Comparing the Apse Fresco of Castel d'Appiano & the Apse Mosaic of San Vitale

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  • 0:00 Italian Apses
  • 0:59 The Apse of San Vitale
  • 3:37 The Apse of Castel Appiano
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The apse is one of the most important parts of medieval churches and, therefore, a great place to examine stylistic preferences. In this lesson, we'll compare two different apses and see what they tell us about medieval art.

Italian Apses

Check out that apse! Sorry, a little art history humor there. It won't happen again. But, in all seriousness, check out that apse. An apse is a semicircular domed section of a building. In the medieval Christian architectural tradition, this term is also used to describe the area where the altar is located, regardless of its shape. In medieval churches, the apse was one of the most important spaces for artists, being the backdrop to the altar and priest, and therefore, something of a visual focus. So, this is one of the areas we can look in churches to identify changing artistic styles over time. Want to see what I mean? I know of two apses that are pretty important in Italian art history. Let's check 'em out.

The Apse of San Vitale

Let's start at the church of San Vitale, located in Ravenna, Italy. Ravenna was actually one of the seats of power of the Byzantine Empire, and this was one of the major churches of the powerful Byzantine ruler named Emperor Justinian. Built in 547 CE, it is one of the great examples of Byzantine architecture, and inside, of Byzantine art. Most notable is the apse. Impressive, isn't it?

This entire thing is a mosaic, a composition made with tiny, individual colored tiles, which is a very common form of Byzantine art. We see a number of bright colors in here, which was a sign of the wealth of the empire, particularly under Justinian. And speaking of signs of wealth, does anything else stand out about this? How about all of that gold? Byzantine mosaics typically had flat, gold backgrounds which symbolized the holiness and divinity of the scene and filled Byzantine churches with an otherworldly, ethereal glow.

As far as the actual scene in the apse, we see more indicators of traditional Byzantine art. The figures are identifiable, but not entirely realistic. You'll notice that they don't cast shadows or interact with physical space in a realistic way. The figures are also stiff and heavily outlined, both common artistic preferences of the Byzantines. To these artists, divine subjects were not of this world and, therefore, did not need to be represented truly realistically. Additionally, perfect realism was a token of ancient Roman art, which the Byzantines saw as inherently pagan.

Now, the one obvious thing we've overlooked here is the actual subject of this impressive mosaic. Front and center is, of course, Jesus Christ, robed in the purple robes reserved for royalty. He is handing the crown of martyrs to Saint Vitale, for whom the church is named, and is being presented a model of the San Vitale church by its bishop. It's also worth noting the side panels of the apse, which show the Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora, representing their role as defenders of the faith and God's chosen leaders of the Christian world. All in all, this is a stunning piece of art that tells us a lot about the Byzantine traditions.

The Apse of Castel d'Appiano

Alright, let's fast forward a few centuries and head up into northern Italy. This is Castel d'Appiano, and if we step inside, here's the apse, completed around 1200 CE. Now, some of this has been lost to time, but as we look around we're clearly in the presence of a substantial artistic composition here. So, how is this similar to San Vitale, and how is it different?

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