A post that will follow in the next week or so that I’m working on already is one that details my adventures with the Magi, or the Three Wise Men or Kings as they are more commonly known. I completed a Masters Thesis entitled, The Three Magi as the Figures of Wisdom: Studies in Patristic and Hiberno-Latin Exegesis. Since then the Magi have become an important part of my discernment process towards vocation. They have represented for me a growing and strengthening of a faith that. This can only be described as being built first upon very shaky foundations, then shook hard and often in the early days of my discernment towards vocation. This is a path I am back on and working through discernement and ultimately, please God, towards Ordination. San Vitale for me therefore was in many ways a spiritual revelation of sorts. A mix of complicated feeling as there is there a representation of the Magi which came to be something deeply entwined in my faith.
There are greater scholars and academics than me, so I won’t attempt to detail the overwhelming and powerful symbolism associated with this beautiful place. I will, where appropriate, point out the obvious because we can’t all be trained or familiar with the rich imagery of a place like this! So those of you here to (hopefully!) enjoy the images will not be too cruel at what can only be described as the pondering of a medieval history graduate! Now, it must also be conceded that this blog is entitled Mc’Auliffe photography there is often a great amount of text. I write in the hope that people will forgive me using this website as a somewhat at times reflective exercise and for my sometimes ponderous expression and further hope the quality of the photographs available more then make up for it!
Below are some details of remaining section of mosaic within the Basilica of San Vitale. The church was begun by Bishop Ecclesius in 527, when Ravenna was under the rule of the Ostrogoths, and completed by the 27th Bishop of Ravenna, Maximian in 546 during the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna. The architect of this church is unknown. Read more here…
1. The Apse, which is situated over the Altar of the Church. On the Right is Bishop Ecclesius who began the Church, depicted holding a church. On the far left is Saint Vitalis himself after whom the Church is dedicated. At the top you have the city of Bethlehem on the right and on the left you have Jerusalem, the angels in the space between are to represent the vastness of humanity and the salvation Christ offered to both Jews represented by the former and the Gentiles by the latter. And in the centre you have Christ.
2. Moving forward you have the celing directly over the sanctuary and above the altar. It depicts Christ again, this time as the Lamb of God, Agnus Dei. This is representative of Christ’s sacrifice.
3. This panel shows two Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah on the left and Moses on the right. Also depicted is Abrahams sacrifice of his son Isaac and the appearing of the lamb to take his place once God had established his willingness. This is demonstrated by God’s hand reaching out to stay Abraham. Over on the lower right there is a group gathered below Moses, they are representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel.
4. In this panel Moses again is present this time it shows his encounter with the burning bush when God spoke to him. Also featured is the prophet Isaiah. Melchizedek is also depicted here at the altar along with Abel.
5. The Evangelists: Matthew the Man, Luke the Eagle, Mark the Lion, John the Ox.
6. Arch at the entrance to the Sanctuary. For me, this was the most impressive of all the aspects of this place. It commanded the whole sanctuary entrance. It depicts the twelve apostles with Christ at the centre, also depicted are the two saints Gervasius and Protasius after who’s father, San Vitale, the Dedication of the Church is named after.
7. Finally, what are known as the Imperial Panels of San Vitale. At the foot of the apse side walls are two famous mosaic panels, executed in 548AD. On the right is a mosaic depicting the East Roman Emperor Justinian I, clad in purple with a golden halo, standing next to court officials, Bishop Maximian, palatinae guards and deacons. The halo around his head gives him the same aspect as Christ in the dome of the apse. Justinian himself stands in the middle, with soldiers on his right and clergy on his left, emphasizing that Justinian is the leader of both church and state of his empire.The gold background of the mosaic shows that Justinian and his entourage are inside the church. The figures are placed in a V shape; Justinian is placed in the front and in the middle to show his importance with Bishop Maximian on his left.
Another panel shows Empress Theodora solemn and formal, with golden halo, crown and jewels, and a train of court ladies. The mosaic depicting the Magi is located on the left hand side of the choir below the apse mosaic showing Christ in glory. The Magi are literally woven into the clothes of the Empress Theodora who is surrounded by her attendants as she proceeds to the altar in a symbolic gesture of gift giving. She holds the chalice with the Eucharistic wine and on an opposite panel, her husband the Emperor Justinian carries the paten. In including the Magi as part of the design Theodora was invoking them as the archetypal gift bearers, and by association she herself becomes an exemplary gift bearer.