Ch. 11, Note 68: Galla Placidia Mausoleum, Ravenna


The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (Ravenna) is a small cruciform building originally attached to the narthex of the church of S. Croce. It is named after Galla Placidia (c. 392-450), daughter of Theodosius I, mother of Valentinian III, regent of the western empire, and a zealous builder and restorer of churches.

via Flickr – saromarina

In the pendentives of the dome, images of the winged human and the eagle face each other against the background of a field of concentric stars. Below, on the four sides of the central tower, are lunettes in which pairs of apostles are seen preaching beneath a conch-like canopy. Each apostle stands to the side of a central window above an image of birds approaching a fountain or standing on its rim and drinking. The blue patterned vault leads to the entrance.

The heavenly cross represents the exalted Christ around whose throne the four living creatures of Revelation 4-5 sing their unceasing song of praise. As a nearby inscription put it: Te circumstant dicentes ter ‘sanctus’ et ‘amen’ aligeri testes, quos tua dextra reget (“Around you stand winged witnesses, saying thrice “holy” and “amen”, whom your right hand shall rule”).

Like the other three figures, the winged human figure is seen half-submerged in a sea of blue and red clouds.

Beneath the dome, on the four sides of the central tower are pairs of apostles preaching beneath a conch-like canopy.

A pair of deer approach a pool of water, an allusion to Psalm 41.2.

Christ as good shepherd, above the entrance to the mausoleum.

The martyrdom image, in a prominent position opposite the entrance. The open book cupboard displays the four named gospels, Mark and Luke on the upper shelf, Matthew and John on the lower one – matching the pairings of lion and calf, human and eagle, in the vault above.  Although often identified as St Lawrence, Gillian Mackie has shown that the martyr is more probably Vincentius of Saragossa, who suffered during the Diocletian persecution in 304 for refusing to surrender copies of the Scriptures (see GW, pp. 579-81). The message is that the martyr’s willing suffering has helped preserved the sacred books, ensuring that they are still available to the viewer.