17 June 2021

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
19, the Duomo and churches of Ravenna

Inside Ravenna Cathedral, beside the Neonian Baptistry, on the Piazza Duomo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During this time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

This week my photographs are of seven cathedrals in Italy. This morning (17 June 2021), my photographs are from the Duomo or Cathedral and some of the many other churches and church buildings in Ravenna.

The apse in San Vitale … described by Professor Judith Herrin as the ‘most exciting introduction to Byzantine art’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Theodoric the Great was sent Eastern Emperor Zeno to retake the Italian peninsula after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476. Theodoric took Ravenna in 493 and it became the capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy until 540.

While Theodoric was in power, he built splendid buildings in and around Ravenna, including his palace church, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, an Arian cathedral, now Santo Spirito, a Baptistry, and his own mausoleum outside the city walls.

Theodoric was an Arian, but co-existed peacefully with the largely Orthodox people of Ravenna, and their bishops built more splendid church buildings, including the Capella Arcivescovile. When a mob burned down the synagogues of Ravenna in 519, Theodoric ordered the city to rebuild them at its own expense.

Theodoric died in 526, and in 540 the Byzantine Empire recaptured Ravenna, which became the seat of Byzantine government in Italy. Ravenna’s bishops embarked on a new building programme that included the Basilica of San Vitale and the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe.

Under Byzantine rule, the Archbishop of Ravenna enjoyed autonomy from Rome, and held second place in Italy after the Pope. Later, the city was the centre of the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna until the invasion of the Lombards in 751, and it then became the seat of the Kingdom of the Lombards.

Byzantine rule came to an end when Ravenna was captured by the Lombards, and gradually the city and the church in Ravenna came under the direct authority of the Popes. In a bewildering act of singular vandalism, Pope Adrian I allowed Charlemagne to take away from Ravenna anything that he liked, and an unknown number of columns, mosaics, statues and other items were pillaged and taken to Aachen.

Most visitors to Ravenna arrive to see the mosaics, which date from the years of Roman and Byzantine rule. In all, eight early Christian monuments and buildings in Ravenna are listed by Unesco as World Heritage sites.

The Orthodox Baptistry, also known as the Neonian Baptistry, is Ravenna’s oldest monument, and was built in the fifth century near the remains of a Roman bathhouse and. It is named after the bishop who commissioned its decoration, which includes a beautiful mosaic depicting the Baptism of Christ.

Beside it, on the Piazza Duomo, stand the cathedral, the Archiepiscopal Museum, and the tiny Chapel of Saint Andrew, often missed by visitors.

The fifth century Arian Baptistry has a cupola with a mosaic showing the Apostles ringed around a centrepiece depicting the Baptism of Christ.

The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, built in the sixth century, is named after Ravenna’s first bishop. The walls of the church have two rows showing processions of martyrs and virgins bearing gifts for the Christ Child and the Virgin Mary. They include the Magi, with an early example of them being shown as three in number and named as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.

The mosaics in the apse of the Basilica of San Vitale date from 526-547, and show Christ, San Vitale receiving a martyr’s crown, two angels and Bishop Ecclesius, who started building this octagonal church, and priests and members of the Imperial Court of the Emperor Justinian, who reigned in 527-565. He was an important lawgiver and one of the most powerful Byzantine emperors. The courtiers depicted in this mosaic include Belisarius, the general who won back much of Italy from the Goths, but the only courtier or cleric named is Archbishop Maximian of Ravenna.

Beside the Basilica of San Vitale, the earlier Mausoleum of Galla Placidia was begun in 430. But this exquisite, cross-shaped building was never the burial place of the wife of the barbarian emperor. One of the best-known mosaics adorning the tiny mausoleum shows Christ as the Good Shepherd.

The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare, south of Ravenna in Classe, was built in the early sixth century by Bishop Ursicinus and funded and adorned by the Greek banker Julianus Argentarius. The basilica was consecrated in 549 by Archbishop Maximian and dedicated to Saint Apollinaris, the first bishop of Ravenna and Classe.

Other places to visit in Ravenna include the Mausoleum of Theodoric, just outside Ravenna, with its Gothic style and decoration that owe nothing to Roman or Byzantine art; the Church of Saint John the Evangelist, built in the fifth century by Galla Placidia after she survived a storm at sea, and restored after the World War II bombings; the Palace of Theodoric, which was, in fact, the entrance to the former church of San Salvatore, although it has mosaics from the actual palace of the Ostrogoth king; and the tomb of Dante, who died in 1321 and was buried in Ravenna at the Church of San Pier Maggiore, now known as San Francesco.

The Court of Justinian in a mosaic in San Vitale (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 6: 7-15 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 7 ‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

9 ‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’

The fifth century mosaic of the Baptism of Christ in the Neonian Baptistry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (17 June 2021, World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for countries across the world affected by desertification and drought. May we recognise the global impact of our overconsumption and take action to raise awareness of these issues.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Christ as the Good Shepherd … a mosaic in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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