Wednesday, May 16th, 2012
Justinian Mosaic Altered Not Once, but Twice!
The mosaic “Justinian and His Attendants” at San Vitale (c. 544-545 CE) is one of the most famous works of art from the Byzantine period. It also happens to be one of my favorite piece from this era. It is commonly known that there were some alterations made to this mosaic just a few years after it was created, probably between 546 and 548. We know that the head of the archbishop (who is standing to the left of Justinian or the right side from the viewer’s perspective) was altered and the inscription Maximianus was included at this time. This change probably is because Bishop Victor was originally depicted in the mosaic. After Victor died in 545, Maximian came into power and wanted to have himself depicted instead. It is thought that Maximian needed to include his portrait as an assertion of power, since his authority was insecure at the time. In fact, around the time of this alteration the archbishop had recently been banned from entering the city of Ravenna, due to a dispute with its citizens.1
Another one of the early modifications was the inclusion of a courtier who stands in between Justinian and the bishop (see above). If you look closely at the overall composition, you’ll see that this individual does not have any feet (which can be explained with the understanding that this figure is a late addition). It is thought that this figure represents John the Nephew of Vitalian, who was second in command to the commander-in-chief of Italy (the latter is thought to be depicted on the right side of Justinian, wearing a beard). Maximian may have seen potential in John the Nephew’s power, and therefore decided to include him in the composition.2 Although it does seem like it would be humiliating to be included in the background of the composition, John the Nephew did get a prime location between the emperor and archbishop.
However, in addition to these early alterations there are some other alterations to this mosaic which seem to have taken place several hundred years later, probably around 1100 CE. Isn’t that interesting? In the 1990s, scholars Irina Andreescu-Treadgold and Warren Treadgold published results on some technical analyses of the Justinian mosaic. The publications revealed changes in the scale and materials of the tesserae that were used.3 Based on these studies, I wanted to present some of the medieval restorations that took place.
One of the interesting additions in the c. 1100 restoration is the tonsure (shaved top of scalp) which was added to one of the deacons on the right side of the mosaic. Although the origins of the tonsure are unclear, I am not familiar with any examples of the tonsure that exist before the 7th and 8th centuries. (If anyone does know of examples, I’d be interested to learn about them!) It’s important to realize that the tonsure might not have existed in the sixth century, when this mosaic was originally made!
Other medieval alterations include the emperor’s crown, which apparently was simplified and diminished in scale (although it is interesting to note that Empress Theodora’s crown, depicted in another mosaic in the San Vitale apse, is an original). A fibula (or brooch) was also added to Justinian’s attire in this later alteration (see above). I think that this inclusion of the fibula is rather interesting – perhaps the mosaicists wanted to visually compensate for the fact that they gave Justinian a smaller crown? Finally, the smaller pieces of tesserae at the beginning and end of the Maximianus inscription indicates that there was an alteration in this place, too.
Isn’t it interesting that we can deduce through formal and technical analysis that this mosaic was altered several hundred years after its creation? The nuanced history of this mosaic makes me love it all the more. What do you like best about this work of art?
1 Irina Andreescu-Treadgold and Warren Treadgold, “Procopius and the Imperial Panels of S. Vitale,” The Art Bulletin 79, no. 4 (1997): 721. Maximian had been barred from Ravenna because he had supported Justininan’s Edict of the Three Chapters. The inclusion of himself with the emperor in this mosaic serves to visually reinforce Maximian’s support of the emperor.
3 Ibid. See also Treadgold, “The mosaic workshop at San Vitale” in A. M. Ianucci ed., Mosaici a San Vitale e altri restaur. Il restauro in situ di mosaici parietali, Ravenna, 1992, pp. 31-41. The restoration is also briefly discussed in Sarah E. Bassett, “Style and Meaning in the Imperial Panels at San Vitale,” Arbitus et Historiae 29, no. 57 (2008): 56.