Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
mausoleum in Ravenna
Considered one of the most prized treasures of Ravenna, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is among the city’s oldest structures and has held UNESCO World Heritage status since 1996. It presents a humble and unassuming facade, distinguished by its unique brickwork, nestled in the shadow of an ancient plane tree, just behind the Basilica of San Vitale.
Empress Galla Placidia, daughter of Theodosius and sister of Emperor Honorius, commissioned this mausoleum in the first half of the 5th century AD (after 426 AD). She served as a regent on behalf of her son Valentinian III and intended this small edifice to be her final resting place, alongside her brother and second husband, Constance III. However, history took a different course – in 450 AD, the empress passed away in Rome and was interred there.
Externally, the building appears deceptively simple, featuring a Latin cross plan with modest dimensions. The dome is concealed beneath a square-shaped tower-lantern situated at the intersection of the cross’s four arms. Originally, it was designed to connect to the Church of Santa Croce via a narthex, located just behind the mausoleum. Additionally, it was intended to be much taller than it stands today. Due to subsidence, a gradual sinking of the ground that affected numerous ancient structures in Ravenna, the building now sits approximately 1.5 meters lower than its original elevation.
Stepping inside this mausoleum envelops you in an enchanting ambiance. The mosaic decorations, illuminated by golden light streaming through the small alabaster windows, create a magical atmosphere. Yellow marbles adorn the lower section, while the upper portion is entirely composed of mosaics – encompassing the walls, arches, lunettes, and the dome. The entire space is enveloped in mosaic!
The simple architectural elements disappear within a kaleidoscope of colours, thanks to the miniature mosaic tiles that cover every surface, softening the edges and accentuating its lines. In a delicate balance between Hellenistic-Roman tradition and Christianity, the iconography explores various themes, including victory over death and eternal life.
Dominating the centre of the dome is an expansive starred sky, resplendent in all its glory. A golden Latin cross, representing Christ as the rising sun, is encircled and exalted by the four Beings of the Apocalypse.
The lunettes feature depictions of the apostles, framed by doves symbolizing Grace derived from the Divine font. To the East and West, a pair of deer quench their thirst from the sacred baptismal font in accordance with this metaphor, all set against a celestial garden. In the lunette above the entrance, adjacent to a flaming gridiron, is St. Lawrence.
The most exquisite mosaic, located above the entrance, portrays Christ the Good Shepherd surrounded by His flock. Throughout the building, floral and geometric patterns transform the semi-darkness into a lyrical celebration of light. A visit to this ethereal place is akin to a prayer for eternal life.
Lastly, three empty marble sarcophagi occupy the three spaces of the cross. One of them, in the central arm, is relatively plain and dates back to the Roman era. The other two, from the Late Christian period (4th-5th century), feature depictions of the lamb, one of the oldest symbols for Christ.
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Visiting Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
March to November: Every day 9.00-19.00 last entry 18.45
November to March: Every day 10.00-17.00 last entry 16.45