Of Tenacity and Cupcake Sprinkles in Ravenna, Italy

How I found connection in the Basilica of San Vitale

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These aren’t paintings, but mosaics made of thousands and thousands of tiny glass tiles known as tesserae. The gold tesserae are actually two clear glass tiles that sandwich a layer of gold leaf. The entire surfaces of these walls are mosaic; the only areas that aren’t mosaics are the windows and the marble columns. Photo: Katherine Yung

Here’s a scenario: Your daughter requests sprinkles on the cupcakes you’re baking for her birthday party. However, pretend the shaker needed to sprinkle on the dotted decorations has not been invented yet, and the only way to get the sprinkles perfectly placed and evenly dispersed on the cupcakes is not by scattering them with your fingers, but by applying them one by one, with tweezers perhaps.

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Photo: Unsplash

Adding sprinkles to the cupcakes now will take days, weeks or longer. The task will be one of intense devotion and labor, simply because of the time involved and the perseverance needed to complete it.

Now imagine that each one of those precisely placed sprinkles is similar—I know… it’s a stretch, but stay with me—to a shimmering miniature glass tile positioned into a mosaic inside the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, a city of 160,000 near the Adriatic Sea.

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A detail of Empress Theodora, from the mosaic in the apse of San Vitale. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
One by one, each tile is placed into the scene. One by one, each tile forms a bit more of the image. This will take twenty years at least. It’s a painstaking process and creating the picture would be much faster with brushwork, but glass is the medium and a stunning mosaic is the goal.

Each tiny piece of glass—some are half the size of your pinky nail—symbolizes perseverance and an acute attention to detail and artistry, and—by extension—to Christ.

Cupcake sprinkles are the comparison that came to mind when I began to write about the mosaics inside the Basilica of San Vitale. My family visited the basilica in March of 2017, during a much too brief daytrip to Ravenna. The church, whose namesake was a Roman soldier martyred during the Christian persecutions, was begun in 526 and consecrated in 548.

The mosaics of San Vitale are so well-known in art history circles that they have earned the basilica the description, “the most glorious example of Byzantine art in the West,” according to Ravenna: City of Art.

On the morning we visited, the interior of San Vitale was drenched in sunlight that streamed in through the windows of the church.

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A photo from across the basilica. Notice the intense patterning even in the marble floor. It’s difficult to stand close to the tesserae at San Vitale. Most of the mosaics are positioned above eight feet. The patterns you see below the windows are mostly marble mosaics. Photo: M. Yung

As I stood in the grandeur of San Vitale, sheer awe at the handiwork overtook me. Sheer wonderment at the dedication and tedium. Sheer astonishment at the skill and collaboration it took to not only conceive the images contained in the murale, but also to source the materials, create the artwork, and execute their application and installation on the high walls of this old, old church.

In the sunlight, the golden tesserae dazzled. These are actually pieces of gold leaf sandwiched between pieces of clear glass. When they were pressed into place by medieval workmen, the gold tiles were angled to best reflect the sunlight, or the glow of a candle or lantern.

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A closer photo of the apse and the mosaic that shows Christ resting on a globe surrounded by angels. The far right figure in brown carries a miniature version of the basilica, offering it to Christ in service. Photo: M. Yung

As we took our self-tour, I stared up and pondered the mosaics and felt nearer to those laborers and artists who spent many years of their lives creating these mosaics. I marveled at their tenacity to produce these works without power tools and machinery, electricity, plumbing and other conveniences.

Would this sort of devotion be practiced today? I don’t think so, but then maybe it was different for these medieval workers.

Would the tedium of producing these masterpieces have been more endurable for those to whom the time of Christ was only four hundred years earlier? True, four hundred years is a long time, but wouldn’t the time of  Christ have been within their mental grasp?

To compare, would I find it easier to devote myself to glorifying the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock? I don’t know of anyone from that era, but I do feel a connection of sorts. I know what their concerns were and what motivated them. I can identify with them to a degree, while I find it nearly impossible to identify with people of Biblical times. Perhaps medieval workers could.

As I continued in my thoughts, my husband and daughter sought the two mosaics-within-the-mosaics below. The mosaics of Byzantine Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora are considered the masterpieces of San Vitale.

The first photo below shows Justinian surrounded by his court, clergy members and soldiers. The emperor holds a bowl that contains bread for the Eucharist. Justinian never visited this basilica, according to Dr. Steven Zucker in this Khan Academy video lesson, but this mosaic was his way of asserting his power and authority from Constantinople, the Byzantine capital.

The figures in both mosaics are highly stylized. Laura Morelli, art historoian and author of The Gondola Maker, explains it this way: “A more eastern aesthetic characterizes the mosaics completed in Ravenna during this early period. Elegant, slender, flattened figures on a shallow spatial plane stare out with huge, staring eyes.” The two famous mosaics clearly reveal this style.

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The mosaic that shows Emperor Justinian with his court, clergy, and soldiers at left. Even the borders and frames that surround the central image are mosaic. Photo: Katherine Yung

The mosaic of Empress Theodora rests on the opposite side of the apse and mirrors Justinian’s mosaic. In this piece, the empress carries a chalice of wine for the Eucharist. Wearing a finely detailed gown, Empress Theodora is surrounded by her imperial court and attendants. She wears elaborate jewelry, and, like Justinian, is surrounded by a halo.

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The mosaics of Justinian and Theodora are the “pieces de resistance” of Basilica San Vitale. They are found in art history textbooks as supreme examples of medieval Byzantine art. Photo: Katherine Yung

Ready to finally move my gaze from the brilliance of the gold, I focused on the frescoes that cover the ceiling of San Vitale. They were completed much later—in 1780—byartists from Bologna and Venice. While they are beautiful, they cannot compare, in my opinion, with the luster of the mosaics.

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Frescoes, water-based paintings on plaster, adorn the center dome of San Vitale. Photo: M. Yung
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My husband and son, at left, gaze up at the frescoes that surround the mosaic-drenched apse. Photo: M. Yung

I felt our visit was coming to its end, and I noticed that even the floors of San Vitale were intricately decorated. Miniscule marble tiles did their best to distract me from the golden “eye candy” above. Over the centuries, the floor tiles do show some wear, but are amazingly colorful and durable. The most wear is to the floor surface itself, which, in some places within the basilica, contains depressions from heavy traffic patterns from worshippers and tourists.

The detail in the flooring reinforced my thoughts about the devotion of those early medieval artists; they spared nothing—not even the floor—in their tenacious pursuit to glorify God.

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Photo: M. Yung

As we exited the basilica, we took photos of its rustic appearance and its unusual structure of two stacked octagons. Its unusual shape does not follow cathedrals designed in the typical shape of the Latin cross, but instead evokes eastern influence from Byzantium. From the outside, one would have no idea of the grandeur within.

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The contrast between the exterior and the interior of the Basilica of San Vitale is striking. The bricks were repurposed from demolished structures in Rome. Photo: M. Yung

Visiting the Basilica of San Vitale was a lesson in humility, reverence, and connection. As I walked across the same floors, gazed up at the same artwork, and whispered in the same hushed tones that countless others whispered down through the ages, I knew that my visit was not about sprinkles on cupcakes.

It wasn’t even about the magnificent golden mosaic masterpieces. It was instead about connecting, in one sense, to historical Christianity, and in a broader sense, to humanity.


Thanks for reading! Please click “like” so others can find this post more easily. Feel free to leave a comment about what your mind wanders to when you gaze at something truly beautiful.

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