MOSAIC ARTIST, Byzantine
(active 540s in Ravenna)

Interior decoration

540s
Mosaic
San Vitale, Ravenna

The interior of San Vitale is richly decorated in marble and mosaic. The eight piers that support the dome are encased in marble, largely renewed. Most of the marble columns, imposts, capitals of diverse design, and other architectural elements are Byzantine, although some of the impost blocks bear the monograms of Ursicinus, Victor, and Julianus Argentarius. Marble and porphyry opus sectile articulated by pilaster elements decorate the lowest zone of the apse.

The outstanding mosaic decoration is concentrated in the chancel and represents an intricate iconographic programme. On the soffit of the triumphal arch is a series of medallion portraits of Christ, the Apostles, and saints, including SS Gervasius and Protasius, the sons of St Vitalis. In the centre of the chancel vault, four angels standing on blue spheres support a wreath in which the Agnus Dei appears against a starry background. They are set amid green, blue, and red acanthus scrolls inhabited by exotic birds.

The side walls carry figures and groups set within framed spaces. In the lunettes of the lower storey, on the south and north walls respectively, are Abel and Melchisedech making their offerings, Abraham and the Three Angels, and the Sacrifice of Isaac. The adjoining spandrels contain representations of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Moses loosening his sandals before the Burning Bush, tending Jethro's flock, and receiving the law on Mt Sinai. In the upper storey, on either side of the gallery openings, are panels with the Evangelists seated in rocky landscapes beneath their symbols.

Within the conch of the apse is a view of the paradisical garden with Christ seated on a blue sphere, clothed in imperial purple and flanked by two angels who present St Vitalis and Bishop Ecclesius holding a model of his church. The depiction of large figures in the apse became customary at about this time, as is evident from the apse mosaic in Sts Cosmas and Damian (526–30) in Rome. The spandrels above are decorated with the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. In the zone below the conch mosaic, on either side of the large windows, are two panels with imperial processions, of which the left shows Justinian clothed in full regalia in the centre of a retinue of officials, clergy, and soldiers, with Maximian on his left. The right-hand panel shows Empress Theodora (c. 500–48), bedecked in jewels and purple chlamys, standing with her court against an architectural background.