Ravennate Art: Eclectic Innovation
In 404 the Emperor Honotius moved the Western capital from Rome to Ravenna, not only because Ravenna was rather isolated from Italy and relatively protected from invasion (at least for a few years) but also because it faced east on the Adriatic and was nearer the new capital of Constantinople, Stylistically its art became important, for it was built after the Early Christian style had become fixed in Rome and while the early Byzantine style was in formation in the East. Because of its political importance Ravenna became an intermediary between the Oriental and Italian peninsular styles, rather eclectic, but still free to develop innovations. The Roman or classical period in Ravenna lasted from 404 to 476 when Odoacer, a German chief was appointed imperial regent and the Western Roman Empire ceased to exist. In the following period Ravenna was ruled by barbarians, for Theodoric, the Ostrogoth king, murdered Odoacer in 493, and from then on until 539, when Count Belisarius regained Ravenna for Justinia, it was a Gothic kingdom. Until 732, the time of the Lombard invasion, Ravenna was governed by the exarchs of the Eastern Roman Empire.
After the transfer of the Western capital to Ravenna, many new buildings were required and a large construction program was undertaken. It is important to note that Theodoric and the Ostrogothic (Arian) Christian were interested in preserving and continuing the building of Roman architecture, but Eastern influences were apparent. Both directional and central plans were used in the important new structures at Ravenna. Of the directional basilicas there were two of significance. Sant Apollinare Nuovo was built by Theodoric as an Arian Christian church (particularly for the Eastern or Syrian branch of the heresy related to Monophysitism, which held that Christ united all nature in a single element). It was typically Roman basilican in appearance except for the Byzantine capitals of the nave colonnade. Sant Apollinare in Classe, the port of Ravenna, was built by Eastern workmen and had a polygonal apse, an Eastern element. Central buildings in Ravenna included tombs, such as the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (sister of Emperor Honorius), which had a cruciform plan with domed crossing, and the Mauso leum of Theodoric, which had a gigantic single piece of stone for a dome. The Arian Baptistery (now called Maria in Cosmedin) and the Baptistery of the Orthodox had similar but compositionally reversed dome mosaics. The latter was built on an octagonal plan. The court chapel of Justinian was also octagonal in plan, but the exterior suffered from the effects of accidental uncorrected design. The apse was curvilinear from the interior but polygonal from the exteriors.
In Ravennate sculpture, the two dimensional and symbolic Byzantine style was dominant, especially in sarcophagi. The sarcophagus of the Archbishop Theodore with semicircular roof was typical of the form, including the Chi Rho, or monogram of Christ and the Alpha and Omega, symbolic references to Christ as the beginning and end of all. The ivory cathedra (throne) of the Arcbishop Maximianus presented the evange lists in flat niches; it was not plastic in treatment or function but a reduced Hellenic figural art.
The imperial and poised choir mosaics of the court chapel of San Vitale carry companion group portraits of the Emperor Justinian and his advisers, including Archbishop Maximianus wearing the pallium, opposite the ex-circus performer. Empress Theodora and her attendants and courtiers. The formality of the poses, the stiff robes, and the sobriety of the occasion (both the emperor and his wife bear Eucharistic vessels as gifts to the new church) are Byzantine in conventions. There was however, an attempt to recognize classical spatial concept in the usual manner. Architectural fragments, recognizable but decidedly two-dimensional, appear in the Corinthian pilaster on which the fountain rests and in the abbreviated Greek fret border.