Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Surprises Ancient and Modern

Sant' Apollinare in Classe
It’s a new year, and I have returned from my travels with my heart and eyes filled with wonders. Just before Christmas, I was in Ravenna, finally seeing with my own eyes the astonishing 6th century mosaics that I first learned about in art school, more than 30 years ago. Although I often tell my students that seeing an artwork in person is different from any photograph or digital representation, I was still unprepared for the overwhelming experience of standing in the nave at Sant’Apollinare in Classe and looking up at Jesus as the Good Shepherd, surrounded by all those strange-looking sheep. The green of the grass shading into the gold of heaven is more brilliant than I ever imagined, and I was completely unprepared for the enormous size of the nave, which was built to accommodate the entire population of Classe in 549, when it was built.

Galla Placidia
I also did not anticipate the golden stars and deep, blue lapis sky shining out of the relative darkness of the tiny Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Of course, I had seen photos of the Good Shepherd mosaic, and the one that is identified as Saint Lawrence, but those photos never give a sense of how small the room is, or where they are in respect to one another.

San Vitale, just a few steps across the lawn from Galla Placidia, held a different kind of surprise: while the mosaics on the apse walls and ceiling look as fresh as they did the day the stones and glass were placed, the vault over the nave is painted with baroque swags indicating that the building was in use as an active church for at least a thousand years. That’s not something they taught me in art school!

Sant'Apollinare Nuovo
Of course, no trip to Ravenna is complete without visits to the Arian and Orthodox baptisteries and to Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, but I’ll write about them another time. Today, I want to end with the most surprising thing that I saw in that ancient and modern town. There is one site that is not mentioned in the standard art history books. It is in the little church of San Francesco, which still seems to have an active congregation. Mostly, the church is quite plain. 

The Holy Family under the chancel at the Basilica of San Francesco in Ravenna
But the guidebooks mention a 6th century mosaic pavement, now sunken beneath the water table, but still visible through a window under the chancel. The pavement is not as spectacular as the famous walls and ceilings in other buildings, because it was meant to be walked upon, but it is worth visiting. At all times of the year, apparently, goldfish swim happily in the water above the ancient floor. At Advent and Christmas, however, there is another wonder. Someone has placed a rowboat between the columns, and there, in the rowboat, are Joseph and Mary, inviting us to share their wonder at the Christ Child, nestled in a basket of hay at their feet.

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