Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Ravenna- The Treasure of San Vitale

The use of Holy Images in the Church are a universal expression of love for God and the work he does in His Saints. We can see a testimony to the use of Sacred images in the early centuries of the Church from many preserved archaeological sites from ancient Christianity. The catacombs in Rome and the early house churches such as that of Dura Europos were adorned with images depicting Christ or scenes from the Sacred Scriptures. Images of Christ appeared as a way to contemplate the Word made flesh as the Gospel of Saint John proclaims. One of the finest and well preserved icon mosaics from the Byzantine era is in Ravenna, Italy. Unfortunately most of the icons in Byzantium were destroyed by the iconoclasts in the 8th century. The Church eventually overcame this heresy but not without suffering a severe loss to many Holy Images. The Byzantine influence however spread into Italy and this influence can be seen in Ravenna, Italy. Byzantium, although far from a heaven on earth, was for a time the sanctuary and jewel of Christianity in the greater known world, surpassing even the splendor of Rome for a time. Ravenna was the seat to the Byzantine government in Italy for a time.

The Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, was begun by Bishop Ecclesius in 527. It is a host of beautiful examples of early Byzantine iconography. Last year 2007 I was able to visit this beautiful church. The splendor of Christendom comes to life in these brilliant, colorful mosaics. An image of Christ hangs in the air between the Bema and the Nave of the Church surrounded by brilliant medallions of the Saints on both sides of Him. Saint Andrew gazes down upon all who enter. There is a lamb, symbolic of Christ, surrounded by choirs of angels in a dome adorning the Church. The side walls depict scenes from the Old Testament such as the life of Abraham and Moses. Theology comes to life as we see the altar as a main focus of the church. Abel and Melchizedek stand on both sides of the altar, there are also two loaves of bread and a chalice depicting the elements that will become the Body and Blood of Our Lord. The hand of God can be seen above the altar as appearing from the clouds. The Agnus Dei is etched in bands along the vault declaring here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Anyone who takes note of the theological symbolism in the iconography can see the plain literal meaning of Body and the Blood of Christ being present after being consecrated by the priest. The symbolism of the priesthood and the literal presence of Christ is unmistakable in the adornment of this glorious structure, as well as the Divine Liturgy which has been celebrated for centuries within her walls. Those who enter this holy sanctuary are utterly taken up into the Holy Mysteries of Almighty God. I couldn't help but be carried away by sheer awe at times, lead into prayer at yet another moment, while being subdued by sheer silence and contemplation in another . It was as if time stood still. There was no difference between the age of Justinian and my own. Looking to the sides of the bema the images of emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora gaze upon me. Here we see a time long past when the ruling authorities on earth also gave glory and honor to God. When we step into this holy space we are no longer burdened by the distractions of the world. We cannot doubt the One Apostolic Church that Christ has graced us with. The living faith still lives and breathes within her walls; bound not by time nor space. We see the Church, the pillar and bulwark of Truth standing majestically for all to admire and embrace.

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