Thursday, April 28, 2016

Saint Vitalis of Milan

Next month will mark the 563rd anniversary of the fall of the Roman Empire, when the city walls which protected the scant remainder of ancient civilization crumbled under the canonnade of Renaissance paganism. It was the proper end of classic culture in one part of the world and the return of it to another. Greek art and literature returned to the West, as did an interest in philosophy and architecture. The Constantinopolitan Church would remain indefinitely alienated from the Roman Church, forced by the new masters of the land into permanent decline. Centuries later we would speak of Eastern and Western Churches, as though they have little to do with each other, a creeping brand of orientalism. 

source: Oberlin College
There are many churches in Italy built during the late Byzantine rule over Italy which seemingly blur the boundaries between what are now denominated East and West, but at the time of their constructions was simply the Empire. Among these is the basilica of San Vitale in the former Exarchate of Ravenna, the remote administrative center of Italy for the Empire now based in Byzantium. The church is octagonal in shape, recounting to us that the Sacrament of greatest importance in earlier days was Baptism, which incorporated one into the Church. St. Augustine simply calls Baptism "the Sacrament" in his Confessions. Images of the occasionally notorious and often effective Justinian and his wife, Theodora, grace the opposite sides of the apse, at the center of which is a beardless image of Our Lord Jesus Christ; the earthly court anticipates the heavenly court. The people of the region likely depicted Christ without facial hair because of the Roman custom of men to shave; they showed Christ as they knew him, even if inaccurately. The arch over the apse holds the images of the Twelve Apostles, through whom we have received the Church and come to know Christ.

A church similar in antiquity but different in both execution (Roman basilica rather than Greek dome) and intention (communal church rather than political metaphor) is Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello. The Mother and Child look down the apse in Greek fashion, but the apse with an episcopal throne and forward facing altar are purely Latin. The imagery on the Rood screen echoes what developed into the iconostasis in Byzantine Christianity. The seemingly Greek Last Judgment on the back wall dates to the 12th century, before the Venetians sacked Constantinople.

St. Vitalis, whose patronal church is more renown on earth, pray for the Church in heaven, where you enjoy fitting repute!


  1. Hello!

    What is the connection of the octagon and Baptism?
    Thought-provoking post, by the way

    1. The Octogon represents the 8th day, the day of New Creation, the day without end.

  2. San Vitale might well be my favorite church of Late Antiquity - a real stunner, sublime in its mosaics. Of course, in fairness, it helps that we still have it in something resembling its full glory, which is not (alas) something we can say of any of the great churches of that era in Constantinople, or pretty much anywhere else in the East.

    1. i've been to ravenna and aquileia basilicas. they're marvelous. the dome painting really is out of place though. poor san vitale.