Mosaics At Ravenna – At the Beginnings of Christian Art

Three Kings Mosaic

Onward Christian Soldiers, mosaics at Ravenna

In the Old Testament, the Prophet Isaiah proclaimed his message to Judah and Jerusalem between c742 – 701 BCE, before the Christ event.

His words, not only foretold many of the events of the life of Jesus the Christ, but also provided a vision of the assured hope about what those words would mean to a vast majority of people.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam all share one thing in common, a monotheistic faith in other words, a belief in one supreme God of all.

‘Arise, shine: for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee…and the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising…all they from Seba and Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth praises of the Lord’.

Christianity arose out of a collective experience of Jesus the Christ as God by a great many people who met or listened to him and heard his words first hand.

It is an experience that has been enriched and enlarged over a very long time.

The faith of Judaism was expressed in the teachings and writings of the prophets of the Old Testament. They ultimately found fulfillment in those of the New Testament.

Christians, unlike their Jewish colleagues who did not convert to the new religion, believed they had ‘witnessed’ the fulfillment of a prophecy written in the Old Testament that God would become flesh and dwell among us.

The stunning mosaic image of Christ Pantocrator (Almighty, All Powerful) in the Byzantine Church of St. Saviour in Chora (now a mosque) in Istanbul presents Jesus as the saviour of mankind.

He is the bringer of a new law, one he holds firmly in his left hand, with his right hand raised in a gesture of blessing.

Jesus the Christ proclaimed, by his actions, that God’s love and forgiveness was available to everyone and unconditional. This great revelation gave intense impetus to the founding of the early church and the style of art produced.

Creating images from small pebbles to ornament the floors of buildings was a technique developed in ancient Greece, which the Romans turned into a technical tour-de-force at Ravenna.

They used glass and other semi-precious and precious materials, including gold glass to create sensational special effects.

The message they gave was that Jesus lived and was subject to our human frailty, which was reflected in his humanity while at the same time embodying his divinity.

The City of Ravenna in Italy, in a number of its most notable buildings, conserves the most intact set of Roman mosaics preserved from the days of the Roman Empire.

They are there because the western Roman Emperor Honorious (385-423) moved there from Milan when he heard the Visigoths were descending on Italy in 402 to conquer all its lands.

It remained there until 476 when the overthrow of the last western Roman emperor.

Ravenna was strategically located, protected by a ring of marshes and strong fortifications and its mosaics were at the beginnings of Christian art.

The scriptures had said of Jesus ‘that in him the fullness of humanity and divinity was pleased to dwell’. His  complete obedience to the divine put him on a direct collision course with the authorities of his day and ultimately led to his execution by crucifixion on the hill at Calvary, the cities garbage tip.

On the walls and ceilings of the Catacomb of Priscilla at Rome, where the early followers of the way gathered to retell his stories and talk about the miracles he had performed there are many painted images.

A faded image above an arch of the ‘Adoration of the Magi’, the three ‘wise’ men, who came to witness the birth of the promised ‘Son of God’, is symbolic of how important was this message of love and hope,  representing the community of the faithful coming before the throne of God.

The gifts they brought were the key to their identity in the ancient texts….‘The Kings of Tarshish and of the Isles shall bring presents; the Kings of Arabia and Saba shall bring gifts’.

When the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity and located his new capital in the East at Byzantium he determined to make it another Rome, although far more magnificent if possible, than the old one.

Under his direction Constantinople became unquestionably the leading centre of a culture that while it paralleled the Middle Ages in Europe in the East it provided ‘a golden bridge joining East and the West’ and this refers to art, no less than to any other sphere of activity.

Constantine and his successors saw Christianity as vital to the unity of the Empire and their determination to dominate the Church set them eventually on a collision course with the Popes who were now the spiritual leaders of the Church at Rome.

However, we digress, Constantine had works of ancient art transferred to his new city.

He introduced Christian emblems such as crosses and relics and, it was during his reign that the Virgin Mary became official protector of his city, which became an enormous repository for Christian art works.

An image of Gregory the Great (590-604) at his writing desk depicts him as an inspired teacher and guide – the bird whispering in his ear represents the holy spirit while a bevy of scribes copy his words.

During the three centuries between the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ and the official recognition of the church by the Roman Emperor Constantine, Christianity acquired the main elements that still characterise it today.

Vines heavy with bunches of grapes were a symbol of the former Greek God of Wine Dionysus and they writhe and intertwine through early Christian imagery in every medium, including mosaics.

Jesus had said of himself, ‘I am the true vine‘.   So if he was the vine then the faithful were the branches and the vine becomes an image that represents, or is symbolic of the Church.

The early church was blessed with many brilliant minds with a genius for organization, including St. Paul, who was perhaps the greatest organizer of all.

Men of power and influence’ they could not only inspire and motivate their communities, but also were able to put in place a mechanism of administrative skills that would ensure the traditions they established would continue for two thousand years, an impressive result by anyone’s definition.

They also established an iconography so that Christians were able to express their faith in visual terms, drawing at first for that purpose upon imagery already available to them from the pagan society and culture they had lived most of their lives within.

This was important, because the major proportion of the population was illiterate, which was another barrier to spreading the words stories of Jesus, and the gospels written by his apostles.

A mosaic in the Church of SS Cosmas and Damian at Rome dates from the mid sixth century.

It depicts the Lamb of God raised in the centre on a small mound from, which issue the four rivers of Paradise.

Many were able to ‘read the pictures’ and receive the message because they knew the stories so well because they had been passed on in an established oral tradition.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2014

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