Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The enigmatic Saint Vitalis and his magnificent shrine in Ravenna

Mosaic of Saint Vitalis (left) being offered the crown of martyrdom by Christ (right)
with an angel (center) from the apse of the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna.

April 28 is the feast day of Saint Vitalis, an ancient Roman martyr about whom very little is known. The summary of his life from Butler's Lives of the Saints contains much of what is known and can reasonably be speculated about Saint Vitalis:

Saint Vitalis is honored as the principal patron of the city of Ravenna, in which he glorified God by martyrdom in the persecution of Nero. He was a citizen of Milan, and is said in his acts to have been the father of SS. Gervasius and Protasius. The divine providence conducted him to Ravenna, where he saw a Christian named Ursicinus, who was condemned to lose his head for his faith, standing aghast at the sight of death, and seeming ready to yield....Vitalis was extremely moved at this spectacle...he therefore boldly and successfully encouraged Ursicinus to triumph over death, and after his martyrdom carried off his body, and respectfully interred it. The judge, whose name was Paulinus, being informed of what he had done, caused him to be apprehended, stretched on the rack, and, after other torments, to be buried alive in a place called the Palm-tree, in Ravenna, as Fortunatus and his acts relate. These acts add that his wife, Valeria, returning from Ravenna to Milan, was beaten to death by certain peasants, because she refused to join them in an idolatrous festival and riot. 

The relics of St. Vitalis are deposited in the great church which bears his name in Ravenna, and was magnificently built by the emperor Justinian, in 547.

Exterior of San Vitale in Ravenna as it looks today.

The Church of San Vitale in Ravenna still exists to this day and is considered one of the finest examples of Late Roman/Byzantine architecture to have survived antiquity. An octagonal structure which may have been modeled on the lost Domus Aurea in Antioch, the Church of San Vitale contains the famous mosaics of Justinian and Theodora, along with numerous other outstanding works depicting Christ, the saints, biblical scenes, etc., including the image at the top of this post showing Vitalis receiving the crown of martyrdom from the hands of Christ. Here are some additional examples:

San Vitale mosaic depicting the hospitality of Abraham. Click to enlarge.

San Vitale mosaic showing the sacrifices of Abel and Melchisedec. Click to enlarge.

Detail of the Theodora Mosaic in San Vitale, possibly showing the
Gothic princess, Matasuntha, granddaughter of King Theodoric. 
Click to enlarge.

Ceiling of the cupola of San Vitale with Lamb of God motif. Click to enlarge.

The famous Justinian mosaic from San Vitale. Click to enlarge.

Most of these images were borrowed and adapted from Wikimedia Commons. To peruse numerous other images of the interior of San Vitale, click here

Ravenna remains on my bucket list for future travels. Until then, I'll have to settle for these 360-degree views provided by Columbia University. By clicking through these, you can get a sense of how utterly awe-inspiring the great Christian basilicas of the Late Antique period must have been.

360-degree view of the nave.

360-degree view of the apse.

1 comment:

Catholic Legal Beagle said...

As a lover of all things Roman and Byzantine I really enjoyed this post. Ravenna is absolutely on my bucket list and I hope to get there someday. If you have any other recommendations for experiencing byzantine culture and history in Italy please let me know in the comments. Thanks for putting this post up.