The Artifice of Eternity
In the eventful history of a reign of twenty-eight years, says Edward Gibbon in the twenty-ninth chapter of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it will seldom be necessary to the mention the name of the emperor Honorius. He was indeed among the most insignificant of Roman rulers, he was boastful, lazy, cowardly, content to look on languidly while his country fell into ruins around him. He did, however, make one major decision for which the world owes him a debt of gratitude. In the year 402 AD, fearful of being overrun by the barbarian hordes that were roaming at will over his domains, he moved his capital from Rome, which had no natural defenses, to Ravenna on the northern Adriatic coast. Set behind the vast marshes of the Po River delta, and approachable only by a long artificial causeway, this city was impregnable to direct assault by any foreign army, and it would survive for many more hundred years isolated from the bloody turmoils of the dying ancient world. As capital of the Western Roman Empire in its last days, then as capital of the occidental provinces of the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire, it offered a refuge of luxury and splendor, a headland of antique civilization above the relentlessly rising seas of barbarism,
While ageless monuments were falling everywhere, Ravenna was crowded with new and sumptuous palaces and churches. Honorius and his successors decorated the walls of these palaces and churches with works of incomparable richness, the masterpieces of an age when human artistic achievement was reaching one of its summits. The hazards of war and religious fanaticism would eventually annihilate almost all of the great works of that age. Only in a few buildings that have survived in Ravenna and some other outposts of the falling empire do some of them remain, with all their deep throbbing brilliance intact.
The saints and symbols on the walls of Ravenna look almost exactly as they did when they were created in the fifth century. Impervious to all the ills that afflict every treasure in all our museums the polluted air of cities, the bad breath of visitors, the chemical decomposition of pigments, the pious but so often misguided hands of restorers they look almost exactly as they did when Honorius and his successors commanded them a millennium and a half ago, and if they came back to life Honorius and the others would recognize them as familiar friends at first sight. This is because they are mosaics, and well-made mosaic is the most durable of all the decorative techniques humans have created since they started painting animals on cave walls twenty or so thousand years ago..
The use of small colored objects to create surface patterns is an ancient art form spread over most of the world, used by the architects who built the temples of Urek in Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BC as by the Pueblo Indians who make turquoise plaques in New Mexico today.
Its use in making large pictorial compositions appears to have been a unique product of classical civilization, born in Greece, developed in Rome. Beginning in the fourth century BC, pebbles and shells were replaced by colored glass baked into thin sheets which could be cut up into thousand of little pieces, tesserae, square or oblong or any irregular shape that might be desired, most of them only fractions of an inch across. The tesserae were set in wet plaster by skilled craftsmen following lines traced by the master of the work. Once the plaster dried they would stay in place indefinitely.
The Ravenna artists were heirs to centuries of Greco-Roman masters who had achieved an awesome technical virtuosity. They had something like 300 different shades of colored glass at their disposal, and they knew how to use them to produce any kind of pictorial effect they wanted, from stark geometrical abstractions to delicately modeled landscapes, hunting scenes, battles, the loves of Mars and Venus. Producing mosaics was a major industry under the Roman emperors; no substantial building was complete with at least a few specimens. Rich people could choose patterns they way their modern counterparts choose carpets: identical designs have been found in the floors of Roman ruins in the north of England and in Tunisia on the fringes of the Sahara.
The Ravenna artists chroniclers of the time did not think it important to record their names, so we do not even know if they came from the Grecianized or Romanized part of the empire made use of all the old tradition, but they changed it dramatically. For one thing, they moved the position of the mosaics. Except in damp environments like bathhouses, earlier Romans had preferred to paint their walls in fresco and use mosaic almost exclusively for floors. The mosaicists of the fifth century did not want their images to be walked on they were not idle illustrations of fanciful mythological tales, they were sacred images. Christianity, once a despised sect, was now the official religion of the empire. The churches rising everywhere on the ruins of the temples of the ancient pagan gods proclaimed the triumph of the new faith.
The decorations of the new churches were meant to envelop the worshiper, to seize him and transport him to the borders of a new and better, immaterial, transcendental world. The architectural effect was consciously dramatic. Nothing on the outside of the building prepares you for what you will see inside. The facades and bell towers are unadorned red brick, quiet, harmonious, ascetic. But once past the doors, you are met by a visual blast of heavenly trumpets. Supported by columns of multicolored marble, jasper and porphyry, the ceiling and walls are ablaze with symbolic figures and narrative scenes of the sacred past.
Form and colors were part of a careful didactic program. The mosaics were not intended as mere wall decorations, they were an integral part of the architectural effect, enclosing the congregation in an atmosphere that was at once instructive and exciting. A symphony of shapes and symbols was to conduct the eye and the mind toward the triumphant truth of revealed religion. Truth was overhead, in the rounded ceilings of domes and apses, in the form of a golden cross in a starry sky, a Virgin and Child, a mystic lamb, a baptism in the Jordan. On the walls below, guiding the eye upward, were scenes from the Old Testament -- the sacrifices of Abel and Melchizedek, the visions of Moses and Elijah prefiguring the coming of Christ; scenes from the New Testament confirming the prophecies of the Old; processions; rituals; saints; martyrs; birds and beasts and flowers; all caught up in the same rhythm of praise to the Creator of all.
For all this the mosaicists of Ravenna needed a new style. They had no need for the ease and grace and humor with which their forebears had represented the rich liveliness of the natural world. They had no use for the acres and acres of frolicking gods and godlets, charging cavalry, nymphs pulling beards of satyrs, the dream landscapes that covered the floors of ten thousand Roman palaces, shrines, lawcourts and country houses.
The new art dealt instead with another world, the world of divinity, what Saint Augustine called the City of God, inhabited by those who had given up the deceitful pleasures of this life for the promise of eternal bliss. Mosaic must have seemed like a heavensent medium for representing the City of God.
The Ravenna artists knew, as Seurat and the Pointillists were to discover centuries later, that fragments of pure color, seen at the proper distance, can coalesce into images of extraordinary intensity and power.
The inward glow that they seem to emanate comes from their being made of glass, which reflects light while paint tends to absorb it. The reflections could be multiplied, and the effect enriched, by setting the tesserae at slight angles to one another. The unevenness, imperceptible at a distance, helps the rich colors produce an effect that was designed to be unearthly -- especially when viewed as they originally meant to be, in light from windows made of thin strips of translucent marble.
The flowering of the new style can be followed church by church over two centuries in Ravenna. In the oldest of the monuments, built around 430 AD and called the Mausoleum of the empress Galla Placidia (though in fact she died in Rome and was buried there), the old naturalistic tradition is still strong. Except for the great gold halo that surrounds his head and the giant cross he bears, the young beardless Christ holding out a tender hand to one of his lambs, might be mistaken for a young pagan god, an Apollo. The big-antlered deer tripping on light feet through a fretwork of acanthus boughs to a pool of rippling ware might simply be thirsty deer; it took the eye of an initiate who had read and studied Psalms 42:1 to realize that they represented catechumens, converts to Christianity undergoing instruction to prepare them for baptism in the waters of life.
In the Basilica of San Apollinare Nuovo, built by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric in the next century, the style remains as vibrantly colorful, but it has become more solemn and monumental. In the series of New Testament scenes what runs along the upper part of the north wall, Christ is still beardless and serene, but in the south wall there is the saddened bearded visage that would be the standard for religious art ever after. Beneath these scenes are two long processions running the length of the nave, virgin martyrs to the north, saints to the south, bearing offerings to the Lord, who is a babe on one side, an august bearded judge on the other. There is little effort to give these giant figures the look of ordinary life: they are motionless, hieratic, components of a heavy steady sweep of dazzling white and gold, pulling the eye hypnotically forward toward the contemplation of divinity. By the time the emperor Justinian was reigning, in the middle of the sixth century, the mosaic style had reached its height of formal fixity and grandeur. Justinian himself appears on one wall of the Basilica of San Vitale, surrounded by his court, and on the facing wall the empress Theodora and her ladies-in-waiting gaze back with the same great staring eyes. The two monarchs and their attendant dignitaries, the baldheaded ascetic Bishop Maximilian and what are generally believed to be Belisarius, greatest general of his age, and his wife Antonia, and the money dealer Julian (who financed the building) may well be portraits drawn from life, but there is no effort to show them realistically as they might be standing in a real-life liturgical ceremony. Their feet touch on no ground, they are ready to fly upward. There is just enough of nature to make them recognizable as men and women, but they are men and women touched by what Yeats called the artifice of eternity. They are inhabitants of the City of God, frozen in everlasting adoration.
In the church of San Apollinare in Classe, a few miles outside of Ravenna in what was once the great naval base of Classis, no one would mistake the scenes also of Justinians time for anything to be found in nature. The hand of God at the top of the rounded ceiling of the apse comes down through bands of pink-and-blue clouds to bless a great jeweled cross of gold flaming out a deep-blue sky lit by golden stars. The cross here represents the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, where Jesus was first revealed to the apostles Peter, James and John as the Son of God. The face of Jesus appears in a medallion at the center of the cross; at the ends of its arms Greek and Latin inscriptions proclaim the Savior of the world, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. The apostles appear in the form of three sheep witnessing the divine event on Earth while the prophets Moses and Elijah, who have foretold it, look down from heaven. Below them is a vast verdant meadow overspread with daisies, lilies, olive trees, cypresses, bare rocks, birds, twelve snow-white sheep. These sheep stand, according to various interpretations, either for the Twelve Tribes of Israel or the Twelve Apostles. They are symbols of all mankind, here turning their heads obediently to a good shepherd, the martyred bishop Apollinarius who first brought the true faith from Syria to Ravenna in the first century of the Christian Era.
Even today, when only a few scholars know all that these symbols are supposed to represent that for example the peacock stands for eternal life because it was believed (Saint Augustine states it as a fact he had personally observed) that its flesh does not putrefy they stand out on the walls with a splendid certainty and self-assuredness that can be overwhelming. Pope Gregory the Great in the seventh century is said to have insisted on dulling the brilliance of these mosaics because it distracted the faithful from inward contemplation. But for most of the faithful, their beauties created pride and exultation. When in the year 988, in on of those rare individual decisions which affect the course of history for centuries afterward, Prince Vladimir of Kiev led all his wild Russian subjects into the Dnieper River to be baptized in the Greek Orthodox community (rejecting the rival appeals of the Muslims, the Jews and the Roman Catholics), the decisive influence on his choice, according to the oldest of Russian chronicles, was the report of the emissaries he had sent to Constantinople There they had seen the glowing glory of mosaics like those of Ravenna in Justinians Basilica of the Hold Wisdom, Hagia Sophia. This, they said, must be the home of the Eternal.
These emissaries of Vladimir paid no more attention that Saint Augustine or the emperor Justinian would have done to what strikes the modern mind so forcibly, the radical contrast between the splendid certainty of the art and the wretched confusion and chaos of the world in which the art was being created. Augustine and Justinian would have nothing by contempt for the modern notion that art should be faithful reflection of the life of its times, that disordered times require disordered art. They were all too well aware of what their times were like: there has probably never been in Western history a time of such great disarray, destabilization and destruction as during the fifth and sixth centuries AD. The pillars of the world were shaking. The waves of barbarism were washing away the monuments of a thousand years or civilization like so many sand-castles. In the year 410 Rome itself, the Eternal City, was stormed and plundered by Alaric the Visigoth. The light of the world has gone out, cried Saint Jerome when the news reached him in the faroff desert where he was translating the Bible into Latin. This was a Day of the Lord such as had been foretold by the Hebrew prophets, when the grapes of wrath would be trampled out.
A bloodsoaked brutality had infected the world. The Romans might turn up their civilized noses at crude barbarians like King Alboin of the Lombards who, according to the eighth-century historian Paul the Deacon, liked to drink toasts out of the skull of the father-in-law he had murdered. But civilized life itself was run through with similar streaks of grotesque sadism. The emperor Valentinian I, regarded as a model of both noble Roman and pious Christian, kept two pet bears named Innocence and Golden Grain, and when the cares of office kept him awake at night, says the historian Gibbon, he would have prisoners brought up from the dungeons so that he could watch them being mauled and dismembered till his eyes dropped in sleep.
The rulers who commissioned the great churches of Ravenna led violent lives, stained with crimes, never sure that their crowns were steady on their heads. The empress Gallia Placidia, sister of Honorius, was part of the spoils of war when Rome fell to Alaric. Shortly afterward, she was married to Alarics brother Ataulfus. After a wedding ceremony in Nimes during which a hundred bowls of stolen gold pieces and jewels were strewn at her feet and a former emperor of Rome sang the nuptial hymns, she reigned for four years as Queen of the Visigoths, till Ataulfus was murdered in Barcelona and she was forced to walk ten miles tethered to the horse of his killer. Ransomed for 450,000 bushels of wheat, she had to fight off the incestuous advances of her brother Honorius. She fled to the court of her nephew who was reigning in Constantinople over the Eastern Roman Empire. He lent her a war fleet with which she returned triumphantly to Ravenna, where she ruled the Western Roman empire for 25 years, during which she lost half of its remaining provinces to the Vandals, whose name has become synonymous with the kind of free enterprise we disapprove of.
Her daughter Honoria, brought up in the stifling piety of the imperial court, where everyone spent an inordinate amount of time praying and fasting and listening to sermons, was a hot-blooded girl who did not see why she did not have as much right to a virile barbarian as her mother. She found herself a superbarbarian in Attila the Hun, whose name has become synonymous with the kinds of warlike activity we disapprove of, and she sent a letter and a ring to him in his camp on the banks of the Danube. When her mother found out about it, she clapped her into a convent for the rest of her life, but Honoria had already provided Attila with a plausible excuse for invading and pillaging Roman territory any time he felt like redeeming his promised bridge.
The Empress Theodora, who stands in state on the wall of San Vitale wearing a jeweled crown that was to be the model for the crown of Mary Queen of Scots in the windows of the Cathedral Chartres 700 years later, was the daughter of a very common subject, the keeper of the imperial bears. The historian Procopius, who was a high official at the court and knew everything wrote in his Secret History that in her youth she had appeared naked on the stage in the Byzantine equivalent of the burlesque show and had sold her charms at high prices in all the cities of the East before settling down to a life of ostentatious piety and catching the dour eye of the emperor Justinian.
Such matters were of no concept to the artists of Ravenna. They were indifferent to them, as Saint Augustine was indifferent to all the details of history not recorded in Holy Scripture: They may be true, they may be false, but they make no contribution to our living righteous and happy lives. What counted was not Justinian the conqueror of Italy and Africa or Justinian the lawgiver whose codification of the Roman law still underlies the legal systems of much of the modern world., but Justinian Gods representative on earth who summoned and presided over the Second General Council of Constantinople, where 273 bishops fixed for all time the definition of the double nature of the single Second Person of the Trinity.
The mighty imperial apparatus which Justinian build lasted almost 900 years, but then it crumbled away to dust. His colossal bronze statue which stood for so many centauries in front of the imperial palace was melted down to make Turkish cannon.
Art lasts longer than empire, but it too is subject to the vagaries of time and chance. Now I have vanquished thee, o Solomon, cried Justinian when he first walked inside Hagia Sophia, admiring its resplendent walls. But not long after his death a wave of religious fanaticism swept the empire. Putting the likeness of any living thing on walls or on pedestals was deemed a direct violation of the Second Commandment. Uncounted mosaic masterpieces were chiseled off all the church and palace walls of the empire, except in places where the borders of the empire had shrunk (including, notably, Ravenna in the northwest and Mount Sinai in the southeast. For the next 150 years Byzantine art lay in the cold grip of abstraction. Then there was an reaction and the images of Christ, Abel, Melchizedek, the peacocks all came back in vibrant color. The mosaicists never quite recovered the firm and delicate balance between natural form and supernatural symbol that marked the art of the sixth century, but they went on producing masterpieces both at home and in neighboring lands - in Damascus, Kiev, Venice, Sicily - all the way down to 1453. Then, with the final extinction of the Roman empire by the Ottoman Turks, Hagia Sophia became a mosque and its walls were whitewashed to meet the requirements of its new religion. The art of the mosaic, deprived of the wellendowed imperial workshops that passed on the rigorous principles of the craft, languished and died.
Ravenna, too, languished. It fell to the Lombards and then to the Franks. Under the terms of what was called the Donation of Constantine, forged for the occasion by resourceful monks, the Frankish emperor Charlemagne handed it over to the popes. Pope Leo V was so grateful that he authorized Charlemagne to take off whatever he needed for the decoration of his new capital at Aachen, and endless teams of oxcarts carried off over the Alps in a few months more art treasures than had been lost to four centuries of barbarian raids and lootings.
As an independent city state, Ravenna took part in the perpetual wars and feuds of medieval Italy. Dante, condemned to death for being on the losing side of a civil war in Florence, came here to finish the Divine Comedy and to die. In the 15th century Ravenna became part of the Republic of Venice; since 1960 it has become the capital of a sleepy prosperous Italian province. The land has risen, and the marshes that once protected the city are now grain-fields, cut across by canals bringing seagoing ships to the petrochemical plants whose fumes are slowly eating away the ancient buildings. There are plans to make it the site of an Italian style Disneyland. S
Out in the fields that cover the ancient port of Classis, where all 250 warships of the Roman Eastern Mediterranean fleet once berthed, the spare harmonious bell tower of San Apollinare in Classe rises above a featureless plain. It was marked for destruction by Allied bombs in the closing days of World War II the Germans were using it as an observation post but a gallant Polish officer convinced his superiors that it would a sin to destroy so priceless a monument, especially at a moment when the German army was breaking up of its own accord. A plaque on the west wall of the church expresses the gratitude of Ravenna to Colonel Popski, who allowed Saint Apollinarius, uncertain as his future may be, to go on a while longer summoning the tribes of Israel to the green pastures of the City of God,
©1990 Robert Wernick Smithsonian Magazine, January 1990