Mausoleum of Placidia, Ravenna

Ravenna: Enchanted by the Beauty of Mosaics

With vivid colors and lively depictions, the mosaics of Ravenna can easily mesmerize any visitor. They are not only testimonies of excellent craftsmanship but also reflect the history and cultural changes that took place in the city in the 5th and 6th centuries.

Despite today’s delightful appearance, Ravenna has a rather tumultuous past. The city was the capital of the Western Roman Empire before its demise in 476. It remained the capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom for decades until the Byzantines launched a reconquest in the 6th century. Two hundred years later, the local rulers were ousted by the Lombards, hence ending Byzantine control in northern Italy. Since then, Ravenna has lost its political significance and stood out of historians’ sight for centuries.

As the political and cultural center of subsequent dynasties, it’s no surprise to see why some of the most magnificent religious monuments in early medieval Europe were built in this city. They are simply masterpieces, featuring marble, stuccos, and gorgeous mosaics. All are incredibly lively, with rich colors and imaginative depictions of Christian figures, landscapes, and iconography. They are also Europe’s best-surviving examples of this art form and thus were designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1996.

The town square of Ravenna

1. Basilica di San Vitale

From the train station, a stroll through leafy roads and elegant townhouses brought me to the first wonder of Ravenna, the Basilica di San Vitale. Standing tall in a courtyard, this 1500-year-old church is impressive enough on its own. It was constructed under Gothic rule but later completed by the Byzantine authority. As a result, San Vitale comprises both Roman and Byzantine elements, for instance, curved doorways, steeped towers, narrow bricks, and a polygonal apse.

Inside is a marvel of mosaic art. Countless fragments of gold, glass, and semi-precious stones cover the apse and ceiling, creating vivid illustrations of Christ, the twelve apostles, and the imperial entourage. The floor is no less remarkable, featuring birds, geometric and floral patterns, and even a labyrinth. Basilica di San Vitale can be considered the prototype for Hagia Sophia built ten years later. And it also inspired the Doge of Venice to rebuild the Basilica San Marco in the 11th century.

Basilica di San Vitale
The mosaics of Basilica di San Vitale

2. Mausoleum of Placidia

Across the courtyard from Basilica di San Vitale stands a humble-looking structure, the Mausoleum of Palcidia. It was part of a now-destroyed complex built in the first half of the 5th century. Aelia Galla Placidia – an empress of the Western Roman Empire – is likely the patron of the construction. But despite its name, she was not buried in this mausoleum. Instead, she was laid to rest in Rome along with the royal family.

In stark contrast to its modest external appearance, the interior is exquisitely decorated. Here, cobalt blue mosaics embrace early Christian symbolisms, from the graceful flowers of Eden Garden to the golden cross amidst a starry dome. Above the entrance portal is a mosaic of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, while mosaics depicting pastoral scenes cover the rest of the interior. With ninety-five percent of the mosaic being original, the Mausoleum of Placidia is a superb example of religious and funerary art in the last years of the Western Roman Empire.

Entrance to Mausoleum of Placidia
The Garden of Eden
The golden cross amidst a starry dome

3. Neonian Baptistery

Right next to Ravenna Cathedral is the city’s oldest structure, the Neonian Baptistery. It was erected at the end of the 4th century as part of the basilica. But by the mid-5th century, Bishop Neonis of the Western Roman Empire decided to refurbish the roof and add mosaic decorations; hence the name. The scene of the Baptism, where Saint John pours water over Jesus standing waist-high in the Jordan River, is the central feature of this monument. It is encircled by twelve solemn apostles whose elegant movement put me in awe.

While the original cathedral suffered destruction (and was rebuilt in the 18th century), Neonian Baptistery was miraculously left untouched throughout history. Its octagonal brick structure remains largely intact. The same goes for its interior adorned with marble, stuccos, and vibrant mosaics. Therefore, Neonian Baptistery is seen as the finest and best-preserved baptismal building of the late Roman period.

The exterior of Neonian Baptistery
The central feature of Neonian Baptistery
The Apostles of Neonian Baptistery
The golden cross in the baptistery

4. Archiepiscopal Museum and Saint Andrew’s Chapel

A stone’s throw away from Neonian Baptistery is the two-storied Archiepiscopal Museum. It was built in the 18th century to gather fragments, sculptures, and relics from the demolished cathedral. Today, visitors flock here to admire the Byzantine archbishop’s ivory throne – the finest of its kind in Western art and the 6th-century Easter calendar in marble, among many other valuable objects. Yet the pièce de résistance is the mosaic-covered Chapel of Saint Andrew.

Once a private oratory of the Roman Catholic bishops, it was transformed into an Orthodox chapel at the turn of the 6th century. In fact, it’s the only Orthodox monument built during the Gothic reign. Probably inspired by the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the chapel features an apse of golden stars against a dark blue background. Yet instead of the usual image of a sorrowful Christ, there stands Christ as a victorious warrior dressed in Roman armor.

The Chapel of Saint Andrew
Victorious Christ
Lamb sculpture in Archiepiscopal Museum

5. Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

On my way back to the train station, I stopped by another masterpiece of Ravenna, the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. It was built during the first quarter of the 6th century as the palace chapel for Theodoric, king of the Goths. The imposing complex features a cylindrical bell tower, a beautiful cloister, and a mosaic-ornated atrium.

When the Byzantines reclaimed the city several years later, they, however, revamped the interior. Overtly Arian motifs in the apse were erased, while the marble columns and decorations on the sidewalls were preserved. The most impressive part is the gold mosaics depicting two series of masculine saints and feminine saints proceeding to the throne of Christ and the throne of God’s Mother. The moment when the light reflects on the sparkling gold and radiates through the atrium is truly magical.

Basilica di Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo
When light pours into the atrium


Tips for visiting Ravenna

  • Ravenna is easily accessible by direct trains from Bologna (70 minutes) or Rimini (60 minutes).
  • A composite ticket (€ 10,50) is purchasable online at Opera di Religione della Diocesi di Ravenna. This ticket grants one entry to all the above-mentioned monuments within seven days.
  • Due to its popularity and size, a time-slot system is applied for the Mausoleum of Placidia and Neoninan Baptistery. Booking in advance is therefore mandatory. An extra charge of € 2,00 is added to the price of the composite ticket.
  • If you visit Ravenna on a day trip, I would suggest visiting these two monuments first.


15 thoughts on “Ravenna: Enchanted by the Beauty of Mosaics”

  1. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
    Bama says:

    The mosaics of the Basilica di San Vitale are incredibly detailed and beautiful! I also love the colors — the touch of green somewhat gives this site a different feel compared to other Byzantine churches I’ve been to. But those cobalt blue mosaic tiles of the Mausoleum of Placidia really stole my attention. It’s incredible to think of how much Ravenna has in terms of ancient heritage. I always enjoy your posts from little towns across Europe as well as places that are not usually included in most people’s itineraries.

    1. Thank you, Bama! The number of cultural heritages in Ravenna is indeed surprising. Aside from the UNESCO sites, there are like 2-3 museums about mosaics (unfortunately didn’t have time to see those). What I found fascinating is that most of these artworks are original. Being overlooked is not so bad after all 🙂

  2. Mabel Kwong – Melbourne, Australia – Writer and multicultural blogger based in Melbourne. Writing to help you navigate cultural identities and confidently pursue creative passions.
    Mabel Kwong says:

    What a wonderful write up of your visit to Ravenna. I haven’t heard much of the town before, and as Bama said in the comments, I also enjoy your posts from smaller towns and not just big, popular tourist attractions that are more well-known. The architecture and patterns on the mosaics from the basilica to the mausoleum to the museum are stunning. Looks like there is quite a fair bit of blue and yellow hues, reminiscent of royalty – and all tell stories about the ancient past. Interesting to read that visitors flock to admire the Byzantine archbishop’s ivory throne at the Archiepiscopal Museum. It sounds very valuable indeed, preserved through the ages. Hope all is well with you, Len 🙂

    1. Good eyes! Yellow and blue are indeed the dominant colors in most monuments. They represent not only royalty but also wealth because gold and blue stones (probably lapis lazuli) are expensive. The only exception is San Vitale which has a lot of green.

      That throne is indeed impressive. But if you compare it to ivory artworks in Asia, it’s still less elaborate. Perhaps, Byzantine artists were not familiar with the material 😛

      Thanks for the kind words, Mabel! Finally, I can click the publish button again, after a few month of hiatus 🙂

  3. Alison and Don – Occupation: being/living/experiencing/travelling In our sixties, with apparently no other authentic option, my husband Don and I sold our apartment and car, sold or gave away all our stuff and set off to discover the world. And ourselves. We started in Italy in 2011 and from there have travelled to Spain, India, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, SE Asia, South America, Egypt, Japan, etc. - you can see the blog archive. We travelled full-time for nearly six years, and then re-established a home in Vancouver. We now travel 2-3 months per year. We are interested in how the world works, how life works, how the creation of experience works, how the mind works. As we travel and both "choose" our course, and at the same time just let it unfold, we discover the "mechanics" of life, the astounding creativity of life, and a continual need to return to trust and presence. Opening the heart, and acceptance of what is, as it is, are keystones for us both. Interests: In no particular order: travel, photography, figure skating (as a fan), acceptance, authenticity, walking/hiking, joy, creativity, being human, adventure, presence, NOW. Same for Don except replace figure skating with Formula One motor racing.
    Alison and Don says:

    Oh these are just thrilling; the design, the colours, the extraordinary workmanship. I remember the first time I saw mosaics like this was in St Marks in Venice and was completely astounded.
    I do love the delicious irony of Christ as a victorious warrior dressed in Roman armor. Too funny.

    1. At first, I thought the mosaic depicting an an archangel. The pose and the armor look just like Michael. But when I read the description, I couldn’t keep myself from smiling. Jesus in the uniform of his torturer? No way 🙂

  4. suburban tracker – Berlin – Dies hier ist mein virtueller Spielplatz und garantiert werbefrei und nicht kommerziell. Bitte auch freundlicherweise zu beachten, dass alle Texte, Grafiken, Bilder und/oder Fotos auf meiner persönlichen Website urheberrechtlich geschützt sind. Sofern durch die Nennung des einzelnen Autors, Erschaffers, Designers und/oder Fotografen nicht anders angegeben, liegen alle Urheberrechte bei mir: © Ulli Kattenstroth, 2022
    suburban tracker says:

    You are also kindly invited to join my international digital project on clinate change as detailed here

    Everybody can participate as it concerns the whole world. Why is homo sapiens so stupid? A possible approach and beginning – an international campaign has just started here, by letter and email, but also via global mailart- and networker-platforms in this regard worldwide. All is possible if we will just try it!


    Ulli from Berlin

  5. leightontravels – Beijing, China. – Freelance travel blogger from London. Former music & film journalist, interviewer of the stars. Passionate about travel, film, music, football, Indian food.
    leightontravels says:

    What a marvellous article Len, it looks like you found some stunning mosaics of your own. I really didn’t know all that much about Ravenna, so this was really enlightening all-round. The historic buildings you toured and the art within clearly made for a fabulous period of exploring. Your photography is excellent, especially the little details you hone in on along the way such as that stunning lamb sculpture.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Leighton! Yes, I did find some magnificent mosaics in Ravenna 🙂 But the style is slightly different from those in Istanbul (most notable is the golden background). The only exceptions are two mosaics depicting Emperor Justinian and his wife inside San Vitale Cathedral.

Leave a ReplyCancel reply