Monday, August 25, 2014

Byzantine mosaic of Christ Separating Sheep from Goats at S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy

Byzantine mosaic of Christ Separating Sheep from Goats S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy

I think I will cover a few early Christian responses to the parables before moving on to other things. I'll start with some Byzantine mosaics and then move on to people like Augustine, Ephrem the Syrian, Origen, and Romanos the Melodist. I'm surprised that I haven't covered the first three yet. I might also deal briefly with the Gospel of Philip and the parable of the Good Samaritan in a future post or two. 

A very small bit of context about mosaics and what they are:

Mosaics consist of a number of tesserae—small pieces of stone or glass—placed together to render a work of art. Pliny the Elder gives the Greeks credit for inventing the mosaic form of art (Natural History 36.31), but the earliest extant mosaics, from around 700 BCE, are found in Gordian in Phrygia (in modern-day Turkey). Almost no mosaics with Christian motifs are extant from the period before the Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan (313 CE), which granted religious toleration throughout the Roman Empire. The surviving Christian mosaics before 313 tend to be found in tombs (Poesche 2010: 9-12).

Two early sixth-century mosaics depicting parables are found in the nave of the basilica Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy (an early fifth-century mosaic of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is found in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, also in Ravenna). The basilica was built by Theodoric the Great (???-526), who lived in Ravenna. Since Sant’Apollinare Nuovo served as the palace church, the mosaic decorations are extensive, originally covering the nave’s side walls, the inner fa├žade, and the apse (some mosaics, such as the one in the apse that was damaged by an earthquake, were replaced). The mosaics of the parables are included in the Theodoric-era mosaics that still are found in the upper sections of the walls of the nave. These mosaics include representations of sixteen prophets, all of whom hold scrolls or codices and have halos. Just above those mosaics of the prophets are found twenty-six smaller (approximately 50 X 40 inches) mosaics that depict events from the life of Christ. The mosaics on the north wall primarily depict parables and miracles, and the ones on the south wall mostly depict events during the Passion (Poesche 2010: 144-47).

Among the mosaics on the north wall, barely discernible from the church’s floor, is a depiction of Matthew’s parable of the Sheep and Goats. The primary focus of the mosaic, in the middle of the image, is Jesus in a purple robe and seated on the judgment seat. Jesus’ halo also serves to distinguish him, since it includes a cross nimbus embedded with three blue jewels. His right hand is slightly raised, guiding our eyes to the three white sheep on his right. On his left (and our right) are three goats of darker color, and Jesus does not acknowledge their presence. The goats are placed at a level lower than are the three sheep on the other side of the panel, and they are placed closer together, which also highlights the greater importance of the sheep. Two angels stand beside Jesus, both with their right hands raised in blessing. The angel of Jesus’ right is clothed in orange and red, and his wings and halo are also orange and red. The clothes, wings, and halo of the angel on Jesus’ left are blue. Jesus stares straight ahead—into the eyes of the viewer, if the viewer were at the same level as the mosaic—which serves as a warning to viewers who call Jesus “Lord” but do not do what he commands them to do: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned (Matt. 25:31-46; cf. Luke 6:46). 

The other mosaic in this section depicts depicts the Pharisee and the Publican parable. I'll write a note about that image next, assuming I have time during the first week of classes. 

P.S. Some time soon I will also add the photos I took of parable sculptures at St. James Church in London this summer.

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