Friday, October 19, 2007

Summary of Lecture Six

We briefly returned to the subject matter of Lecture Four, which attempted the difficult task of documenting the rise of monumental Christian architecture in 4th-century Rome. The Eternal City's character as a palimpsest complicates the task, as we saw with the three main levels of St. Peter's.

Restabilization of the empire under Diocletian created new prosperity (as seen in such provinces as Britain, North Africa, and Syria). The return of cash flows from taxation made the Constantinian building boom possible.

Early Christian monumental architecture (of the petrification stage) purloined the two major Roman templates: longitudinal (Basilica Ulpia) and central-plan (the Pantheon). While this is not primarily a course in architecture, some knowledge is required to understand the structural environment in which mosaics and other decorative features dwell. The Richard Krautheimer book in the Pelican series was recommended.

The chief theme of the lecture was architecture and mosaics of Ravenna during the period 402-565 (including the twin city of Classe). A former Roman naval station, Ravenna became the Western capital (replacing Milan) for security reasons in 402.

We looked at five major buildings.

The cruciform Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (about 425) shows the typical contrast between outer austerity and inner splendor. The mosaics show a blend of older iconography (the Good Shepherd) and the new imagery of the martyrs (St. Lawrence). The starry sky connotes the idea of the dome of heaven.

Of the two baptisteries. the Orthodox one (mainly 450s) is the more impressive (the Arian Baptistery was used by the barbarian rulers, who tended to be of that sect). The octagonal plan suggests two rationales. The first is the idea of Harmony, deriving ultimately from the Pythagorean discovery of the physical basis of the musical octave. The other, complimentary idea, is the sense of the eighth day as a symbol of renewal after the seven days of Creation.

S. Apollinare Nuovo was originally an Arian basilica dedicated to Christ the Redeemer. Later the mosaics were slightly altered, mainly by excising the figures of Theodoric and his courtiers from the Palatium scene. The holy martyrs, female and male, illustrate the visual principle of seriation. High up on the walls are the 26 scenes of the Public Life of Christ and his Passion. One set shows the youthful, beardless Jesus, the other the bearded type. To the best of my knowledge no convincing theological explanation has been offered for this distinction (the latter type becomes standard).

Probably the most remarkable of the Early Christian monuments of Ravenna is S. Vitale (consecrated in 549 or thereabouts), on an octagonal plan. The structure was commanded and paid for by the Emperor Justinian, though he never physically visited the city, appearing only in his mosaic portrait in the sanctuary. This building shows the adaptation of a central-plan scheme as a congregational church, a device that was to become standard in the East (while the West basically clung to the longitudinal plan).

S. Apollinare in Classe, the sole survivor of a once flourishing group in that former port city, also belongs to the Justinianic era. The nave shows a rare type of wind-blown capitals. The effect is dominated by the apse area, with its gigantic mosaic in the half-dome. Here the iconography is complex (as it were, overdetermined), including the orans figure of the saint enacting the sheep allegory. a giant cross (reflecting the veneration of the True Cross, ostensibly discovered by St. Helena), the Transfiguration, and possibly (as a member of the class suggested) the eucharistic wafer.

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