though, without patrons such as Empress Galla Placidia, King Theodoric, the bishops, and even Emperor Justinian I, Ravenna would not have this kind of world class art it still has. The mosaics here have survived a lot including 2 world wars but today they still look as good as it was in the 6th century making it the best place in the world to see Byzantine mosaics, even more than Constantinople iconic landmarks like the Hagia Sophia. What makes Ravenna the ultimate place to see Byzantine art is that is preserved as these mosaics were spared during the Iconoclast period in Byzantium from the 8th -9th centuries as Ravenna was no longer under Byzantine control, and it also survived the fall of Byzantium in 1453 and the shift to Islam, obviously because the Ottomans never reached and over the years Ravenna’s mosaics remain in place even if the city lost its importance. On the other hand, I still have to mention the experience of seeing the mosaics and how it can affect you. At the end, it turns out seeing too much of these colors and keeping your head up all the time can result in giving you a headache. However, at the end, the memory of these mosaics will stay with you even if you have left the place. When visiting Ravenna, keep it in mind that these 8 UNESCO world heritage sites (in which I have visited only 6 of them) are the only impressive things to see as the city itself may just look like a generic Italian town if not for its rich history. When it comes to a Byzantine history lover such as myself, going to Ravenna is a must no matter how much of a hassle it is getting there because you won’t see mosaics this well preserved anywhere else as I have said so many times. Anyway, this concludes the Ravenna mosaics article and seeing these mosaics surely will teach you a lot of how the changing of powers over a short period of time changed the style of art. And this is all for now… thank you for viewing!

Published by The Byzantium Blogger

Powee Celdran, currently majors in Entrepreneurial Management, a Byzantine scholar and enthusiast, historical military sketch and bathroom mural artist, aspiring historical art restorer, Lego filmmaker creating Byzantine era films and videos, and a possible Renaissance man living in modern times but Byzantine at heart. Currently manages the Instagram account byzantine_time_traveller posting Byzantine history related content.

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