Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Creation of Christian Art: The Origins of Byzantine Form, Part 2

Orthodox vs. Arian in Ravenna

In the 4th century, Gaius Apollonaris Sidonius described Ravenna in northern Italy near the Adriatic coast as "... a marsh where all conditions of life are reversed, where walls fall and waters rise; where towers float and ships stand still; where invalids walk and doctors take to their beds ... where merchants shoulder arms and soldiers haggle like hucksters, where eunuchs study the arts of war and barbarian mercenaries study literature."

Ravenna was, and still is, a city in the midst of a swamp where mosquitoes and malaria were always a fact of life. It was a crossroads at the end of the Western Roman Empire drawing everyone from thuggish mercenaries to bookish scholars, from pirates to priests, princes to prostitutes. It was here that the Western Roman Empire, divided off from the East again after Constantine's death, came to die. It was here that the Eastern Empire (what we now call the "Byzantine" Empire) gained a foothold into Italy and Western Europe.

It was here in swampy Ravenna with its silting-in harbors and rising watertable that Byzantine form was forged in the conflicts of emerging orthodoxy. Ravenna was a major battleground between "Arian" Christianity and "Orthodox" Christianity, and part of that battle was fought on the walls of the city's churches.

Ravenna was the last capital of the Western Roman Empire. The Emperor Honorius, son of Theodosius the Great, moved the capital here from Milan. It was Theodosius who made Christianity the state religion of the Empire, closed the last remaining temples to the old gods, and ended the Olympic Games. Honorius moved the capital to Ravenna when Milan was no longer defensible from raids by migrating German tribes that were now a fact of life in Italy since Rome was first sacked by Alaric in 410. His sister, Galla Placidia, ruled from here after Honorius' death, claiming the title of "Augusta," so far as I know, the only woman to do so. She had a dramatic life, seized as a hostage by the Goths and forcibly married to their king. She returned to the Empire after the death of her Goth husband. She was banished again for her part in an effort to usurp her brother's throne. She spent that time in Constantinople. She returned to Ravenna after her brother's death and was almost lost in a storm at sea on the way back. As Empress, she financed and assisted Pope Sixtus III in his building campaigns in Rome (most famously, St. Paul's Outside the Walls).

Galla Placidia built numerous churches in Ravenna including one dedicated to the Holy Cross. The present church of Santa Croce is almost completely rebuilt from her original church, but one part of her church does survive.

This is a small burial chapel that was once attached to the narthex of Santa Croce. It is known as the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, and may well be her burial place. On the outside, it is a rather dull small building in the shape of a Greek cross.

The interior is spectacular with the walls and vaults covered with brilliant mosaics. We now get a closer look at those mosaics because of Ravenna's ever rising watertable. The present floor was raised about 5 feet over the original. The sarcophagi are not original to the building. The chapel was once believed to be dedicated to Saint Lawrence. Now many scholars believe it was dedicated to Vincent of Saragossa who was likewise martyred by being roasted on a grill, and whose cult was widely popular at the time the chapel was built.

The mosaic decoration is Early Christian and Late Roman in form. Here the Early Christian Christ-Apollo is combined with The Good Shepherd of early catacomb art. The metaphor is now explicit as Christ robed in gold and purple, holds a golden cross and tends to the sheep which stand for His faithful. Like the mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, the picture still has a foot in Classical form. Christ and the sheep still stand firmly upon a clear ground plane. Chiaroscuro is limited, but it still plays the role of describing 3 dimensional solid form through light and shadow. The backdrop is still the landscape and the blue sky.

While there is still some measure of late Roman form in these mosaics, they differ from contemporary church decoration in Rome in that they do not tell a story. These mosaics do not form any kind of narrative cycle. The images rise in a series of stages to the Christian heaven. They seem to be more based on Christian funeral rites than in any kind of story. The stag above is from the opening line of the 42nd Psalm; "As the deer longs for the waterbrooks, so longs my soul for you O God." This Psalm is still used in Christian funerals.

The spectacular vault mosaic of a gold cross and Evangelist symbols set against a deep blue with gold stars is as abstract as the lower mosaics are pictorial and naturalistic. The higher the image, the closer to God, the furthest from our realm, and therefore the most abstract.

Roman Italy built separate buildings for the rite of Baptism, baptisteries. They were usually octagonal structures, 8 being a number of great significance to the Early Christians; the world was created in 6 days, God rested on the 7th, and the 8th was the first day of the new creation, the new life. This is one of the earliest to survive, the "Orthodox" Baptistery in Ravenna next to the cathedral church. It was built at the end of the 4th century.

The "Orthodox" Baptistery was vaulted and splendidly decorated by Bishop Neon in the 5th century (it also called the "Neonian" Baptistery). Like the mosaic decoration in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the mosaic imagery is still very late Roman in form. The dome mosaic is composed in three zones. The lowest zone is a series of architectural ornaments resembling the stage set decoration of early Roman house painting. In that architecture are tables holding open books, surely the Gospels, and empty thrones holding crosses and crowns. This may well be the "many mansions" of the blessed described by Christ in the Gospel of John. The empty thrones may well be in anticipation of The Second Coming. Above that is a row of the 12 Apostles holding martyrs' crowns. They appear to be in procession round the dome. Like the figures in the Galla Placidia mausoleum, they stand firmly on a clear ground plane, even casting shadows. They are almost as fully 3 dimensional as their Classical predecessors even though the drawing is not quite as fluid and confident. They each stand in their own little framework of flowered columns, and a cloth of honor above their heads. They stand against the dark blue of the night sky.
The scene of the Baptism of Christ at the top is a crude restoration. That picture was largely damaged by seepage, the worst enemy of mosaic. The original baptismal scene was indeed set against an entirely gold background to set it off from the dark blue and gold that dominates the rest of the mosaic cycle.
Baptism was once a spectacular ritual mostly for adults and taking place once a year on Saturday night before Easter Sunday. Candidates were led in one by one, stripped of all of their clothes and completely immersed in water. When they came up, they were slathered with copious amounts of holy oil, given a new set of clothes, a new name, and a drink of milk and honey (a first sip of the Promised Land and baby food for the new life). The mosaic cycle was what they would have seen when they came up out of the water by the flickering light of candles and lamps. It was a glimpse of the Plan of Salvation, and the reward that awaited the faithful.

Another baptistery was built across town at the beginning of the 6th century. It too was once associated with a cathedral church, only this baptistery was built for the followers of Bishop Arius, and ever since has been known as the "Arian" Baptistery connected to the former Arian cathedral, the Church of St. John the Evangelist.
The German kings of Italy, who succeeded the last Roman Emperors, were Christian, but they were Arian Christians. The most important such king was Theodoric who overthrew the first German king Odoacer with the connivance of Constantinople. Theodoric ruled officially as an exarch of the Empire in the east, though he had his own imperial ambitions. Unlike his predecessor, he was educated, given a thorough late Roman education while a child hostage in Constantinople. Theodoric ruled with an unusual (for the time) policy of religious tolerance. His Orthodox Italian subjects continued to worship undisturbed. He built several new churches for his Arian German subjects. All of the surviving Arian monuments in Ravenna are from his reign.

This is the mosaic in the dome of the Arian Baptistery and is original to the building. It survives because the later Orthodox authorities found nothing objectional in its content. We would hardly know this was the work of Christian heretics without the guidebooks.
It is a radically simplified version of the mosaics in the vault of the earlier Orthodox Baptistery. The Apostles with the empty throne of the Second Coming surround a better preserved central medallion showing the Baptism of Christ. The whole thing is set entirely against a gold background. What is more, the forms of the Apostles are very strikingly abstracted compared to the ones in the mosaics of the Orthodox Baptistery. The cast shadows by the feet are still there, but don't make much sense. The drapery is reduced to pattern with the chiaroscuro seeming to work at cross-purposes with itself, further reducing the figures to flat pattern.

The abstracted disembodied figures on a gold ground is on spectacular display in the magnificent and controversial mosaic cycles in the church built by Theodoric as his palace church and originally dedicated to Christ. The church is now known as Sant' Apollinare Nuovo.

The mosaic cycles on the north and south walls are still a major bone of contention among scholars. With the Orthodox conquest of the city by the Emperor Justinian, this mosaic cycle was modified to bring it in line with Orthodox teaching and to purge it of overtly Arian content. Some scholars (like John Lowden) argue that most of the cycle was replaced after the Orthodox conquest. Others (like James Snyder) argue that what we see is mostly the original Arian cycle only partially modified in the inscriptions and symbols. The apse mosaic was an Arian original and endured to the 16th century when it was destroyed.
The cycle is very unusual, and very unlike the precedents set by earlier Roman basilican churches. Those earlier churches had big narrative cycles from the life of Christ or the lives of the saints, or from the Old Testament in the case of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. There is a 26 panel narrative cycle in this church of the life of Christ; 13 panels devoted to His ministry on one wall, and 13 more on the other wall about His Passion. There are some important panels missing; not that they were ever there, they were deliberately omitted from the cycle. There is no crucifixion in the Passion cycle. The epiphanic episodes like Christ's birth and baptism are omitted in the other cycle. What is more, these scenes are high up on the wall, but are barely visible from the floor. The mosaics between the windows of the clerestory are figures of Apostles and prophets. Below them are the most striking and unusual part of the whole mosaic cycle. Where the narrative scenes would have been placed in earlier churches is now taken up with 2 spectacular processions of martyrs holding crowns, male martyrs on one wall and female martyrs on the other. The female martyrs begin at a representation of the city of Ravenna, and follow the Magi to the enthroned Virgin Mary and Child. The male martyrs begin at the former royal palace and end before Christ enthroned in majesty.

The mosaic has definitely been altered. We can see that in the mosaic of the palace. If you look carefully at the third column from the left, you will see a disembodied arm from a figure that was removed. In the arches of the palace were probably portraits of Theodoric and his court.
There was another mosaic cycle below this level, but was destroyed when the floor of the church and the arcade were raised 4 feet because of rising ground water. I have no idea what that cycle might have depicted.

The procession of female martyrs in Sant' Apollinare is one of the most splendid female congregations ever created in Christian art. There is a lot of argument over whether or not these processions of martyrs are Arian originals or Byzantine replacements. The male saints are led by Saint Martin who famously fought against the Arians. It is also possible (and likely) that written inscriptions above the saints were altered. Stylistically, these martyrs are much closer to the Apostles in the Arian Baptistery than they are to the ones in the Orthodox Baptistery. The martyr saints have an almost cookie cutter sameness with only the most subtle of variations to save the designs from monotony. The figures are almost entirely flat. The cast shadows are gone, as are any indication of a real ground plane. The clothing is flat pattern that hangs before an even flatter gold background. Chiaroscuro has now entirely vanished. This anti-natural anti-optical form strongly emphasizes the "otherness" of the subject matter. These saints do not dwell in the world described by our five senses. They dwell in the eternal present tense of the transcendent spirit.

The scenes from the Life of Christ are generally agreed to be Arian. They too are close in style to the Arian Baptistery mosaics, but not quite as abstracted. The subject matter, though narrative, takes more of a liturgical and symbolic approach than a storytelling approach. This is the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Instead of showing legions of miraculously fed people, we have Christ robed in the imperial purple blessing fish and loaves held by court officials like a celebrating priest at a Mass.

The Christ in Majesty is also widely accepted as Arian. He was once shown holding an open book, but that was changed after the Orthodox conquest.

Here is a detail of that same Christ shown above, robed in the imperial purple like an emperor and flanked by angels like court officials. We should keep in mind that this was a palace chapel, and the parallels between heavenly and earthly sovereigns are made explicit.

Could it be that the flat gold background and anti-optical form language that we associate with Byzantine art are Arian inventions? We don't know exactly what was there in the Sant' Apollinare mosaic cycle for the Orthodox to find objectionable. Some scholars suggest that the alterations were more political than religious in motivation, a desire to expunge the memory of the heretic German kings. Just about all we know about Arian beliefs comes from their enemies the Orthodox, and may be of dubious reliability. So far as I know, no direct Arian accounts of their beliefs and practices survive.

Almost all of the religious disputes of ancient Christianity were over the nature of Christ; what did those titles "Son of God" and "Son of Man" and "Word Incarnate" mean? Arianism denied that Christ was of the same being as God the Father. It was an anti-Trinitarian form of Christianity that claimed that Christ was a special being created by God for the salvation of humankind. It was also one of many forms of Christianity at the time that did not emphasize, or denied, Christ's humanity. Whereas the Modern world has trouble accepting the divine nature of Christ, the ancient world had a lot of difficulty accepting His humanity. That difficulty is recalled every time we say "... begotten not made, of one being with the Father" in the Nicene Creed. Islam continues to find the idea of an incarnate God scandalous, "O God who begets not, nor is begotten..." begins a number of Muslim prayers.

Could it be that this anti-materialism of Arianism and of so much ancient anti-Trinitarian Christianity played a role in creating the radiant disembodied imagery that shines out in golden light throughout Byzantine art? It is hard to say. The controversial mosaics in Ravenna are all that we have left of any Arian art.

Trinitarian Orthodoxy returned in conquering triumph to Ravenna with the armies of the Emperor Justinian. Arianism was expunged from the realm, and either driven out or driven underground.
The magnificent church of San Vitale was built under Justinian's rule as a monument to triumphant orthodoxy.

It is a large octagonal church built to the martyr Saint Vitalis. On the outside, it is a simple octagon, a much larger version of the earlier Baptisteries.

On the inside, it is a church within a church. A complex domed hall is surrounded by aisles brightly lit by large windows creating the effect of a tall dark open-work central building surrounded by light. The effect has been spoiled in recent years by electric lighting.
Some scholars suggest that San Vitale is modeled after the audience hall of the Imperial Palace in Constantinople. Not a scrap of that building survives. It definitely resembles the slightly earlier Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople (which still stands as a mosque today).

As in the Church of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, the comparison of heavenly and earthly sovereignty is made explicit, and never more majestically so than in San Vitale. The mosaics in the apse are famous as the most extensive surviving from Justinian's reign. They are almost certainly the work of local artists who formerly worked for Arian royal patrons.

The flat anti-optical form pioneered in the Arian mosaics is now fully realized in these splendid mosaics. The last and greatest of all Christ-Apollos sits enthroned on the cosmos above the 4 rivers of Paradise. Figures and draperies are entirely reduced to flat patterns, to disembodied forms that seem to float rather than stand before us. The composition is symmetrical and emblematic. What we see is not a story enacted, but a court ceremony in the heavens. Christ is robed in the imperial purple as Pantocrator, ruler of the universe. He hands a crown of martyrdom to Saint Vitalis on His right. Like an honored guest at court, Saint Vitalis accepts the gift from the Cosmic Emperor with covered hands. On Christ's left, an angel like a court official presents Bishop Ecclesius, responsible for the church's construction, bearing with covered hands a gift for Christ, a model of the church.

Here is the Emperor Justinian taking part in the consecration of the church. He is part of a procession to the altar presenting a huge golden patten as a gift, like one of the Magi. He leads the procession. He is haloed and robed in purple as is Christ above him. He is Christ's representative on earth, the head of state and the head of the church. He is flanked on his right by his most famous general Belisarius. On his left immediately behind him is the banker Julius Argentarius who financed most of the construction. The only person named is Bishop Maximinianus, deeply unpopular with the locals as Justinian's appointed bishop supplanting a locally elected bishop. These may well all be actual likenesses incorporated into a form language grown unaccustomed to the very idea of portraiture.


Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Whow! that's all I can say...

Lapinbizarre said...

The Arian Christ was bearded (Sant' Apollinare Nuovo) while the Orthodox Christ (San Vitale) was still clean shaven? Is there surviving evidence of this elsewhere, or is this a one-off?

Counterlight said...

I'm not aware of any other surviving Arian artwork of Christ bearded or not. I'm sure there was much more at one time, but this is all that has survived.

Counterlight said...

In the same cycle in Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, Christ appears bearded (enthroned to receive the male martyrs), and beardless (in the small panels of the Life of Christ near the top of the wall).

Counterlight said...


Thank you, and I'm glad to have you along.

Rupert of Hentzau said...

What the Arian mosaic shows that the Orthodox baptistery does not show is God the Father as a separate person from Jesus, who is in the water (I was amused to observe, when I was there, how the artists showed the body altered in color as seen through water), being baptized by John, on the righthand bank. This is (so far as I understand it) the sticking point of Arian theology: That Arians said Jesus had only come into existence at the Incarnation, whereas Orthodox theology has all three persons of the Trinity coeval, existing (though as one god) from the beginning of time.