As a symbol of the Archiepiscopal Chancellery of Ravenna, San Vitale is one of the greatest works of late Roman art. Famous for its mosaics commissioned by Archbishop Maximian (546/556 AD), the basilica is a place of contemplation. While the body descends its steps the spirit rises to the Truth. A masterpiece to be admired for its evident beauty and its hidden, precise, evocative theological argument.
In the basin of the apse a theophany unfolds, an apparition of the Divine, Christ on the Globe, with the archangels Michael and Gabriel, offers the crown of glory to San Vitale. The saint receives it with veiled hands, respectfully. The act of Christ raises San Vitale to the position of defender of the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, the bishop Ecclesius offers Christ the basilica of the next imperial victory. The apse contains the famous panels depicting Justinian and Theodora. The two panels complement each other and symbolise the harmony between civil and church history.
Panel of Justinian
The panel depicts the oblatio Augusti et Augustae. Justinian, surrounded by a halo of glory (sign of the divine origin of imperial power), advances with the gold paten, the symbol of the Eucharistic bread. Between the Emperor and Maximian Giuliano Argentario stands out. In the sacredness of this action, the Church of Ravenna is exalted by Justinian. Maximian leads the procession with the cross, the decorated book and the censer which are sacred, imperial and ecclesiastical symbols.
Panel of Theodora
The artistic-sacral suggestion becomes complete. The ostentation of court, represented with polychrome cubes and a clever use of mother-of-pearl, exalts Theodora. The empress, surrounded by a halo of glory holds the chalice of wine. The power of mosaic suggestion reaches its apex: all the figures lose bodily form and dissolve into pure symbolic abstraction.
A subtle logical and theological argument connects the two lunettes. The lunette on the right represents the two Eucharistic Old Testament sacrifices of Abele and Melchisedek.
The lunette on the left depicts the sacrifice of Abram: in the apparition of the three angels to Abram some of the church fathers correctly saw the Holy Trinity revealed.
In the arch of the apse the archangels Michael and Gabriel hold the symbol of concentric circles and rays radiating from the centre which contains the alpha, symbol of the logos, the creator, or as the gospel of John says, the Word. The portraits of the twelve apostles have Christ at the centre in the splendid decoration of the triumphal arch, the beginning and completion of the cycle of mosaics and of their theological meaning.