December 14, 2013 – Ravenna

Ravenna is home to eight World a Heritage Sites and we plan on going to at least six today. It is surprising given the quality of these early Christian churches and baptistries that Ravenna is not more of a tourist Mecca. All of our visits are within easy walking distance of our hotel and most within the pedestrian zone. All have fabulous mosaics.

Sarah and John looking fierce inside the old city walls of Ravenna
Sarah and John looking fierce inside the old city walls of Ravenna

Our first stop and probably the best is the 6th century St. Vitale’s Basilica. The whole altar area is ablaze in a sparkling gold background for the figures portrayed. The largest mosaic is of Christ between two angels with the then current Bishop handing over the Basilica to Christ and St. Vitale (or Vitus) receiving a crown on the left. There are also mosaics of the apostles and stories from the Old Testament plus mosaics of Emperor Justinian and his wife. Surprisingly there are no mosaics of Mary and no crucifixions. Just beside the basilica is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia who died in 450. It too is covered in mosaics. (click on the photos for a larger version)

Next we see the Arian Baptistry built at the end of the 5th century. This tiny building with its plain walls wows you when you look up at the ceiling. Christ encircled by his apostles is being baptized while a personification of the Jordan a River with little crab legs sticking out of his head looks on. The Arian movement within early Christianity was practiced in Ravenna during this period. It emphasized Christ’s humanity rather than his divinity and put him on a lesser level than God the father. It was ruled a heresy in 325 and the baptistry was turned over to orthodoxy in the 6th century.

Our last stop before lunch is at the 6th century St. Apollonaire Nuovo. Here a line of virgins and the three wise men head toward Mary and the baby Jesus with gifts. On the opposite wall a line of apostles and martyrs bring gifts to an adult Jesus. There are also small vignettes of Christ’s life. Sarah and I try to identify the saints but there are few distinguishing features. The church is practically empty. Sightseeing in the winter is the best!

We have lunch at a small osteria. I, as usual, order badly. John and Sarah know never to order what I do. Their lunches turn out much better.

We have two sites left before we can collapse back at the hotel. John and I have about five hours of sightseeing in us before we need a rest. So now we visit the Neonian or Orthodox Baptistry. Built at the end of the 4th century partly on an old Roman bath, it is the oldest structure in Ravenna. Much like the Arian Baptistry, it is an octagonal building with a mosaic of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist while the Jordan River looks on. The scene is encircled by the Apostles.


There are no pictures allowed in the Museum where the Chapel of St. Andrew is. It shows a warrior Jesus.

John and I head back to the hotel. Sarah continues on to visit Dante’s tomb and do a little window shopping. We meet for dinner at the Ristorante Cappello. Once again I order badly. Sigh.

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