.. Vitale panels’ heads and hands are made exclusively with glass tesserae, except for two of the heads, to be considered shortly, which are made mostly with stone cubes . This last observation, which bears on the technique, is important because it allows the group as a whole to be placed in the chronologically earlier stages of the San Vitale mosaic decoration, when glass tesserae were used overwhelmingly to render features, hands, and feet as well as ornaments. Areas similarly treated include the entire apse, the vault of the Lamb, the topmost parts of the sanctuary walls, and the top medallions of the west arch (Ills. 12). During a restoration phase, to give the most noticeable example, white marble and limestone usually replace the white and silver glass.
After many years of study of the mosaics, the existence of a division between two phases at the same level on all four walls of the sanctuary and in the west arch was established . It follows that all the work on the mosaics in San Vitale was interrupted at the same point, after the mosaics of the apse had been finished. Work was resumed somewhat later with slightly different materials, although, at least in the medallions of the west arch, it continued the program’s original plan (Ills. 12). The boundary between the two original phases runs horizontally around the sanctuary at about the level of the springing of the vault, so that it separates the vault and the north and south tympana from everything beneath them, including the panels of the Evangelists that flank the two imperial panels.
The figures of the two deacons in Justinian’s panel display an oversimplified and linear rendition of their features that point to a lower level of technical proficiency (Ills. 19, 20). They seem inspired by real people, and were set by a different hand from the dignitaries and guards. The remaining two heads, those of the bishop (Ills. 13) and of the man who appears in the background between him and the emperor (Ills.
21), are even more different. They alone are made predominantly with stone tesserae, even though they share with the deacons a technically less achieved manner, noticeable in the less careful setting of the rows of tesserae. These two heads, which are real portraits, were made by the same mosaicist and at the same time . The bishop’s head is slightly smaller than those of his immediate companions, but this was probably dictated by the need to fit the inscription Maximianus into a limited space above him. Further complicating matters, the top of the neighboring deacon’s head (Ills. 19), the emperors crown (Ills. 17), and the beginning and end of the bishop’s inscription have all been remade, with smaller tesserae than the ones used originally (Ills. 22).
In spite of an extremely prominent location, the person squeezed between the emperor and the bishop, made at the same time as the latter’s head, was not planned from the start. This is demonstrated by the fact that the mysterious character, unlike the others, lacks feet as well as the lower part of his garment, and further by a gap between the emperor and the bishop where this figure’s white-clad body ought to be (Ills. 22). Unlike the missing feet of the generic guards in the back rows, the missing lower part of this figure, who was important enough to be placed between the emperor and the bishop, can be explained only by his having been inserted as an afterthought to the original composition. The differences between the heads made with stone tesserae and the others strongly suggest a last-minute change. They concern two central characters, one of whom was a controversial newcomer, Maximian, who had his name inscribed above his head to make his identification unmistakable.
At present there are two main reasons for dating these two figures to a restoration phase, which was close in time to the creation of these mosaics. One reason is the compositional oddity that represents the official in an awkwardly confined position, with no trace of a lower body and with very narrow shoulders that are out of proportion with his head and with the other figures. The second reason is the difference in materials. Stone dominates both of these figures’ faces (Ills. 13, 21), instead of the glass used in the faces and hands of all the other characters (see Justinian’s face in Ills.
17 and his hand in Ills. 23) and even in the hand of the bishop himself (Ills. 24). The reasons for discontinuing the use of glass paste for flesh tones in the restoration phase are still not clear, but one possibility is that the white and pale-colored glass was more expensive than stone . It seems, therefore, that the head of the bishop was replaced, but not most of his body or his hand, which is made with the same glass-paste tesserae as that used for the other hands in both panels. At the same time of this alteration, the inscription Maximianus was fitted in above the bishop’s head and the official behind him was carefully added, but without a lower body to correspond to his upper body because the original composition left too little room for him.
These two heads, which belong to the restoration of the mosaics, appear not to have been part of the original mosaic surface, and the same is true of the inscription. Before proceeding further, we need to date the San Vitale mosaics, which, as we have seen, had a restoration phase. The original phase evidently did not include Maximian, because the technical considerations outlined above indicate Maximian’s head and inscription were added later. Since the bishop’s garb is original, the original figure was presumably an earlier bishop of Ravenna. Yet he was not much earlier, because the figure of Justinian was part of the original mosaic and was unaccompanied by any Ostrogothic king.
It follows that the mosaic was put up after imperial forces entered Ravenna in 540 . That narrows the possibilities for the original bishop of Ravenna to just one: Maximian’s immediate predecessor, Victor. Let us begin with the man to the emperor’s right and the woman to the empress’s left. As the people just following the emperor and empress in their processions, they are the second-ranking personages in the panels. One might therefore guess that they were the highest-ranking man and woman in Ravenna. For this reason they have occasionally been identified as the imperial commander-in-chief of Italy, Belisarius, and his wife, Antonina .
In 544 Belisarius was about forty-five and Antonina about sixty, ages that fit well enough with the faces. Thus, the mosaic probably dates between 544 and 545, around the time of Bishop Victor’s death. This appears to be the date when the building of San Vitale was essentially complete. Victor did not consecrate it, however, presumably because he died before he considered it ready. It follows that Maximian contributed little if anything to building the church or to decorating its apse. Yet much of the mosaic decoration of the rest of the sanctuary should be his, because it belongs to the restoration phase that was apparently begun after Victor’s death and can scarcely be later than Maximian’s inscription and his consecration of the whole church . Bishop Victor won his place in these prestigious panels because San Vitale was after all his church.
Victor may have felt a special need to emphasize his loyalty to Justinian and even to Belisarius, because he had been consecrated bishop under the Ostrogoths when they were already at war with the emperor and his general. Yet the main initiative behind the selection of figures for the mosaics presumably lay with Belisarius and Antonina. In altering the mosaic, Maximian’s main purpose was doubtless to promote his own authority in Ravenna. This mosaic, after he had altered it, reminded his brood that Maximian had the backing of the emperor, the empress, and of both of the emperor’s chief officers, Belisarius and John the Nephew of Vitalian . Beyond this, substituting Maximian’s head for Victor’s allowed Maximian to lay claim early in his tenure to a church that he had seen to completion, although it had actually been built and, in large part, decorated under his predecessors.
From the start, Maximian showed great energy in altering and finishing the buildings of earlier bishops. In San Apollinare in Classe, for example, he radically changed the original program of mosaic decoration and had the present mosaics finished quite quickly . It follows that the original designer of the imperial panels did not mean to give Justinian twelve companions representing the twelve Apostles, since originally those companions numbered eleven . Nor did the designer add Maximian’s inscription to give the bishop prominence in the mosaic, since his inscription was not part of the original composition and was added later to serve a different purpose. (Although we cannot be absolutely sure that Maximian’s name was not substituted for Victor’s, such a label seems out of keeping with the rest of the original panels, and Victor would probably have expected his portrait to be recognizable by itself.) Only now does the significance of the mosaics become fully apparent.
And it will be realized how intimately the different works are interconnected. Moses, as well as the just offerers, alludes to the emperor. As Moses, upon God’s command, had made and adorned the Tabernacle, so Justinian had built and sumptuously furnished the church of San Vitale, and, like Melchizedek, he presented the sacrificial offering at the altar. But the imperial portraits must also be related to the great central composition in the apse (Ills. 3). The connection between the emperor-portraits and the central mosaic is obvious. As Ecclesius, the founder of the sanctuary, stands ready to receive the same award as that which is tendered Vitalis, so the sovereigns, as the primary benefactors of the church, will be rewarded for their sacrifice. Again it is the liturgy which gives particular significance to this thought.
The entire cycle of mosaics thus culminates in the apse of San Vitale, where the sacrifice offered by Justinian as emperor and priest is shown to be judged and accepted on the last day. The scene is the supreme vindication of Justinian’s administration, all the more moving since Christ, whom he is shown confronting, appears himself as an emperor in the act – dear to the religious imagination of the age – of bestowing the wreath of glory to the winner in the agon . If texts can be misread, art is even more susceptible to misinterpretation. Today, some scholars seem to want to believe in a Byzantium that idealized its rulers and cared above all for politics. The sources seem rather to show a society that valued the rulers, if it valued them at all, mostly for the practical benefits they could present .
The reality behind an idealized image of power was often weakness; attempts to glorify figures in authority often masked their actual insecurity and unpopularity. Bibliography BIBLIOGRAPHY Bumpus, Francis T. The Cathedrals and Churches of Northern Italy. Boston: L.C. Page and Company, 1908.
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