Attention of a very wide Christian reading public has been drawn in recent years to the mosaics within the apse of the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, by the publication of a panoramic photograph of that apse as the cover picture for the front of every volume of the series entided "Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture."1 Further attention has now been drawn to these mosaics by a stimulating church review of a Sunday Mass celebrated at San Vitale on 6 July 2008 that was published by Alan Hayes in the December 2008 issue of Anglican and Episcopal History, in the course of which he offered some initial comments upon the interplay between the eucharistie imagery of the mosaics and the liturgical action centered on the altar.
It has been plausibly suggested that these mosaics constitute perhaps the first nonliterary commentary on die Eucharist, a pictorial arrangement conveyed by means of biblical exegesis and probably composed by Maximian, the archbishop of Ravenna under whom they were completed in die mid-sixth century, and that as such they serve as visual evidence for the meaning of the eucharistie sacrifice that was developing at that time. The entire subject deserves a more focused review in its own right, however, as the Old Testament instances of sacrificial offering in these striking mosaics blend into categories of eucharistie ecclesiology and die historical evolution of the canon of the Mass in the sixth century. The present essay attempts to explore the rich intermingling of these various themes. Readers are invited to picture themselves in this context as they look upon the accompanying illustration and reflect upon the imagery of the eucharistie life that it stimulates in the eyes and minds of its viewers.
The church of San Vitale is one example, and a very important one, of the seven major ecclesiastical buildings constructed at Ravenna between ca. 450 to ca. 550 A.D., all of which still survive today. Indeed, it is the only major church still standing from the reign of the emperor Justinian (526-565) . Begun by Bishop Ecclesius of Ravenna in 526, and dedicated in 547 by Maximian, the twenty-seventh bishop and first archbishop of Ravenna, San Vitale is generally agreed to contain the finest Byzantine mosaics in the western world, although its architect is still virtually unknown. Its construction was financed by a Greek banker named Julianus Argentarius.
To put it briefly, the religious purpose of these apse mosaics at San Vitale was to portray the redemption of humankind in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, proclaimed as fully divine and fully human by the definition of the fourth ecumenical council of Chalcedon in 451. The mosaics linked the New Covenant to the Old, and extended the sacramental re-enactment of the drama of salvation by inviting the entire congregation into participation in the eucharist. Stimulated by what they saw in the mosaics, the congregation there would recognize that in the eucharistic action the church on earth was being joined with the church in heaven.
As the worshippers approached the altar in the apse at San Vitale to stand for communion, which many in that time still did, they would see, first, above and to their left and right, representations of Old Testament sacrifice. On die northeast presbytery wall, they would see the scene at the oak of Mamre (as in Genesis 18), where three angels or messengers, who in scripture are addressed and then speak in the singular, appear to Abraham the patriarch and ancestor of all people. Sarah is in a doorway; Abraham stands with a calf; and on the table are the three cakes that Sarah has made, round and marked with crosses as was already being done for eucharistie loaves of bread by the late fifth century. To the right the worshippers would see the hand of God from heaven staying the sword over Isaac, who had been prepared for sacrifice on a makeshift altar-table (Genesis 22.1-14). On the other side, above and to the right on the southwest presbytery wall, they would see the sacrifices of Abel and Melchizedek. …