THE MOSAICs IN THE SAN VITALE IN RAVENNA

 

PortrAIt OF A FamilY

 

Hubert de Vries

 

The Mosaics

The Mosaic in the Apse

The Northern Wall

The Southern Wall

The Analysis

The Conclusion

and Continuing

The Portraits

Justinian I, the Great

Justin II

Tiberius II Constantine

Maurice, Anastasia, Constantina

 

 

 

One of the few heraldic shields known from the time of the conquest of Italy by the Byzantines in the 6th century is represented on the mosaics in the San Vitale in Ravenna. It is a green shield with a golden bordure set with preciuous stones and charged with a golden christogram covering the whole surface. Such a shield is also known from a silver dish from the 4th century on which Emperor Constantius II is represented between his squire, who is bearing such a shield, and Victoria. [1] Here we will try to determine who was the owner of the shield on the Ravenna mosaics. To achieve this it is necessary to determine who the other individuals on the mosaics are.

 

The Mosaics

 

In the choir of teh San Vitale in Ravenna there are three important mosaics. Accoording to the accepted interpretation these are representing Christ, Saint Vitus, Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora and their retinue. A prelate is identified by the name of Maximianus. A closer  view of the individuals represented leads to the conclusion that not Justinian I the Great is represented but Tiberius II Constantine with his retinue. The argumentation is as follows:

In the period in which the mosaics can be made there reigned four emperors: Justinian I from 527 - 565, Justin II from 565 - 578, Tiberius II Constantine from 578 - 582 and Maurice Tiberius from 582 - 602. In Ravenna Maximian was bishop from 546 - 556. He played an important role in the building of the churches in Ravenna.

Justinian I was married to Theodora, Justin II to Sophia, Tiberius II Constantine to Anastasia and Maurice to Constantina, the daughter of Tiberius II Constantine and Anastasia.

In Italy Belisarius was prefect from 536 - 541 and from 544 - 549. He was succeeded by Narses (552-567) and Flavius Longinus (567-583). This last one became the first exarch of Ravenna and he was succeeded during the reign of Maurice by  another five exarchs (military governors), In the interim periods of 541 - 544 and from 549- 552 the territory around Ravenna was occupied by the Ostrogoths. [2]

In this period there were four Popes: Vigilius (537-555), Pelagius I (555-561), John III (561-574), Benedict I (574-579) en Pelagius II (579-590). The bishops, later patriarchs of Aquilei, we can leave out of consideration, amongst other because they came under strong Longobard influence after 569.

All these individuals can be represented on the mosaics also because the making of mosaics was an expensive thing which only the elite could afford

 

a. The Mosaic in the Apse

The mosaic in the apse represent a coronation. In the middle is a man seated, dressed in purple with a halo with a cross around his head and keeping a codicil in his left hand. He is sitting on a blue sphere representing the universe.  The halo with the cross makes him the highest administrator or pantocrator. He presents a crown and a staff to a man dressed in a white tunica and cloak who, with an accepting gesture upholds his cloak. On the left side of the seated man is a prelate dressed in purple. The representation is escorted by two angels, the messengers of heaven symbolizing a divine mandate.

 

b.  The Mosaic on the Northern Wall

 

 

On the northern wall there is a mosaic representing a man with a crown and a halo dressed in purple. On his shoulder there is a gold-embroidered patch ensigned with a green eagle. On the tablion there are also green eagles, encircled in red. Next to him are high officials and clergymen. Above the clergyman  on his left side the name of Maximianus is written by which, according to the accepted opinion, it is meant bishop Maximian of Ravenna (546-556). On the extreme right side of the central person there are soldiers of which the foremost is equipped with a green shield ensigned with a christogram.

 

c. The Mosaic on the Southern Wall

On the southern waal there is a mosaic representing a crowned and nimbused woman dressed in purple. She holds a chalice in her hands. On the edge of her cloak there are the Three Magi with their offerings. Next to her are two men and two women an on a less prominent place on her left side are another five women.

 

The Analysis

 

ad. a. The individuals represented on mosaic in the apse are quite young. The central one is certainly an Emperor because of his purple attire. The oher man is crowned by him. Also in relation with the man on the northern mosaic and the eagle on his shoulder, an important warrior or a caesar is certainly represented. The eagle indicates a rank equal to a consul, here: a merarch or legate of a legion (= 5000 men). [3]

           

d The mosaics have to be made later than 539 because it was only in that year that Ravenna was captured by Belisarius. [4]  It is not likely that the mosaics were begun in the hectic period between 539 and 552. Also the church was consecrated only in 547 and for that reason we can suppose that the construction was only completed in that year. Justinian I would have been 69 years old. The person thus cannot, represent Justinian I. as he is too young, and also the traits of the man do not resemble the other preserved portaits of Justinian I.

 

Considering when the central figure of the mosaic was created, it is more likely to represent Justinian I’s successor, Justin II, his nephew. Justin II, born about 520, but was paralyzed in both legs which made him unsuited for the office. It is also suggested that he was of an unstable state of mind. This gave immediate cause to serious intrigues in the palace. Gibbon continues: This domestic animosity was refined into a generous resolution of seeking a successor, not in his family, but in the republic: and the artful Sophia (his wife) recommended Tiberius, his faithful captain of the guards, [….]. The ceremony of his elevation to the rank of Caesar, or Augustus, was performed (A.D. 574, December) in the portico of the palace, in the presence of the patriarch and the senate. In a speech the Eperor said: “You behold the ensigns of supreme power. You are about to receive them not from my hand, but from the hand of God.” [5]

So the mosaic in the apse likely represents the coronation of caesar of Tiberius in 574. The patriarch at that time was Benedict I (574-579). The portrait of Justin II can be compared with his portrait on the so-called Cross of Justin in the Treasur of the St. Peter in Rome. The portrait on coins of Justin II in any case does not rule out that the mosaic represents Justin II.

Justin II died on 5 October 578 after a reign of 13 years. He was succeeded by Tiberius II Constantine.

 

ad. b. The man in the middle of the northern mosaic has the same features as the man in the white cloak on the mosaic in the apse. Certainly they represent the same man who was known, by the way, because of his handsome features. The mosaic however, taking into account that the crown lacks a cross, represents Tiberius as a caesar, surrounded by high officials and prelates. On coins minted during his reign he is represented with a crown on which there is a cross and such a cross is also customary for Emperors reigning later. For co-emperors like Tiberius II Constantine between 574 and 578 it is always missing.

The shield of the armed man on the right side of the Emperor is striking. The main color of the shield is green and for that reason it is unlikely that it was of the color of Justinian I’ guard. During his reign there were two factions competing with each other on  the race course - the “Greens” and the “Blues”. Justinian I was a great fan of the “Blues” and for that reason it is unlikely that his guard was equipped with blue shields. [6] Justin at least took a neutral position in the struggle: At his accession, the proclamation of equal and rigorous justice indirectly condemned the partiality of the former reign. “Ye blues, Justinian is no more! Ye greens, he is still alive!” [7] Tiberius very well could have been more dedicated to the “Greens” which would explain the color of his shield. [8]

For the rest it is possible and even likely that is not Tiberius II Constantine’s squire depicted but rather the then  Comes Domesticorum, also the Comes Excubitores, the commander of the Imperial  Guard. [9] That this official bore a shield is proved by the  Comes Domesticorum equitum et peditum of Honorius, Stilicho († 408). This is decorated with scales ordered radially and a medallion of the two portrais of the Emperors. [10] according to the Notitia Dignitatum from the beginning of the 5th cenury both comes had a shield charged with a sun, symbolizing the Romand Empire. These shields still had a traditional (pagan) Roman character but this would change soon afterwards, in any case in the East. On the plinth of the so-called Pile of Arcadius from 403, probably being somewhat younger than the part of the Notitia Dignitatum for the Eastern Empire, there are shields charged in the same way with the Christogram as the shield of Ravenna. [11] The first is oval, the other eight-cornered and they can very well have belonged to the  comes domesticorum equitum and the comes domesticorum peditum. Unfortunately no shields of later such important officials are known to exist so that it is not possible to verify if the shield of Ravenna stands at the end of an uninterrupted development.

When we accept that the man with the shield actually represents a Comes Excubitores we can also verify who held this office at the time of Tiberius. Justin I had been the Comes Excubitores of Anastasius before and Tiberius himself the one for Justin II. The Comes Excubitores of Tiberius II Constantine was Maurice, the later Emperor. The man represented then is likely Maurice and the shield the “arms” of the Comes Excubitores. It is also likely, taking into account the fact that it is also on the Pile of Arcadius, that the shield  was also used by Tiberius II Constantine and also by Justin I.

 

The high official next to Tiberius II Constantine may be the governor of Ravenna (prefect of Italy) who certainly had his place in the retinue of Tiberius II Constantine in Ravenna. In 574-578 the then serving governor was Flavius Longinus (567-583/’84).

 

It is also very unlikely that bishop Maximian is represented because at the time of the creation of the mosaics he had alsready been dead for twenty years. The prelate on the northern mosaic is dressed in the same fashion as the prelate on the mosaic of the apse but he was much older and in addition to his tonsure, already balding. For that reason it is likely that again, taking into account the date of creation, that Benedict I is represented. He would die in 579.

Why the name Maxentius was written above the prelate will probably remain a mystery for ever, one that will continue to confuse historians for ages. 

 

ad. c. While the northern mosaic represents Tiberius I Constantine the southern mosaic represents the wife of Tiberius. [12] In 578, instead of marrying Sophia, Justin I ‘s widow, as was expected, Tiberius preferred  his wife Ino, also called Anastasia, to whom he was married earlier in secret an action that Sophia was determined to avenge. Anastasia and Tiberius had two daughters  who were married at the end Tiberius’ life to Maurice and Germanus, He simultaneously apponted them caesar and they became his successors. For this reason it is likely that the people next to Anastasia represent her daughters and their husbands. The man on the right of Anastasia, when we compare both men with the representation of Maurice on the northern mosaic, should be Maurice then. [13] Defending this hypothesis is the fact that the man next to Anastasia is of about the same age as Tiberius on the northern wall, which is further supported by the fact that both were born about 540.

The utmost right daugter we also meet on later representations. She probably was Constantina,  Maurice’s wife.

 

At what date Tiberius took this measures is not very clear. It is suggested that he took them only when he was fallen seriously ill in 582. This would imply that the mosaic with Anastasia was not created at the same time as the one on the northern wall but only in 582. This may be confirmed by the (although minor) difference in style of both mosaics. Also Constantina is represented elewhere, namely on an icon from Sinai Monastery (see below), between her parents with a child on her lap. This could not have been possible if the marriage between her and Maurice would not have been concluded before 582. Only the marriage of his other daughter to Germanus would have been approved of then in 582.

 

The Conclusion

 

As a conclusion, we propose that it is Emperor Tiberius II Constantine and Empress Anastasia (Ino) who are represented on the mosaics in the San Vitale. This fixes the date of creation of the mosaics within the reign of Tiberius, namely 578-582. The patriarch was then Pelagius  II (579-590), the prefect of Italy Flavius Longinus.

 

.... and Continuing

When we accept that on the mosaics Tiberius II Constaine and Anastasia are represented, we can also try to determine some of their portraits. The portrais of Tiberius, Anastasia and Constantina for example can be compared with the portrait of a family in the S. Maria Antiqua representing Tiberius with his wife, his daughter and his son in law. This fresco should have been created right after the marriage of Maurice and Constantina. To compare is also a fresco of S. Denetrius in the same church which probably represents Maurice.

Finally the representations of the Emperor and the Empress, together with their sons in law and their daughters bring us to the solution of the question who are represented on the Virgin and Child Icon from the Monastery of St. Catharine in Sinai. The resemblance between the woman and the parents is striking. At the same time we may notice that the Emperor has grown a beard and that Anastasia has grown old rapidly. Probably Tiberius was probably already ill, if not dead and the portrait was created posthumously.

 

The importance of the conclusion that on the Ravenna mosaics not Justinian I but Tiberius II Constantine is represented  is  that also some other representations can be determined and a gallery of portraits of the House of Justin becomes a possibility.

 

The Portraits

 

Justinian I, the Great, 527 - 567

 

 

Golden solidus of J ustinian I

534-538. Golden medal of Justinian I.

Constantinople. Æ 8,6 cm

Paris. Bibl. Du Louvre, Cabinet des Médailles. Galvanoplastic copy.

 

Mosaic in Constantinople with the portrait of Justinian I

 

 

Justin II,  565-578

 

 

 

 

 

 

Golden solidus of Justin II dated 567/568

Image of Justin II

on the absidial mosaic in the San Vitale ca. 574.

Image of Justin II on the Cross of Justin.

 

 

Tiberius II Constantine 578-582

 

 

Image of Tiberius II Constantine on the absidial mosiac.

Notice the medaillon with the black eagle.

Tiberius II Constantine on the mosaic of the northern wall.

 Notice the medaillon with the green eagle

Solidus of Tiberius II Constantine.

Notice the akakia, the greek cross on the crown and the sceptre with the eagle.

 

Maurice, Anastasia, Constantina

 

Fresco in the S. Maria Antigua in Rome.

On this fresco, which is to be compared with the Sinaï-icon below, Tiberius II Constantine and his wife Anastasia are depicted between their daughter Constantina and her fiancé Maurice. Maybe this fresco was made at the occasion of the wedding of Constanina and Maurice.  Until now it was not known which “saints” were depicted:  I santi dei quali solo Dio sa il nome”.[14]

 

On the mosaic on the southern wall the Empress Anastasia is depicted

standing between the future emperor Maurice and her two daughters, the one on the right probably Constantina.         

 

Golden solidus of  Maurice

 

Image of Constantina between her father Tiberius II Constantine and her mother empress Anastasia.

6th cent. Paint on wood. H.: 68 cm. Sinaï, monastery of  St. Catharina.

The eldest son of Maurice, Theodosius, was crowned emperor at the age of 4½. We can safely accept that he is depicted here in the arms of his mother. (See also  Gibbon, II. p. 904 n. 50.)

 

Icon (Hodgetria) S. Maria Nova.

During a 1950s restoration of a 13th century picture, an older painting was discovered. The faces of the Virgin Mary and Jesus may be dated to the later 6th century. [15]

So, likely, if we compare this effigy with the portrait of Anastasia from Sinaï, this is an early portrait of  Ino (Anastasia) with her little daughter Constantina.

 

Virgin and Child.

Encaustic on wood, VIth cent.

Kiev City Museum of Eastern and Western Art. No. 112 жк. H. 36.5 W. 20.5 cm.[16]

This is an even better portrait of  Constantina.

 

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© Hubert de Vries 2006-06-20; Updated 2009-07-08; Translated in English 2015-01-21

 



[1]  Silver dish of Constantius II. / Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg inv. n° 1820/79 / Æ 24,8 cm. Weight 660 g. / Acquired in 1892. Found in Kerch, 1891. Niello and gilding have disappeared in several places. The reverse is considerably damaged, showing cracks. The dish is of the patera type. The reverse is plain, fitted with a ring for suspension. The Emperor is shown mounted; on the right is the figure of Victoria with a crown in her hand; in her other hand she holds a palm branch. On the left is a guard with a shield bearing the XP-monogram. Under the feet of the Emperor’s horse is a shield with an umbo, belonging to a vanquished enemy. Some of the details are enriched with gilding or niello.

[2]  Under their kings Witigis (536-540), Ildibad (540-541), Eraric (541), Totila (541-552) and Teias (552).

[3]  Threadgold, Warren: Byzantium and its army 284-1081. Stanford U.P, 1995. p. 96.

[4]  Gibbon XLI. p. 677

[5]  Gibbon, op. cit. XLV. p. 858.

[6]  Gibbon op. cit. XL. P. 572.  A secret attachment to the family or sect of Anastasius, was imputed to the greens; the blues were zealously devoted to the cause of orthodoxy and Justinian, and their grateful patron, protected the disorders of a faction, whose seasonable tumults overawed the palace, the senate, and the capitals of the East.

[7]  Gibbon XL. P. 573. About the plays he writes (XL pp. 570 e.v.): The race, in its first institution, was a simple contest of two chariots, whose drivers were distinguished by white and red liveries; two additional colours, a light green, and a cærulean blue, were afterwards introduced. [….] The four factions soon acquired a legal establisment, and a mysterious origin, and their fanciful colours were derived from the various appearances of nature in the four seasons of the year; the red dog-star of summer, the snows of winter, the deep shades of autumn, and the cheerful verdure of the spring.

[8]  At the death of Justin a rival was appointed as his successor by one of the factions. This rival, Justinian, son of Germanus, was supported by Sophia after the succession of Tiberius. Tiberius in any case should have had to make his choice between the factions.

[9]  In the time of Justinian I the imperial guard was organized in scholae of 500 armed men, each commanded by a domestic. The comes domesticorum commanded not only the domestics of the scholae but also the domestics of other army divisions and border troops. The 1st schola was effectually in charge of guarding  the Emperor. See: Threadgold, Warren: Byzantium and its army 284-1081. Stanford U.P, 1995. Pp. 91 ff.. The  Comes Excubitores was the commander of the Palace Guardians, the Excubitores, created by Emperor Leo as a counterbalance against the influence of the Germans in the imperial army. The difference between the two officials may have been discontinued during the reign of Justinian I. The strenght of the scholae of 3500 armed men matches the eagle as a badge of distinction.

[10] On an ivory diptych in the treasury of Monza Cathedral.

[11]  Grabar, A.: L’Empereur dans l’art byzantin: Recherches sur  l’art officiel de l’empire d’orient. Paris, 1936. Repr. London, 1971. Pp. 74-84, Pl. XIII-XV.

[12]  The possibiliy that Sophia is represented, I think, taking into account the stressed relations between Tiberius and Sophia, impossible.

[13]  In particular the hairstyle is of importance for this recognition.

[14]  Matthiae, Guglielmo: Pittura Romana del Medioevo. Roma, 1966.

[15]  Andaloro, Maria: Römische Mittelalter. Kunst und Kultur in Rom von der Spätantike bis Giotto. Regensburg, 2002. Pp. 40-41.

[16]  Published in Bank, A.: Byzantine Art in the Collections of the USSR. Moscow, 1966. No. 110