Mausoleum of Galla Placidia – Christian art (5th century AD)

galla outside

Today, I would like to talk about the late Roman Empire when it was already divided in the Western and Eastern Empires. The official religion was then Christianity. Art at that time was prosperous, and one of the best developed techniques was mosaic. Some examples of this art still exists, and the most striking ones are in Ravenna. In this post, I am going to introduce the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and its architecture before talking about its decor in another post.

At the beginning of the 5th century AD, the court moved from Milan to Ravenna. When Rome was attacked in 410, Ravenna stayed untouched. During the attack, Galla Placidia, Emperor Theodosius I’s daughter, was captured by barbarians who made her marry their chief. He died soon after and she went to her brother Honorius, who succeeded their father as emperor, and married her to one of his generals, Constantius, who later became Emperor Constantius III. When her second husband died her brother wanted to marry her, so she ran away to Constantinople before coming back victorious to Ravenna to become the regent of her son, the soon to be Valentinian III.

Her mausoleum was built around 420/30 and  was probably a shrine to the martyr Saint Lawrence. It is a small brick building that was near the narthex (sort of antechamber) of the Church of the Holy Cross. The plan is very simple. It takes the shape of a cross with all branches of the same length. There is a small narthex in front of it with a two column porch. The arms of the cross are barrel vaulted and their junction is marked by a cupola.

    galla plan        galla cupola

The facade possess a succession of blind arcades and details to underline the discrete architecture. Inside the building, there is surprising luxury. A small oratory is decorated with precious marble in the lower part with mosaics on a blue background above. The mosaics’ brightness is enhanced by translucent alabaster patches on windows to give a golden tone to the natural light.

galla inside    galla window

The mausoleum is part of the Roman funerary art, and the major part of the decor is inside which is characteristic of the Constantinian period. It reflects the growing importance of the saints’ cult. Since this building is an imperial commission, it possesses diverse precious materials and the iconography is carefully chosen. Since 1996, the mausoleum has been listed on the World Heritage List of the UNESCO, which indicates its importance.


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