If you only see one thing in Ravenna, make it the Basilica di San Vitale.
On the outside it’s an unassuming brick structure. On the inside it’s a jaw-dropping work of genius.
In a country awash in churches, it’s easy to get church-fatigue. The cross-shaped naves, dark paintings, tiny windows and ceiling frescos begin to blur together until you can barely drag yourself inside another church.
Not so here.
The church is brick. It has no central façade. It’s octagonally shaped.
It’s bright and airy. The inside arches and second floor are barely reminiscent of a church. Its floor is covered in geometrical mosaics and every square inch of its apse is covered in rich blues, golds, and greens. It has perhaps the most beautiful mosaics in Ravenna.
This is the church to jolt you out of church-fatigue.
The Basilica of San Vitale is Ravenna’s most visited site. Supposedly modeled off of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia (you can see traces of the East in nearly all of Ravenna’s architecture) its mosaics are the largest and best preserved mosaics outside of Istanbul.
Construction of San Vitale was started in 525 AD at the end of the reign of King Theodoric the Great but completed around AD 547 under the reign of Emperor Justinian the Great. It’s the only church from Justinian’s time that has remained intact and unchanged today.
The inside is a masterpiece of light and shadow, space and structure. Huge, solid columns open to high domes. The sunlight streaming in from the many windows highlights the mosaic masterpieces.
Because let’s be real, that’s why we’re really here.
The entire church is covered in mosaics! Even the floor is covered in mosaics. The edges are still the original Byzantine mosaics – others are a bit more recent.
Before you gravitate toward the apse (the arched vault area above the altar) and its sparkling mosaics, take a look down. Right in front of the altar you’ll find a mosaic labyrinth. Muted in color, it’s easy to overlook as just another floor decoration.
Instead, it’s a walking meditation meant for nothing less than saving your soul from eternal damnation.
It’s made of 7 concentric circles with 384 small marble triangles that lead from the labyrinth’s center out towards the center of the Basilica.
Likely added centuries after the church was constructed, it still follows early Christian beliefs of Christ’s journey down to hell to save souls. Mazes and labyrinths were often used as symbols of purification, representing the journey of any soul’s decent into hell and the possibility of escape through God’s grace.
With half of the visitors not even knowing it’s there, it’s a strange sight to spot someone randomly weaving around with their eyes on the floor, especially with the world’s most beautiful mosaics right above them.
The golden mosaics of the apse immediately draw you in like moths to a flame.
The arches leading there feature the twelve apostles, with Christ at the center, in portraits so detailed they seem painted. Though it’s hard to keep track of everything, even the sides of the vault are decorated. There are various plants and animals, the Lamb of God and a flock of angels. You can see mosaic birds nestled among the green mosaic walls, including mallard ducks and peacocks: A shimmering record of the era’s wildlife.
In the center of the vault we see Christ on a globe representing the universe. He’s flanked by the two archangels and offering a crown to San Vitale, showing the saint’s important position in the Catholic Church. This is the crown of martyrdom and the Bishop Ecclesius on the other side offers Christ a model of the church.
Who cares about Bishop Ecclesius, you ask? Well, probably no one, but as one of the church’s builders his presence allows us to reasonably date the mosaic to around 525 AD, shortly after construction started. Being preserved for life on a Basilica’s apse is just a perk of the job, I guess.
But perhaps the most striking mosaics are the side panels of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his wife, Empress Theodora. Especially Theodora. Wearing shimmering, luxurious clothes, she’s fashionable even by today’s standards. The tiny tiles were set at different angles to create shadow and depth in the folds of fabric and size of the jewels.
In fact, Theodora was one of the most powerful women during the entire Roman era. Seeing her mosaic, it doesn’t surprise me.
Check out the mosaics in the Galla Placidia Mausoleum, another impressive woman ruler.
If you visit Ravenna, make San Vitale your first stop.