The mosaic garden of San Vitale

In our basilicas the mosaic focuses on the theological and pastoral message in the passage from the earthly to the celestial dimension.  At the beginning of his episcopate, Archbishop Maximian (546-556) commissioned a complex representation in a flower garden in the apse of San Vitale: the Theophany (manifestation of the Divine) [i]. The beardless figure of Christ Cosmocrator (Lord of the World) assumes great importance. He is sitting on the blue globe, with his left hand he holds the apocalyptic scroll of the seven seals, while with his right he offers the crown of glory and martyrdom to San Vitale, titular of the basilica [ii]. The Redeemer, dressed in a purple tunic like a Byzantine emperor, is escorted by two Archangels [iii]. The bishop of Ravenna, Ecclesio stands on the extreme right and is in the act of offering Christ the model of the basilica he founded. This Theophany presents a very precise iconography aimed at exalting the uniqueness of Christ, the Son of God, in controversy with the Arian Ostrogoths recently defeated by the Byzantine troops of the Emperor Justinian [iv].  We focus our attention on the atmosphere that envelops this divine manifestation of Christ, marked by the golden background that ascends from the paradise garden. This sacred atmosphere, which develops between earth and sky, becomes a constant of the Byzantine apsidal theophanies, where the garden is given a fundamental function of Eternity.  At the foot of the Savior the four Rivers of Paradise flow: Fison, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates (Genesis 2, 10-14) [v].

In this mosaic, we witness the frequent representation of lilies, red anemones and roses in a rich ‘mystical meadow’: flowers loaded with a sedimented symbolic reading of Christian virtues in accordance with the context of refreshment for the blessed, together with the peacocks symbol of immortality.  The lily acquires a strong message of beauty and spirituality since the Old Testament.  For example, in the Canticle of Canticles the lily is the beloved who meets the bridegroom and is compared by the Church Fathers to the Madonna and to her condition of virginity and humility in accepting the divine will.  Or the bride of the Canticle is the Christian community that is united in marriage with the Lord: “… As among the thistles is the lily, so is my friend among the girls.” (2,2). On the other hand, the red anemone is a flower born from the drops of Christ’s blood that fell on Calvary. We see the anemone already in the mosaic decoration that covers the barrel vault of the south and north arms of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia [vi]. The rose also has a specific theological content  centred on the absence of original sin in Mary. The Christian poet Sedulio, in his poem Carmen Paschale (430 AD), exalts the Virgin by comparing her to a rose: “… Thus the Blessed Virgin, a truly soft fresh Rose, and odoriferous without blemish came out of the thorns of original sin. “[vii].  In this sense, the art historian Silvia Pasi denotes in the Theophany of San Vitale: “.. Fully suited to a heavenly environment are in fact the white and red flowers that dot,  embellishing it, the green earth, symbols of pure souls the first, and of the blood of martyrs the second… “[viii].

We can also compare the garden of the Theophany of San Vitale with the mosaic panels of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo from the age of King Theoderic (493-526): bloomy meadows with lilies, anemones and roses are the background to the Virgin and Child Enthroned and Archangels  and to the respective Christ Enthroned at the bottom of the two walls of the central nave [ix].  Also in these cases the sacred characters stand in a luxuriant paradisiacal meadow [x]. It’s not without reason that it is always the exegesis or theological interpretation formulated by the first Christian writers that underlines the role of the Risen Jesus in the role of ‘gardener’ of Eternal Life who appeared to Mary Magdalene (John 20, 15-17): “… Jesus asks her: ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?’ And she, thinking he was the gardener, says to him: ‘Lord, if you took it away, tell me where you put it and I will take it.’ Jesus then calls her: ‘Mary!’.  She turned around and exclaimed in Hebrew: ‘Rabbunì!’ which means Master!… “[xi]. The flowered garden is also depicted in the mosaics of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo executed at the time of the Catholic reconciliation ordered by Archbishop Agnello (556-569): they represent the Holy Virgins and the Holy Martyrs [xii].

The Theophany of San Vitale has influenced, together with other Ravenna mosaics, the poetic and religious sensitivity of Dante Alighieri when the Supreme Poet remembers this mosaic cycle in some cantos of Paradise. For example, where Beatrice thus exhorts Dante: “…do you not turn to the beautiful garden / which blossoms under the rays of Christ?… “(Paradise, canto XXIII, vv. 71-72).[xiii]

The art historian Pietro Toesca wrote, about the Byzantine conceptual and spiritual order underlying this Theophany in San Vitale, that this mosaic figuration “… is inspired by canons destined to last in medieval art.” [xiv].

Filippo Trerè

Opera di Religione della Diocesi di Ravenna


[i] L.Sotira, Ravenna tra Oriente e Occidente: le epifanie absidali di età giustinianea, in “XII Colloquio AIEMA”, Venezia 11-15 settembre 2012, a c. di G. Trovabene, Parigi 2015, pp. 409-415 (particolarm. pp. 410-411). Si aggiunga anche: C. Rizzardi, La cristianizzazione dell’Adriatico: il messaggio dei mosaici parietali, in La cristianizzazione dell’Adriatico. Atti della 38° settimana di studi aquileiesi, 3-5 maggio 2007, a c. di G. Cuscito, Trieste 2008, pp. 401-433; G. Montanari, Monumenti giustinianei o non piuttosto massimianei?, in “Studi Romagnoli”, LXII (2011), pp. 75-80.

[ii] Rizzardi, La cristianizzazione dell’Adriatico, cit., pp. 421-422.

[iii] L. Sotira, Eredità della tradizione classica nei mosaici parietali di V e VI secolo: problematiche di iconografia e di stile, in “Intrecci d’arte”, n.1, 2012, pp. 16-17.

[iv] Sotira, Ravenna tra Oriente e Occidente, cit., p. 409.

[v] S. Pasi, Ravenna, San Vitale. Il corteo di Giustiniano e Teodora, Modena 2006, pp. 59-66 (particolarm. pp. 64-65).

[vi] M. G. Morganti, Piccolo lessico floreale, in http://www.pinacotecafaenza.racine.ra.itDecorazione musiva parietale del Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, Volta con fiori stilizzati, in Mosaicoravenna.it I mosaici dei monumenti Unesco di Ravenna e Parenzo, a c. del Centro Internazionale di Documentazione sul Mosaico, Fusignano 2007, p. 120; C. Rizzardi, Il mosaico a Ravenna. Ideologia e arte, Bologna 2011, pp. 44-45.

[vii] G. B. Ladner, Il simbolismo paleocristiano. Dio, cosmo, uomo, prefazione all’edizione italiana di E. Russo, Milano 2008, p. 18. Di Sedulio, Carmen Paschale, libro I, si è ripresa una libera traduzione dal latino di: “…Et velut ex spinis mollis rosa surgis acutis…”contenuta in:  G. Longo, Lettioni sopra il Cantico Magnificat Anima Mea Dominum, Napoli 1615, p. 142.

[viii] Pasi, op. cit., p. 64.

[ix]E. Penni Iacco, L’arianesimo nei mosaici di Ravenna, Ravenna 2011, pp. 49-68.

[x] Morganti, op. cit.; D. Mavrič Čeh, Fiori e piante nell’arte sacrahttp://www.academia.edu

[xi] F.Cardini, Giardino, in Enciclopedia dell’Arte Medievale (1995), http://www.treccani.it ; F. Cardini, M. Miglio, Nostalgia del paradiso. Il giardino medievale, Bari 2002.

[xii] G. Gardini, Immagini di santità. Litanie figurate nella Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, in Le donne nei mosaici di Ravenna (a c. di Monsignor Guido Marchetti), Opera di Religione della Diocesi di Ravenna, 2015, pp. 63-67.

[xiii] L. Pasquini, Iconografie dantesche. Dalla luce del mosaico all’immagine profetica, Ravenna 2008, pp. 33-34; Divina Commedia, introduzione di I. Borzi. Commento a c. di G. Fallani, S. Zennaro, Roma 2006, pp. 578-579.

[xiv] P. Toesca, Storia dell’Arte Italiana. Il Medioevo, Vol. I, Tomo I, Torino 1927, p. 193; D.Gioseffi, Lo svolgimento del linguaggio giottesco da Assisi a Padova: il soggiorno riminese e la componente ravennate, in “Arte Veneta”, XV  (1961), pp. 11-24 (particolarm. pp. 21-23).