The Adoration of the Magi, c. 504/560 and later. Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.
It’s Epiphany – a moment of sudden and great revelation – and today celebrates the moment at which the wise men recognised Jesus as the Boy Born to be King, their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh usually interpreted as gifts suitable for a king, and more specifically, relevant to his royalty, his deity and to his inevitable death, respectively. But if you read the Advent Calendar, you’ll know all that already. If you didn’t but want to, you can start from the top if you click on this link: An Advent Calendar – 1. I still have things to say about the Gossaert painting, matters arising from observations you made and questions you asked (for which, much thanks), but I’ll get back to that soon, I hope. First, I’d like to talk about this mosaic. I discussed it briefly in a talk about The Adoration of the Magi just a few days before Christmas, and it will feature, even more briefly, in a talk I am giving tomorrow. It will be ‘briefly’ as, believe it or not, its splendour is all but outshone by many other marvels in Ravenna. There is still time to sign up, if you’re free tomorrow evening (7 January at 6:00 GMT), and are interested in Revealing Ravenna – just click on the link. For now, I just want to talk about part of one wall in one of the city’s churches.
The Magi are shown in the way that Romans would have shown barbarians paying tribute to the Emperor. They wear Phrygian caps, which the Greeks had associated with non-Greek-speaking peoples – i.e. barbarians. The Romans adopted this idea, along with so many others, from the Greeks, and as the Magi were seen as coming from ‘elsewhere’ it made sense for them to wear them too. In the earliest representations of the Magi, dating from the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, this is how they were dressed. However, in Republican Rome there was another hat, the pileus, which was soft, and made of felt. It was given to freed slaves. In the 18th Century the association of the pileus with the Republic, and with freedom, was revived – only they seem to have confused hats (maybe someone picked up the wrong one from the cloakroom), and the Phrygian Cap became associated with the Republic, and with freedom. That is why it becomes the symbol of Liberty during the French Revolution. But back to Ravenna.
The church in which this mosaic can still be seen was built and decorated for King Theoderic the Ostrogoth, who was King of Italy, and nominally ruling on behalf of the Emperor in Constantinople. He was Christian, but an Arian – a doctrine associated with Arius, a priest from Alexandria – and believed that Jesus was indeed the son of God, begotten of God the Father, but that he had not always existed – he was created by God the Father, and so was subordinate to him, and therefore not ‘of the same substance’. Although Arianism had been deemed heretical at the first ever ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325, it had a fairly long life – and was especially associated with Germanic tribes like the Goths and Vandals. And if Theoderic was an Arian, then the church, when it was dedicated to Christ the Redeemer in 504, was an Arian church.
The Magi are about to present their gifts to the Madonna and Child, who are enthroned near the altar. They are on the north wall, so the altar is to our right, and the Magi are approaching the altar every bit as much as they are approaching Jesus: theologically they are equivalent. The Virgin wears the Imperial Purple – at the time this mosaic was made, Ravenna was the capital of the Roman Empire in the West – and an association between the Empire and God was highly desirable. They are flanked by two pairs of angels, but Joseph is nowhere to be seen. Oddly, given that this was originally an Arian church, the humanity of Christ is not being stressed. You will notice that there is a marked change in background in between the angels and the magi: this mosaic has been altered. This occurred some time around 560, by which time Constantinople had ‘liberated’ Ravenna from the Arian rulers. Emperor Justinian’s general Belisarius had recaptured Ravenna in 540, and, with the death of the Archbishop Maximian in 557, Justinian seems to have thought it was a good idea, under the new Archbishop Agnellus, to finally remove any threat from the Goths and to eliminate Arian worship – thus ending over 60 years of successful ‘convivencia’, to use the Spanish term. Between 557 and 565 nine churches were ‘reconciled’ with Orthodox Christianity – meaning that they were re-dedicated to the Catholic rite. This happened to Christ the Redeemer, which was rededicated as St Martin – who just happened to be an arch anti-Arian. Three centuries later – in 856, to be precise – the relics of an early bishop, Apollinare, were brought from a basilica in nearby Classis and installed in San Martino and the church was re-dedicated again as Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. It has been known as ‘the New Sant’Apollinare’ for over a thousand years, now, which doesn’t make it seem that ‘new’.
In the process of the first re-dedication, the mosaics were altered. The upper two tiers – showing the life of Christ, and a series of saints and prophets – were left as they were, and would have been completed some time around 504 when the church was dedicated (whether or not they were finished in time for the dedication is not clear). Below them, we see the Magi approaching the Virgin and Child, leading a procession of 21 virgin martyrs. Scholars do not agree on the date of this procession. Some see it as essentially the original mosaic from around 504, whereas others see the almost-identical, if not monotonous, depiction of the saints as indicative of a later date, in this case about 560 – or whenever it was that the re-dedication to St Martin occurred.
The procession is led by St Eufemia. However, the pole position was originally taken by Queen Audefleda, sister of Clovis, King of the Franks, and wife of King Theoderic, who was a master of the diplomatic marriage. Theoderic himself was depicted opposite his wife leading a procession of male (but potentially still virgin) martyrs: his figure was repurposed as St Martin (the arch anti-Arian), whereas she became St Eufemia. They might have changed the whole figure, or maybe just the head. Or even, just the name… As a saint, Eufemia may not seem very prominent these days, but the choice was deliberate. She came from Chalcedon, where in 451 a council affirmed the heretical nature of Arianism by asserting that the Son was of one substance with the Father – and so not created by him – and also, that he had two natures – human and divine – in one person. Eufemia’s relics were still in Chalcedon in 560 (later they were moved to Constantinople), and so her inclusion at the head of the procession affirms the primacy of orthodox beliefs over heretical.
The magi, and presumably the saints as well, have processed from the port of Classis (now Classe) – the name is set above the gateway on the right. The port was part of ‘greater Ravenna’, and was one of the secrets of its success. It had a harbour larger in area than Ravenna itself, inland but very close to the sea: the possibilities for trade were endless, and secure. When the mosaic was first made, members of the royal court – and probably Queen Audefleda herself – were standing in front of the golden walls of Classis. Once Theoderic, the Ostrogoth and Arian, was gone, his presence was no longer required, and nor was anything else associated with him. The figures were chipped out, and replaced with more golden stones – bright and shiny, perhaps, but a little uninteresting compared to the rest of the mosaic. The ‘restorers’ were not entirely thorough, though, and they left four pairs of feet behind, which can still be seen in early photographs. However, in the early 20th Century a later set of restorers decided to finish the job, and removed the errant feet – which I think is a great shame, let alone an act of cultural vandalism: allow the work its history, even if it is untidy. And don’t let the Vandals loose on Ostrogoth feet.
We see three ships in the harbour. I would love to think that this is how the wise men arrived, as in the traditional carol ‘I saw three ships come sailing in’, but that seems unlikely! Potential origins for that carol apparently include the coat of arms of Wenceslaus II of Bohemia (r. 1278-1305), which had three ships on it, or the ships that took the relics of the wise men up the Rhine to Cologne after Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’ ‘liberated’ them from Milan in 1164. However, in the carol the magi weren’t even in the ships. Who was in those ships all three? Joseph and his Fair Lady. Which implies that they could only have been camels, the ships of the desert, as Bethlehem is some 129 km from the sea. But, as so often, that’s another story.
If restorers were still tinkering with these mosaics in the early 20th Century, what are we to make of the Magi? Sadly, the north wall was badly damaged. It’s hardly surprising. An 8th century earthquake caused the collapse of the apse, which was just to the right of this section of the mosaic. The ruins were still visible in the following century, when the historian Agnellus (no relation of the archbishop above), transcribed the inscriptions from the apse mosaics as he saw them, still lying where they had fallen – which implies that the church had been open to the elements for a hundred years or so. However, he also described the three wise men and what they were wearing, and this description was used by restorers in the 19th Century. It is to them that we owe the current appearance of this section of the mosaic. The calligraphy of the names is far too ‘modern’ for a 6th century mosaic, I suspect, and even the spelling is too close to the modern variants. The faces and gifts are also a little too naturalistic, perhaps. The costume is every bit as fantastic as it would have been, though. The most fanciful bit of design, to my mind, are the tights – which should surely inspire every nativity play in the realm – and they are original. With such magnificence it is hardly surprising that the wise men were soon to be called kings – although that didn’t happen for another couple of centuries. Maybe I’ll come back to it when I come back to the Gossaert. But until then, here’s wishing you a Happy New Lockdown. Sorry, I think I meant ‘Year’.