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


Last time, I talked about the architecture of the mausoleum and Galla Placidia’s life. In this post, I will focus on the interior decoration, and more specifically on two mosaics facing each other: the Christ as the good shepherd and the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence.

The Christ as the good shepherd is located on the lunette over the entrance door. This iconography is famous since it was elaborated in the 3rd century AD. However, this mosaic is different. Indeed, the good shepherd wears a golden tunic with purple in it, as well as a purple coat. These clothes show the imperial iconography. The Christ leans on a cross recalling his sacrifice. He is surrounded by sheep representing the faithful. Stylistically, there is a general simplification of the forms out of a concern for legibility, a preference for strong colors, and a taste for luxury which announces the first Byzantine art.
galla placidia christ

The opposite lunette depicts the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. He wears a white tunic and coat because he has been resurrected and he holds the scriptures. Next to him, there is a cupboard full of books and a grill. Those objects refers to his martyrdom. Lawrence was a deacon of Pope Sixtus II in the 3rd century AD. His duty was to look after the sacred texts used during the Mass. During the christian persecutions, he was arrested by the prefect who asked him to hand over all the wealth of the Church. Lawrence brought him all the poor of Rome. Furious, the prefect had him whipped then put him on a grill. After a little bit, Lawrence told him “if you want your dinner to be ready, turn me over”. This was an allusion to the anthropophagy that the Christians were accused of. By these words, Lawrence showed the prefect that pagans were actually responsible for this crime. This is a generic iconography, not an actual portrait. There is always concern for detail, as we can see on the drapery of the clothing, but it is not realism. Lawrence’s story is summarized by a few elements which allows the viewer to understand it, which is characteristic of Christian art. However the standard of the saint, its weighting, the draperies of his clothing, and the colors gradations for the perspective are still largely inspired by Roman antiquity.

These mosaics are the main ones, and the rest of the iconography depicts the cross on a starry background with the evangelists’ symbols and the apostles in the upper part. The rest of the decor consists of decoratives friezes and diverse symbols that belong to funerary art.

      galla frise 2    galla frisegalla other decor


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