AP®︎/College Art History
- Introduction to the middle ages
- Christianity, an introduction for the study of art history
- Architecture and liturgy
- The life of Christ in medieval and Renaissance art
- A New Pictorial Language: The Image in Early Medieval Art
- Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome
- Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome
- Santa Sabina
- Jacob wrestling the angel, Vienna Genesis
- Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well, Vienna Genesis
- A beginner's guide to Byzantine Art
- San Vitale, Ravenna
- Justinian Mosaic, San Vitale
- Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Theotokos mosaic, apse, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Hagia Sophia as a mosque
- Deësis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Virgin (Theotokos) and Child between Saints Theodore and George
- The Lindisfarne Gospels
- The Lindisfarne Gospels
- The Bayeux Tapestry
- The Bayeux Tapestry - Seven Ages of Britain - BBC One
- Church and Reliquary of Sainte‐Foy, France
- Chartres Cathedral
- Bible moralisée (moralized bibles)
- Saint Louis Bible (moralized bible)
- The Golden Haggadah
- Röttgen Pietà
- Röttgen Pietà
- Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 1)
- Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 2)
- Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 3)
- Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 4)
Justinian Mosaic, San Vitale
By Dr. Allen Farber
San Vitale is one of the most important surviving examples of Eastern Roman "" Empire architecture and mosaic work. It was begun in 526 or 527 under rule. It was consecrated in 547 and completed soon after.
San Vitale, begun c. late 520s, consecrated 547, mosaics date between 546 and 556. The Church was restored 1540s, 1900, 1904, and in the 1930s, Ravenna, Italy (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
One of the most famous images of political authority from the “" is the mosaic of the Emperor Justinian and his court in the sanctuary of the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. This image is an integral part of a much larger mosaic program in the chancel (the space around the altar).
Chancel with Justinian mosaic at lower left and apse mosaic at center, San Vitale, consecrated 547, Ravenna, Italy (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
A major theme of this mosaic program is the authority of the emperor in the Christian plan of history.
The mosaic program can also be seen to give visual testament to the two major ambitions of Justinian's reign: as heir to the tradition of Roman Emperors, Justinian sought to restore the territorial boundaries of the Empire. As the Christian Emperor, he saw himself as the defender of the faith. As such it was his duty to establish religious uniformity or Orthodoxy throughout the Empire.
Justinian mosaic, San Vitale, consecrated 547, Ravenna, Italy (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Who's who in the mosaic and what they carry
In the chancel mosaic Justinian is posed frontally in the center. He is haloed and wears a crown and a purple imperial robe. He is flanked by members of the clergy on his left with the most prominent figure the Bishop Maximianus of Ravenna being labelled with an inscription. To Justinian's right appear members of the imperial administration identified by the purple stripe, and at the very far left side of the mosaic appears a group of soldiers.
This mosaic thus establishes the central position of the Emperor between the power of the church and the power of the imperial administration and military. Like the Roman Emperors of the past, Justinian has religious, administrative, and military authority.
Clergy and Justinian (detail), Justinian mosaic, San Vitale, consecrated 547, Ravenna, Italy (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The clergy and Justinian carry in sequence from right to left a censer, the gospel book, the cross, and the bowl for the bread of the Eucharist. This identifies the mosaic as the so-called Little Entrance which marks the beginning of the Byzantine liturgy of the Eucharist. Justinian's gesture of carrying the bowl with the bread of the Eucharist can be seen as an act of homage to the True King who appears in the adjacent apse mosaic.
Apse with Jesus Christ and St. Vitale at center, Justinian mosaic below at lower left, San Vitale, consecrated 547, Ravenna, Italy (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Apse detail (photo: Steven Zucker, CC: BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Christ, dressed in imperial purple and seated on an orb signifying universal dominion, offers the crown of martyrdom to St. Vitale, but the same gesture can be seen as offering the crown to Justinian in the mosaic below. Justinian is thus Christ's vice-regent on earth, and his army is actually the army of Christ as signified by the on the shield.
Chi-Rho on shield (detail), Justinian mosaic, San Vitale, consecrated 547, Ravenna, Italy (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Who's in front?
Closer examination of the Justinian mosaic reveals an ambiguity in the positioning of the figures of Justinian and the Bishop Maximianus. Overlapping suggests that Justinian is the closest figure to the viewer, but when the positioning of the figures on the picture plane is considered, it is evident that Maximianus's feet are lower on the picture plane which suggests that he is closer to the viewer. This can perhaps be seen as an indication of the tension between the authority of the Emperor and the church.
Justinian and Maximianus (detail), Justinian mosaic, San Vitale, consecrated 547, Ravenna, Italy (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Read a Reframing Art HIstory chapter about "Building new Romes: The Eastern Romans, Umayyads, and Carolingians."
360 view of the apse (Columbia University).
360 view from the nave (Columbia University).
Essay by Dr. Allen Farber
Want to join the conversation?
- Or perhaps Bishop Maximianus is just leaning waay back? Like Neo in the Matrix.(11 votes)
- An interesting interpretation, although unlikely. :)(1 vote)
- Why is Justinian stepping on the foot of the person to his right?(4 votes)
- I don't think Justinian is stepping on his foot. Byzantine art is heavily stylized: it represents space as flat and usually ignores gravity, etc. Justinian is standing in front of the other man because he was more important, but he probably wasn't meant to be seen as stepping on the other man's foot.(6 votes)
- why is the church not a cross.(3 votes)
- Not all churches are "cruciform", some are basilica shaped, and others can be round or even octagonal.(1 vote)
- They mention the term Chi-Rho in this article. Is this a common christian symbol? The name itself is unfamiliar to me.(2 votes)
- It was fairly common during the medieval era in particular. It can be found in stone carving, manuscript illumination, etc.(3 votes)
- Why do Justinian and Theodora offer or gesture in opposite directions(1 vote)
- Justinian and Theodora are both gesturing towards Christ. They hold the emblems of the Holy Eucharist (Justinian holds the bread, and Theodora holds the wine).(1 vote)
- What is the art style in this mosaic??(1 vote)
- What qualities define its style as Byzantine?(1 vote)
- The polygonal apse, capitals, narrow bricks, and an early example of flying buttresses. It is thought to reflect the design of the Byzantine Imperial Palace Audience Chamber, of which nothing at all survives.(2 votes)
- Is San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy still functioning as a place of Christian worship? Or is it strictly a tourist destination?(1 vote)
- what is the function of san vitale(1 vote)
- As a church, it seems that San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. functions to give people a place to pray and to worship the God in whom they either believe or hope to believe.(1 vote)
- Does the stance look similar to others art work?(1 vote)