My first train experience in Europe happened this weekend - and it was incredibly simple and enjoyable. First, the train stations themselves have a plethora of cafes and stores. I was happy this was the case going to Ravenna from Verona, as I was able to get a cappuccino and breakfast at 6:00 a.m. With exception of one, all the trains I took this weekend departed the station at the departure time, on the dot. I was quite impressed. My last train, the one pictured here, was about 5 minutes late arriving. I got on the wrong carriage at first and had to get off and walk far down the platform to the correct one. I wasn't able to get fully seated before the train was on it's way! I had been there when it arrived, and started (attempting) to board right when I could... it must've been stopped for no more than 2 minutes to let people board. In Italy, the trains run on time!
Every day, I've called the Ravenna taxi collective to call a cab. The first time, I asked "parla inglese?" and he said, "no." From that point forward I asked for a taxi and told the drivers my destination address in broken Italian, giving my best effort. Clearly I successfully passed for Italian one of these times, because the drivers blurted out a question to me in Italian at a natural pace. I thought, "I have no idea what he's saying," and I thought I'd be forced to say, "non parlo Italiano..." But I caught two words, macchina, or "car," and bene, or "okay." He also put his hand in front of the air vent when he said this. Obviously, he had asked, "is the temperature in the car okay?" or something along those lines. I said, "sì, bene!" and was thoroughly pleased, and thought to myself how helpful hand gestures are in communication, across language barriers.
Today I left early in the morning to catch a train from Porta Nuova to Ravenna, Italy. Ravenna is a little city to the east of Bologna, on the coast. The city was once the Italian capital of the Byzantine Empire after a conquest of Italy was completed at the behest of Emperor Justinian I in the year 540. At this point, the former capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom (which embraced the Arian heresy) became a city of beauty and splendor in the Byzantine Empire, dotted with miraculous basilicas whose walls and dome ceilings are lined with millions of tiny pieces of glass.
Pictured above is the Battistero degli Ariani, or Arian Baptistery. The Arian heresy, condemned in 325 at the First Council of Nicaea, denied the Trinity and the full divinity of Christ. I asked the attendant in broken Italian if there were any indications of Arianism in the mosaic, and if perhaps the reason there were no mosaics on the walls (unlike the similar Orthodox Baptistery) was because they had contained Arian images and had been destroyed?
I found no definitive answer, except for that the walls were originally covered by frescoes (paintings) which could have simply faded away over time. To me, this is evidence that mosaics stand the test of time. These, and most pictured in this post, were completed in and around the early 6th century. I am glad that mosaics was a favorite medium of the Byzantines, so that we might appreciate such ancient beauty today.
In the first image below, see St. Peter with keys to Heaven (right) and St. Paul with a scroll (left.)
I visited Ravenna at the suggestion of my boyfriend Samuel. He is very knowledgeable about Byzantine history, so thankfully when we return to Ravenna together in March for a day trip, I will have my own personal tour guide! Visiting on my own this dreary weekend, I couldn't escape a certain impression that kept reminding me of Flannery O'Connor's quote about the American South: "I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted."
O'Connor's quote isn't as negative as it sounds with regard to the South... but in relation to Ravenna, I mean it exactly how it sounds. The churches were beautiful, my host and accommodations, fantastic... but I couldn't shake the feeling that the churches were no longer places of worship, but spectacles. Artifacts that few people care to come and see, and those who do don't know exactly what they're looking at. The mosaics of saints and the Apostles are works of art, and nothing more.
In the first landmark I visited, the Orthodox Baptistery, I immediately gazed toward the ceiling before an older lady in a little ticket booth structure inside the baptistery got my attention and asked if I had a ticket. I don't think this is uncommon practice in Europe: to charge for entry into religious buildings. Nonetheless, this, in combination with the graffiti strewn walls on modern buildings between which these 6th century marvels sat, made me all the more certain this place was no longer Christ-centered, but Christ-haunted.
Such impressions might not matter to some, and to those who may be deterred from visiting Ravenna because of them, I will refer back to the title of this post. Ravenna: Christianity's Crown Jewel in Italy. Yes, that's right. Ravenna, not Rome, despite Rome's architectural marvel, gave me more of a sense of Christian history. Frankly, the churches in Ravenna made me want to pray. The Renaissance and Baroque art in Rome (the marble, the beautiful depth in the paintings), though impressive, is ultimately cold and dark. How can a city be a "crown jewel" if it doesn't reflect light? As you'll see in the following albums, the interiors of Ravenna's ancient churches seem to let in the light of heaven through their walls.
Basilica di San Vitale
The most notable to me were Christ as the Lamb of God in the center of the dome, as well as the easy comparison that can be made here between the Byzantine mosaics and the Renaissance style that fills the rest of the basilica. You can see the difference between the "dark" and "light" as I described most clearly in picture five.
Battistero Neoniano (Orthodox Baptistery of Neon)
Now, I know that ceiling looks painted, but it's not... what a marvel!
Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo
A common image around Ravenna, as can be seen in the altar rail, is two doves surrounding a cross. I like it very much and bought wall decor (a plate) of it as a souvenir. The three kings (first picture) was one of my favorites in Ravenna.
I noticed that in this basilica, with images of the life, death and Resurrection of Christ lining the ceiling, the crucifixion is not present. You can see in the second to last photo how the scenes, chronologically arranged, go from Christ carrying the cross to the Resurrection and the empty tomb. This is significant because in Catholicism, the crucifixion is heavily emphasized in our churches and theology. The lack of it completely in this Eastern church highlights one of the main differences between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism... the East, rather than focus on Christ's suffering, seems to place more emphasis on his victory in "defeating death."
Mausoleo di Galla Placidia
Right outside San Vitale, the Mausoleum was the had the most intricate and colorful patterns of them all. Being surrounded by color under the arching, dynamic ceiling made this small structure perhaps even more beautiful and enjoyable than the larger basilicas.
Basilica di Sant'Apollinare in Classe
I visited this basilica last, and as the saying goes: last, but certainly not least! A visit requires a taxi ride because it's in the middle of lush, green archaeological fields outside of town. In this basilica, stand at the base of the stairs under the altar and look straight up into the curved dome at the cross. Seeing the golden sky mosaic depicting heaven, God's hand peaking through the clouds, and the lamb "emerging from the gates of Bethlehem and Jerusalem ascending toward Christ," as a placard read, makes the view from that spot something that inspires worship for some, and sheer wonder for the rest.