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Photo of Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna

Visit Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna

The Basilica of San Vitale is one of the important monuments in Ravenna, a city in north-east Italy, that have been listed by UNESCO as World Heritage sites

Discover the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna

Italy This Way comment: the Basilica of San Vitale has some very beautiful mosaics, among the most impressive byzantine mosaics in the world, and is in indispensable destination during your visit to Ravenna

The basilica of San Vitale was built in the middle of the 6th century, under the rule of Emperor Justinian: it is the only church that remains from this period of history. It takes its name from Saint Vitale, a Roman slave who became a martyr and who was said to be buried alive in a well in this location.

Exterior of the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna

The basilica was commanded by the Bishop Ecclesius when the city was controlled by the ostrogoths in 525 AD, although by the time the building was completed and the church was consecrated the ostrogoths had been defeated by the byzantines.

It is constructed in the byzantine architectural style, combining the historic western Christian style of building in the roman style, at this time newly arriving from the east.

It is believed that the design of the basilica was based on the design of part of the Great Palace of Constantinople, once one of the most remarkable buildings in the ancient world although nothing now remans of the palace.

The main building is a large octagonal structure built of red brick with a dome that is supported by eight columns - this octagonal layout is unusual for such a large building, but quite common in ancient baptisteries. The main building has two rows of windows, and there are further windows in the tower below the dome.

There were originally two towers next to the basilica, although one is now lost and the other was rebuilt in the 17th century following an earthquake.

Although the outside is quite imposing, it offers no clue as to the mosaics and decoration that are inside the basilica. When you enter you are immediately in the centre of the main octagonal structure, a large open space below the dome.

The sides of this part of the basilica contain large arches, each with a half dome and divided in three by columns. As well as the main dome, each of these half domes contains decorative frescoes in the baroque style (added in the 18th century), with the principal pictorial mosaics to be seen in the apse on the east side of the basilica.

 
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Mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale

The mosaics were completed in the 6th century by the Bishop Maximian, an important aide to the Emperor Justinian. 

The central mosaic shows a beardless Christ sat on a globe with archangels on either side as he presents martyrdom to Saint Vitale. The fourth person in this mosaic is the Bishop Ecclesius, who founded the basilica - he is presenting Christ with a model of the basilica of San Vitale.

You can see two large mosaics - one either side of the apse - showing the Court of Justinian and the court of his wife Theodora: although these subjects are contemporary to the basilica rather than biblical stories, these are also very impressive (it is interesting to note that although she is shown in the mosaics, Theodora would not have been allowed in this part of the church, that was reserved for men.

Another important mosaic represents Abraham before he sacrifices his son Isaac, and Abel offering God a lamb. Around the triumphal arch around the entrance to the apse you can see Christ and the 12 apostles, and there are also other mosaics that include the Divine Lamb supported by angels, representing sacrifice as a way to redeem for the Original Sin, and a mosaic of the Bishop Maximian.

Each of the mosaics is of very high quality with a lot of important detail to look at, so be sure to take the time to carefully examine these - almost all elements are symbolic of important events from the bible

Detail of mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale

Elsewhere in the basilica you can see floor mosaics, capital stones and a sarcophagus.

Attractions nearby

The Basilica of San Vitale is just one of the eight historic monuments that are listed as UNESCO world heritage sites in Ravenna, and you can also visit the tomb of Dante in the town: see the Ravenna guide for details.

You can find more local travel ideas in the Emilia-Romagna guide.

See also: 

Photos of Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna

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Map of Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna and places to visit

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