"The Empress Theodora and Retinue"
The Basilica of St. Vitale
dedicated by Bishop Maximian in 547
Ravenna, Italy: The Basilica of St. Vitale, south side of apse
The Empress Theodora, accompanied by seven ladies of the court and two men, is placed slightly off center in the mosaic, but as she is haloed and set against a shell niche, her face is still the focal point of the image. Like Justinian, she is wearing the purple royal robe. She is also crowned with a halo. The prominent position of Theodora's mosaic shows her status as co-regent, it is subordinate to Justinian's only by being on Christ's left, a less exalted position than Christ's right. Her attire is richly embellished with jewels. Strings of iridescent pearls (at that time believed to have power in preventing sickness) drip from her extravagant crown. The modeling of her face and clothing is achieved through the use of color, a characteristically Byzantine stylistic feature. (Two examples are her upper lip which is darker than the lower lip; and the deeply shaded folds of her robes.) This image has a greater sense of depth with its architectural background than that of Justinian, but there is still some flattening, as can be seen in the skewed "perspective" of the fountain. The bowl tilts forward, which in a natural setting would spill the water forward.
We can see the lack of naturalism, the love for elaborate patterns and repetition. Note the feet and drapery. The diagonal feet are not supported by a three-dimensional floor. Hieratic elements can be seen in the linear abstraction, gold ground, and frontality. The figures' gazes are not collectively directed towards the viewer. Several of the women look to one side or towards Theodora. The emphasis is placed on the act of giving, and there is less confrontation by the gazes of these figures. Light, as expounded by the abundance of gold backgrounds and their reflected surfaces, is symbolic of Christ's self-proclaimed role as "light of the world".
The group is standing in the anteroom of a church -- perhaps St. Vitale -- and one of the men is drawing back a curtain leading into the sacred area. Theodora extends her offering, a large chalice, to the other man who will take it into the sanctuary. The image of the offering of gifts to the church takes on dual meaning in both the Theodora mosaic and the Justinian image. On one hand they are royalty presenting objects of value to the church, an idea further connotated by the image of the Three Magi who appear in the hem of Theodora's robes. Additionally, the Emperor and Empress are each offering the elements of the Holy Communion, extending the bread and the cup towards the actual altar of the church of St. Vitale /von Simson 29/.
Theodora was known for her ravishing beauty as well as her ruthless manner and haughty disposition. She was responsible for Justinian's victory in Constantinople. He was going to flee, to give up, she refused, and so he stayed and consequently was victorious. Framed in huge, towering tiara with emeralds, pearls, diamonds, and sapphires, Theodora peers out, the proud queen. She died a year after this portrait was made.
Pegues, Emily. "The Mosaics of St. Vitale, Ravenna." Sweet Briar College Art History Senior Seminar, Spring 2000. http://www2.students.sbc.edu/pegues00/seniorseminar/vitalemosaics.html.
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