Discovering the Beauty Within

A Closer Look at the Mausoleum de Galla Placidia

"Mausoleum of Galla Placidia" by Gunther Hissler. CC BY-SA 3.0

If I ever found myself wandering the city of Ravenna and happened to pass by the Mausoleum de Galla Placidia, honestly, I probably wouldn’t give it a second glance. The small cruciform (cross-shaped) building built of reused ancient roman bricks doesn’t seem like much from the outside. One side of the building leaves evidence of once being attached to another building, something perhaps bigger and grander than what remains today. But once you take a step inside (physically or in my case, digitally) you will experience beautiful marble walls and original glass mosaics dating back to the fifth century. (If you are interested in seeing a 360° view of the interior, check out this link from the Media Center for Art History at Columbia University.)

Comparing the unadorned exterior to the glittering interior, viewers will notice quite a contrast. This transition is described by Marilyn Stokstad as “a transition designed to simulate the passage from the real world into a supernatural one,” (248, Art History).

"Aelia Galla Placidia" Public Domain.

Ravenna and Galla Placidia

Located in Ravenna, Italy the Mausoleum de Galla Placidia is one of the earliest surviving Christian structures in the city. When it was built around 425-425, Ravenna had been made the capital of the Western Roman Empire. Named for Galla Placidia, the mausoleum is no longer believed to be the final resting place of the empress. Galla Placidia was the daughter of Theodosius (emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire) and sister of Honorius (emperor of the Western Roman Empire). She even ruled as regent for her son Valentinian from 425-440. 

"Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Plan." by James Fergusson. Public Domain.

Architecture

The building is in Western Roman architectural tradition and is in a cruciform shape. Each arm houses a barrel vault and a pendentive dome joins the arms at the intersection. Inside the lower walls are covered with large panels of veined marble. The rest of the interior is covered with glass mosaics that easily reflect light due to the uneven surface the tiles create. 

Interior Mosaics

Although there are several images depicted in the mosaics, the one that seems to have the most attention is located across from the entrance and is one of the first things you will see upon walking into the building. The lunette shows a cabinet with the Gospels, a gridiron over a blazing fire, and a saint who seems to be joyfully prancing along. Though each could be symbols of various aspects of Christian faith, it isn’t entirely obvious what the artist had in mind. 

Generally, the saint depicted is said to be St. Lawrence, who was martyred on a gridiron. However, Gillian Mackie argues differently. Mackie explains the saint depicted is actually St. Vincent of Saragossa through a poem of Prudentius (Roman Christian Poet) titled Passio Sancti Vicenti Martyris. In this time it was uncommon to have the names of the gospel books depicted as it is in this mosaic. Mackie explains that St. Vincent was ordered to disclose his “secret writings” and “hidden books” which would explain this. To explain the eager pose of the saint, Mackie wrote “to this ultimate torture ‘Vincent hurries with quick step. Joy gives him speed and he outstrips the very ministers of torture.” Whether the artist intended to depict St. Lawrence or St. Vincent or anyone else, this mosaic brings a layer of mystery to this mausoleum. 

When I was first reading about this Mausoleum, I thought it would be difficult to find enough information. However, digging deeper revealed intriguing stories about the woman the building was named for and more curiosities about the images depicted. In time it would be interesting to read more about Galla Placidia and how she came to be in such a powerful position in the Roman Empire. 

References

Art History, by Marilyn Stokstad pages 242-243, 247-249, 251.

Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/788

Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph: the art of the Roman Empire, by Jas Elsner, pages 228-230.

The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/the-mausoleum-of-galla-placidia.html

Gillian Mackie. New Light on the So-Called Saint Lawrence Panel at the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, RavennaGesta, Vol. 29, No. 1 (1990) , pp. 54-60. Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the International Center of Medieval Art. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/767100