The mosaics dating from the Fourth to the Seventh Century A.D. are highly impressive when seen for the first time in Ravenna, the Italian city which seems to lie outside of Italy, in some enchanted realm. It was once a residence of emperors and kings, a mistress of the seas; then it became a sandy desert. Those of the old churches of this quiet city that have been preserved unchanged strike one as curiously remote, as though they were standing in wait for the ghosts of those thousands who once worshipped the ancient gods here at night.
When we enter these churches we are seized by a mood quite different from that of medieval or modern churches, a mood largely determined by the mosaics.
We are accustomed to see the stories of the Old and particularly of the New Testament represented according to quite a different conception. Usually Christ is represented as more sublime, spiritual, and powerful than all other figures, but He remains a man among men; even Michelangelo's devastating judge is entirely human, although he inspires us with awe. The mosaics show a divinity unfathomable, majestic, and infinitely distant. They arouse religious feelings that are perhaps of a primordial kind--dread before the hereafter, before the sacred, mysterious, omnipresent, invisible, and unnamable God. In part this impression is achieved by the representation of the divine in symbols, which seem to say: God is high, too distant to be conceived by a mortal. The Eternal Fire would consume you if you dared to cast your eyes on it; you shall recognize and worship it only in images. The images are the cloak in which He wraps himself in order not to destroy you. Such images are, for example, the cross, Christ's monogram, the Lamb, the Dove, the Throne; but even Christ himself is more symbol than man. It is true that certain scenes related in the Gospels are reproduced, but not as real events. Here, Christ has no history, He is the timeless God, and his deeds are symbols like his words. The feeding of the five thousand is suggested by two pairs of disciples who stand beside Christ in the center, holding bread and fish. The martyrs are not shown at the moment of their martyrdom, their sufferings or ecstasies are not seen; they stand solemnly one beside the other, holding their crowns in their hands. The angels visiting Abraham have a hieroglyphic character; they are the mysterious signs of the divine will.
Strict symmetry contributes to removing the incidents and people represented from real life. Christ often occupies the center of the picture, at his sides there are symbols or disciples, apostles, angels, with identical attitudes and gestures. As the good shepherd, he is surrounded by his flock of sheep. This was a popular motif, particularly in baptisteries and mortuary chapels . . .