Bečov nad Teplou Castle and Chateau Diary

View of the chateau from the front gate

View of the chateau from the front gate


Part I

I waited and waited. The tram going to the Dejvická Metro station was late. I kept glancing at my watch. If it did not come soon, I would miss the 6:40 a.m. Saturday bus to Karlovy Vary. I had been looking forward to seeing the castle and chateau in Bečov nad Teplou again for some time. I had planned this trip so carefully. Where was the tram? There were always trams coming in the direction of the metro station. Why did I have to wait so long? Had there been an accident? Was there a problem with the tracks? My heart was racing. Where was the tram?

Some nerve-racking minutes later, the tram did come, and I made it the Student Agency bus just as the doors were about to close. During the two-hour trip to the famous Czech spa town, I fretted about whether or not I would make the train to Bečov nad Teplou. I only had 15 minutes to change, which should be enough if the bus was on time. Still, after the incident with the tram, I was worried….

It turned out that the bus dropped passengers off at the Karlovy Vary train and bus station at 8:30 a.m. rather than its 8:45 designated time. I had an entire half hour before the train departed. First, I waited in line at the only window for train tickets. There was a line of potential passengers, but no one appeared to be manning the window. After waiting an excruciatingly long 15 minutes, someone did come.
Becov4

The train was already on platform three. When I saw the Viamont train, I was surprised. It was new, clean and comfortable, not like those old red trains with uncomfortable seats that I had often taken to small towns for so many years. The stops were even announced and displayed electronically on a sign above the seats. I did not have to worry about getting off at the wrong stop – not this time anyway.

The train ride was scenic and relaxing. We traveled through woods and also past a golf course with ponds and a stream. I could see the Bečov nad Teplou chateau and castle on a high rock from the train stop in the valley. From there it was about a 15-minute walk through the small town with some narrow, steep side streets and a church on a hill. Passing a half-timbered house that seemed to belong in another century, I came to the picturesque square with its pensions, restaurants offering outdoor seating, antique store and souvenir shop.
On my way I noticed many Baroque or Classicist houses, which were in need of repair.

A view of the castle and chateau during the walk there from the train station

A view of the castle and chateau during the walk there from the train station


From the square I gazed at the pink Late Baroque chateau and headed directly to the box office. It was only 9:45 a.m. The chateau and castle opened at 10:00 a.m. Yet there was already a line of at least 10 people ahead of me, mostly seniors.

In the end there were about 20 people ready for the 10:00 a.m. tour, so they were split into two groups. One group started with the historic interiors, and the other group – my group – began with the Romanesque reliquary of St. Maurus, where fragments from the bodies of three saints – St. Maurus, St. John the Baptist, and St. Timothy– were kept. I had never been on this tour because the reliquary had opened to the public in May of 2002, and my first visit took place during March of that same year.

The small bridge featured two impressive statues.

The small bridge featured two impressive statues.


First, I crossed a small bridge decorated with the statues of John Nepomuk and the Jesuitical clergyman Jan de Gotto, both of which dated from 1753. I reached the front gate, framed in a 16th century Renaissance portal. Before going upstairs to the rooms dealing with the holy relic, we stood in a hallway decorated with portraits of soldiers riding horses off to battle. I noticed the plume on a soldier’s helmet and the castle in the lower left-hand side background of that portrait. The castle seemed so small and powerless against the mammoth soldier seated on a horse that seemed almost to bolt out of the canvas. I also was impressed by the elaborate saddle that the artist had rendered.

On the floor above the hallway, a display case in the first room dealing with the unique treasure featured a small Christ figure, a marquetry cross that appeared to be inlaid with gems and scapulars of the Beaufort-Spontin family. It also contained pictures of relics found in the richly decorated tomb box, such as small textile bags, bits of paper and small stones.

The chateau from the square

The chateau from the square


A map covered another wall. The guide pointed to Belgium and explained that the reliquary hailed from a Benedictine abbey in that state, from a city called Florennes. The reliquary dated from 1225 to 1230 and contained the remains of the three saints mentioned above; yet more recent DNA tests proved that there were the remains of five people in the chest, two of whom are men from the third century AD, according to the guide. He also explained that these sorts of shrines were important in society because people believed that they were the source of health-related miracles. He added that Saint Maurus was a sort of mystery man for scholars; it is only known that he was a saint and martyr in the first or third century AD, nothing more.
A look at the chateau

A look at the chateau


After surviving the French Revolution, the unique object was kept at St. Gengulf’s Church in Florennes. When Alfréd de Beaufort bought the reliquary in 1838 from a Belgian church council for 2,500 francs, it was in a decrepit state. He brought it to Bečov and had it repaired from 1847 to 1851. When his grandson had to flee in 1945 after the second world war because he had cooperated with the Nazis, he hid the reliquary in a backfill of a chapel in the castle here.

In the next room there was a reproduction of a partial mural from the castle chapel, which, along with the rest of the castle, was not open to the public. (Visitors were, however, allowed inside the chateau’s chapel.) The guide elaborated on the fascinating history of the treasure, which sounded like something out of a detective story.

The reliquary of Saint Maurus from www.svatymaur.cz

The reliquary of Saint Maurus from http://www.svatymaur.cz


The reliquary had remained hidden for 40 years. In 1984 an American named Danny Douglas wanted to buy an unspecified treasure hidden in the Czech lands during World War II and was willing to pay 250,000 USD for it. This was a financial offer that the Czechoslovak government could not afford to pass up. But the Czechs had to figure out which artifact he intended to purchase. During further talks with Douglas, the Czechs were informed that the object was oblong, the size of a conference table, hollow, made of metal and buried about 100 kilometers from Nuremberg, among other facts. Finally, they narrowed it down to the reliquary, which had to be buried somewhere in this chateau and castle.

A black-and-white video dated November 5, 1985 showed criminologists unearthing the chest in the chapel. I could not help but notice how dilapidated the façade of the building was, how different it looked from today. Of course, the Czechs would not allow the treasure to leave the country. In the end, the contract with Douglas was not signed.

The next room dealt with the restoration process. In display cases I saw tools and utensils used to fix the reliquary, such as chasers, a metal chiseller and engravers. The guide also mentioned that the statues on the exterior of the reliquary were made of silver tin and took 11 years to restore. Imagine that! Eleven years! When the criminologists found the treasure, it was damaged. The metal pieces were corroded, and parts of the figures and reliefs were no longer attached to the relic. Due to issues relating to property rights, restoration did not begin until mid-1993.

The guide also explained why the treasure with its fragile, small gilded silver statues took such a long time to restore. Restorers had to make miniature, detailed parts for the statues, hands and arms for example. The restoration of the 12 apostles and reliefs on the roof proved the most challenging. The young man conducting the tour mentioned that the restorers had to drill about 3,000 holes for nails to keep the object from getting damaged. Don’t overlook the fact that the chest included filigree with pieces of glass, precious stones and gems.

A closeup of the reliquary of Saint Maurus

A closeup of the reliquary of Saint Maurus from Wikimedia.org


Another display case featured the plaster casts for the circular reliefs on the chest, showing biblical scenes. In one Salome carried the head of St. John the Baptist. Another featured the dance of Salome. Plaster casts of saints were also displayed, including Saint Paul, Saint Jude Thaddeus and Saint Bartholomew. A large picture on one wall showed that the treasure was decorated with birds and mythological figures and inlaid with gems. No one knows how the gems were placed on the chest because not even a laser is capable of doing that kind of precise craftsmanship, and they certainly did not have microscopes back in Romanesque times.

In the fourth room I looked at the original oak box that had been found inside the chest. The restorers had to create a new wooden core for the object. The display cases along the walls showed various reliquaries. In one case I saw two gem-studded rings. I also gazed at a number of golden Baroque monstrances, so elaborate that they almost made me dizzy.

Another closeup of the reliquary of Saint Maurus from www.svatymaur.cz

Another closeup of the reliquary of Saint Maurus from http://www.svatymaur.cz


Then we finally came to the dark room containing the unique treasure. We only had five to seven minutes in the space. I noticed how Saint Maurus’ drapery seemed to flutter as he gripped a sword in one hand on the front of the chest. Christ was giving a blessing on the opposite side. On the roof were 12 large reliefs relating the life of Saint Maurus and of Saint John the Baptist. Small columns with floral decoration also decorated the chest. Apostles were shown with staffs; one gripped a cross. Saint John the Evangelist held a goblet. I noticed the precise curls in his hair as well as his flowing drapery. The detail in the saints’ facial expressions was also stunning.

Golden swirls and gems decorated the treasure as well. I noticed the precision of the inlaid gems and the precision with which the small hands of the apostles had to be made. My head was swimming. There was so much detailed decoration to take in at one time. I wanted to study the chest in small parts, truly appreciating the precision of the figures and reliefs. I knew I was staring at one of the most beautiful artifacts I would see in my life.

After a short time, we were ushered out of the dark room, and the first tour ended. In 10 minutes, it would be time for the tour of the interior rooms. I was enthralled by the first tour and excited about the second.

Another shot of the chateau

Another shot of the chateau


Part II

The tour of the historic interior rooms began, as did the last tour, in the hallway with the large wall paintings of soldiers on bolting horses. Then we went to a room displaying a model of the complex as it had looked in the 19th century, under the Beaufort family’s tenure. I admired the terraced gardens with pools and fountains. The guide pointed out the castle’s Chapel of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the tower, which was the oldest part of that building. (Only the chateau, not the castle, was open to the public.)

Donjon, taking its name from Early Gothic castles shaped like towers in southern France, had been a tower of four floors with toilets on every floor. The family had lived in this section of the castle. The Pluhovský Palace, still flaunting a Classicist style, was comprised of three houses. A watch-tower also had stood on the property, though it is only six meters high now, as it had been shortened and transformed into an observation terrace during the 19th century. The vibrant, pink Late Baroque chateau, built in the 18th century by the Kounic owners, was one dominating feature of the model.

The lovely and charming chateau

The lovely and charming chateau


The guide familiarized us with the history of the castle and chateau as I glanced occasionally at the portraits, maps and black-and-white landscapes on the walls. In the 14th century the village’s status was raised to that of a town. The castle remained the property of the Hrabišic of Osek clan until the beginning of the 15th century. From the 13th to the 16th centuries, the place prospered thanks to its gold, silver and tin mining. In fact, during the 16th century, Czech tin from the Bečov region was praised as the best in Europe. The manufacturing of pewter added to the town’s wealth.

But times changed as the Hussite army destroyed the castle during the Hussite wars that took place from 1419 to 1434 and pitted several factions of the armies of martyr Jan Hus’ followers against each other. The Holy Roman Empire, Hungary, The Pope and others joined forces with the moderate Hussites. The castle was also in decline after the Thirty Years’ War, and the town never again reached its former level of prosperity. During the 18th century the Kounic family bought the castle, adding the chateau and bridge.
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Then in 1813 Fridrich Beaufort-Spontini took over as the owner, which was a turning point in the buildings’ history. The Beauforts made many improvements to the castle and chateau. It was Alfréd Beaufort who created a Baroque style park with six levels of terraces. He repaired the castle and chateau, set up the botanical gardens, constructed an open-air theatre and brought the reliquary of Saint Maurus to Bečov. Because his grandson Heinrich collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, the property was confiscated. Objects in the castle were plundered. Townspeople stole some artifacts while other pieces of art and crafts were sold to antique stores.

After that, various owners were in charge of the castle and chateau. The castle became a school for workers while Pluhovský Palace was supposed to, but never did, become a museum. Reconstruction of the property took place from 1969 to 1996, when visitors were finally allowed inside the Late Baroque chateau. Back then a West Bohemian Gothic Art exhibition was housed in the chateau. Now the original furniture has been put back in the building, though the spaces are organized differently than they had been in the 19th century, when the chateau’s rooms had served a representative function, while the family had been living in the castle.

Another view of the chateau

Another view of the chateau


On the ground floor we entered the library, where each bookcase was decorated with four columns and had a triangular slanting roof culminating in a point. Reliefs of a female reading adorned the bookcases, which shelved 3,000 books for representative purposes. The chateau had another 14,000 books stored elsewhere.
From there, we went up the staircase with the oak balustrade that originated in the 19th century to a landing decked with hunting trophies, rifles and swords intertwined as well as a tattered Austro-Hungarian army cap. I was impressed with the vibrancy of the pink hue in one room that sported a pink couch, pink chairs and a pink tablecloth under a glass table. The gold décor on the white tea cups also caught my attention. I could see the tower from the window.

But the most significant part of this room was its graphics’ collection, hailing from the 17th century Netherlands, including one by Sir Anthony van Dyck. There were also four portraits of properties – three chateaus and one castle – owned by the Beaufort family when they had Bečov. Graphics of mythological figures and floral still lifes were on display, too. I also noticed how the female figures in several portraits sat so stiffly and how delicately flowers were handpainted on one vase.

A look at part of the park

A look at part of the park


The Red Parlor was next. A blood red couch and four armchairs gave the space its name. One painting from the 17th century Netherlands sported a music theme. Another painting showed nobles in an Italian park. My eyes darted to the brown and white marble columns in the foreground. There were two mistakes in the painting, the guide explained. Firstly, the trees depicted could not grow there. Secondly, through the summerhouse window it would not be possible to see a forest but part of the port and sea rendered next to it. We also saw a toilet with a keyhole. Only the person who had the key could use it. Lower-class nobles would have cleaned it. I also glanced at a portrait of an elegant lady with ruddy cheeks.

The Tapestry Parlor featured two huge tapestries pictorially narrating the story of David and Goliath. They were made in Brussels from 1620 to 1630. The Baroque table was intriguing as well. Its legs seemed to be decorated in the shape of some strange sea animal. It turned out that the animal depicted was a dolphin, but the artist had never seen a real one so he had used his imagination. On a dresser stood a Baroque clock complete with a realistic-looking giraffe.

Another tapestry hung from the wall in the next room as did several Spanish paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries. In one a woman was crying over the death of the Spanish king and another woman was protecting a child.

A view of the park

A view of the park


Last but certainly not least we made our way into the chateau’s chapel. At the entrance stood two gold statues of what appeared to be griffins holding candlesticks. Saint Peter Chapel was built in Neo-Romanesque style around 1870. The gilded altar was simple with a painting of Madonna and the Christ Child. Mary held one hand down with her palm up as she looked straight at the viewer, challenging his or her gaze. Both the Madonna and Jesus sported golden halos. On the walls were 14 Stations of the Cross painted in white enamel on copper plates. I noticed how Christ was lugging a heavy, plain cross in one depiction. In another he was sprawled over Mary’s lap, dead, a halo over his head. A white tiled stove stood behind a secret door. What attracted me most, though, was the ceiling. The blue with gold décor on the ceiling made the room dynamic, made it feel almost alive, imbuing it with a distinctive power.

The guide let us into the terraced garden, Baroque in style. From the edge of the garden I got an excellent view of the surroundings, with homes in the valley and a forest beyond. I thought to myself that these last two hours had been well-spent.

The bench where I spent time relaxing after the tours

The bench where I spent time relaxing after the tours


I made my way to an outdoor table at a pension’s restaurant in the picturesque square not far from the museum of toys, motorcycles and bicycles. I sat in the sun, facing the cheery, pink chateau façade for almost two hours, eating chicken, writing postcards and reading. Then I climbed the hill to the town’s church. I tried all three doors but found it locked. I had read in a brochure that the interior was in Rococo style. It was a pity that I could not see the interior.

Walking past the half-timbered, derelict-looking house on Railroad Street, I retraced my steps to the train station, where I waited for the new, clean train back to Karlovy Vary. After another scenic train ride, I made the next bus from Karlovy Vary to Prague with minutes to spare and spent a relaxing two hours thinking back on my exciting day.

View from the park

View from the park

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Ravenna Diary

RavennaS.Apollinare8
When I booked a trip with arsviva to Bologna and other towns in the Emilio-Romagna region, I was most interested in seeing the mosaics at Ravenna. I had heard so much about them and yearned to see them with my own eyes. While the other sights did not by any means disappoint, Ravenna proved to be as magical as I had hoped, even more so.

I was fascinated by Ravenna’s glorious history from the 5th to 8th century AD. The golden days of Ravenna began when the city was designated as the capital of the Western Roman Empire in 402. Though the Roman Empire came to an end in 476, it did not at all mean the end of Ravenna’s influence in the world. During the reign of Ostrogoth Theodoric the Great, who had captured the city in 493, Ravenna prospered, though 19th century poetry would present him as a sinner and persecutor. In charge for more than 30 years, Theodoric was set on Romanizing the kingdom, bringing the splendor of Ancient Rome to his own territory. Indeed, Ravenna’s buildings from that era have many Roman features. He was an excellent ruler and a restorer of ancient monuments. Many of the places of worship filled with dazzling mosaics date back to Theodoric’s reign.

Theodoric the Great from www.medievalists.net

Theodoric the Great from http://www.medievalists.net


Theodoric’s tenure also brought peace to Italy. These were good times. For the most part, at least. However, there was more than a little fiction between Theodoric’s religious beliefs and those of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Theodoric promoted Arianism, which focused on the relationship between God the Father and the Son of God. Nonetheless, Theodoric demanded that his people be tolerant of other religion, and he did not attack Catholicism.

Ravenna went through many changes when the Byzantines took over in 553, led by Emperor Justinian I. While the Byzantines brought with them a dramatically different culture and religion, Ravenna still flourished with its mosaics. Ravenna’s magical era came to a definitive halt when the Longobards took charge of the city in 751, but the monuments remain a testimony to the city’s past splendor and significance in Europe.

Ravenna includes eight sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List – the Mausoleum of Theodoric, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Neonian Baptistery, the Arian Baptistery, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, the Chapel of San Andrea, the Basilica of San Vitale and the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe.

The Mausoleum of Theodoric

The Mausoleum of Theodoric


First we visited the Mausoleum of Theodoric, which the ruler had constructed in 520 AD. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1996, this structure made of Istrian stone is the only king’s tomb from Theodoric’s era. While I was disappointed that there were no mosaics inside, I was intrigued that the roof was made of one piece of Istrian stone weighing 300 tons. There were two floors, and Theodoric had once been buried on the upper level where a porphyry stood in the middle of the small space. I walked slowly around the porphyry, trying to imagine Goths paying homage to their dearly departed leader. Would they have put flowers on the porphyry? What kind? Or laurel wreaths? I mused that they must have paid elaborate respects here. I imagined the people were pondering over Ravenna’s future, a future without the ruler who had brought peace to Italy and had brought architectural and artistic glory to the city. When the Byzantines came to town, Theodoric’s body was taken away from the mausoleum and the place served as a Christian oratory.
The Neonian Baptistery

The Neonian Baptistery


Next we visited the octagonal-shaped Neonian Baptistery, which hailed from the turn of the 5th century. Even though the structure was small, it held so many delights. My introduction to Ravenna’s mosaics was enthralling, to say the least. The mosaic-covered dome features the baptism of Christ in the center as John the Baptist poured water over Christ’s head. Even though only the dome showed off mosaics, it was overwhelming. To think that these mosaics dated back to the end of the 4th or beginning of the 5th century!
The Neonian Baptistery

The Neonian Baptistery


The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia would only make my morning more fascinating. This structure was built to house the tomb of the daughter of Emperor Theodosius, Augusta Galla Placidia, but it never served that purpose as her grave was in Rome. When her brother Emperor Honorius passed away in 423, Galla Placidia took charge because her son was too young to rule. She was a very competent empress, and the city prospered artistically, for instance.

My head was practically spinning. I was standing in a building dating from the 5th century! The Latin cross-shaped mausoleum featured mosaics on vaults, the central dome and lunettes on each end of the four vaults. The central dome was dominated by a cross studded with jewels. Golden stars and angels clad in gold were portrayed against a blue background. In the lunette over the main entrance the mosaic showed Christ gently caressing a sheep. The flock was totally focused on Him. I loved the gold color – Christ was dressed in gold attire and sported a golden halo. The lush green landscape was rocky, and the sky was a beautiful blue. Two lunettes featured deer about to drink baptismal water from a pool. Other details I loved included the red and white clouds on a blue background in the cupola and the books of the four Gospels depicted in one lunette.

What fascinated me most about this mausoleum and about all the mosaics I had seen so far was the use of color. I could not believe that something so many centuries old could survive in such rich, vivid colors. The brilliant colors transported me back way into the past and also invigorated me with an energy to live life to the fullest in the present, making me feel truly alive.

Dante died in Ravenna on September 13-14, 1321.

Dante died in Ravenna on September 13-14, 1321.


Ravenna has a literary legacy, too. Dante died in Ravenna during the night of September 13 and September 14, 1321 after being exiled from his native Florence for political reasons. The Neo-classical, square-shaped temple that houses the remains of the author of The Divine Comedy and Vita Nova anthology is part of the Church of San Francesco, also called the Church of San Pier Maggiore. A sculpture of “The Supreme Poet” decorates the interior. I was standing in front of the remains of the man whose love for Beatrice had kept him alive. Here were the remains of the man who considered exile a kind of death in itself.

I recalled an intriguing tale concerning Dante’s remains. The Florentines requested that Dante’s remains be returned to them in 1296, 1428, 1476 and 1519. Ravenna refused until 1519. However, when the tomb was opened, the inhabitants of Ravenna discovered that it was empty. It remained a mystery for centuries. Then, in 1885, while reconstruction work was being carried out in the chapel, a small wooden box was found. It included a note explaining that Dante’s remains had been moved there on June 3, 1677. The skeleton was nearly complete. So it seemed that Dante was not destined to leave Ravenna after all.

Small portico of chapel of Church of San Pier Maggiore, where Dante's remains are kept

Small portico of chapel of Church of San Pier Maggiore, where Dante’s remains are kept


Then we visited the Archiepiscopal Museum with its impressive Chapel of San Andrea, which had been recognized by the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997. The chapel, shaped like a Greek cross, consisted of an oratory and atrium with barrel vault. It hailed back to Theodoric’s reign, when it was privately owned. I was intrigued at seeing Christ clad in armor on the lunette over the entrance. I could not remember seeing many portrayals of Christ in armor. I loved the star-studded sky background behind the cross in the apse. The sky made me feel safe, giving me a feeling of tranquility. Medallions showed Christ, his Apostles and saints. The silver cross in the chapel could be traced all the way back to the 6th century. I was amazed by the attention to detail. No less than 40 images were depicted on embossed silver-plate medallions.

My favorite artifact in the museum, besides the chapel, was Maximian’s ivory throne. I inspected the detail of the ivory reliefs covering the throne. The reliefs included scenes from Christ’s life and much more.

The tower of the Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo

The tower of the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo


Next we visited what would become my favorite sight, the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, constructed in the late 5th or early 6th century. Apollinare, sometimes referred to as Apollinaris of Ravenna in English, held a very important place in the history of the town. He was the very first bishop, and his tenure lasted 26 years. It is said he worked miracles. Because he promoted Christian beliefs, he had been banished from Ravenna. Apollinaris paid the ultimate price for his preachings. He was tortured: His persecutors repeatedly stabbed him viciously and poured scalding water over his wounds. He was killed with a sword and martyred. His remains were located in this basilica from the 9th century until they were transferred to the Sant’ Apollinare Basilica in Classe during 1748. The basilica we would visit last, Sant’ Apollinare Basilica in Classe, is located on the spot where Apollinaris was martyred.

Back to the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo. The exterior was simple in design. I noticed the marble portico, and the cylindrical bell-tower from the 9th or 10th century immediately caught my attention. Inside, the décor was not simple at all. The three-nave structure showed off 24 columns with Corinthian capitals but mostly boasted of the mosaics from Theodoric the Great’s reign. Originally this place had been intended as an Arian place of worship.

The Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo

The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo


I concentrated first on the mosaic of Theodoric’s lavish palace with loggias, arcades and a peristyle. I felt as if I could walk into the palace, even though the rendition had some unrealistic spatial characteristics. Still, the palace looked so real to me. I could almost see Theodoric the Great strolling through the loggias.
The Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo

The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo


On the opposite wall I saw a representation of the port of Classe. One boat had a white checkered sail that looked as though it could be fluttering gently in the wind. It reminded me of those summers in Maine, staring at the boats floating in the bay.
The Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo

The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo


The portrayals of the processions caught my undivided attention. On one side there was a procession of 22 virgins and on the other a procession of 26 martyrs. Because some sections were added much later, it was possible to see Roman characteristics as well as the stylized Byzantine features.
The Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo

The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo


The 22 virgins were clad in golden tunics and donned crowns. Veils covered their faces. They were headed toward the Virgin Mary who held Jesus on her lap. While the Virgin Mary looked expressionless, staring straight at the viewer, in the four angels surrounding her I saw an attempt at differentiating facial expressions. The Three Kings led the virgins to the Virgin Mary. I noticed how their figures seemed to actually move, as they were bending forward toward the Holy Mother.
The Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo

The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo


There was much more to see. The octagonal-shaped Arian Baptistery had four apses. Even though only the dome’s mosaics have survived the centuries, it was rich in artistic treasures. In the center Christ stands in hip-high water as John the Baptist baptizes Him. Above Christ’s head is a dove. The outer circle is filled with crown-carrying Apostles separated from each other by palm trees. I liked the detail of the blue precious stones decorating the crowns.

Next we visited Basilica Di San Vitale, which was consecrated by Bishop Maximian in 548. Bishop Maximian, often referred to in English as Maximianus of Ravenna, had served as the 26th bishop of the city. Emperor Justinian I had been his mentor, and the people had resented him for this reason, though he was able to convince them to trust him. Not only did he establish this basilica but he also had Sant’ Apollinare in Classe constructed. He was also a patron of illuminated manuscripts. And who was San Vitale? It is not clear. According to one legend, he was a martyred Roman soldier.

I loved the way the light shined into the basilica. It enhanced the beauty and magic of the mosaics that were found on the walls and in the presbytery and apse, where I marveled at a mosaic depicting Christ, dressed in Roman attire, seated on a blue globe. While he presented Bishop Ecclesio with a scroll, the Bishop held up a model of the church. I noticed how lavish Saint Vitalis’ clothes were. I loved the golden background and especially the detail of the red, blue and white clouds.

The Basilica of San Vitale

The Basilica of San Vitale


Another mosaic showed Emperor Justinian with Bishop Maximian and retinue, and yet another depicted Empress Theodora with her retinue. She was clad in purple, which made the mosaic even more brilliant in color. She wore pearls, a nice detail. I recalled that the empress had once worked in the circus as a dancer or bear-tamer. Who would have thought that this circus performer would become an intelligent politician?
The Basilica of San Vitale

The Basilica of San Vitale


In the panel with Emperor Justinian I, loved the detail of the crown with sparkling emeralds. Bishop Maximian stood by his side gripping a golden cross. The detail of the precious stones that decorated the cross was phenomenal. I also noticed that the soldiers, all decked out in gold, were depicted as individuals rather than sporting the same facial expressions. I mused that they looked like they liked their jobs. It was interesting how the courtiers covered their hands in the presence of their rulers.
The Basilica of San Vitale

The Basilica of San Vitale


At the Basilica of San Vitale the panels with the emperor and empress bore typical traits of Byzantine art. In the rendition of Emperor Justinian and Bishop Maximian et al, the figures faced the viewer, and their faces lacked even the slightest hint of expression. Also, the figures were rigid. Yet this was a realistic portrayal as well because emperors were required to stand or sit completely still to impress on their subjects the divine solemnity of their rule. Still, there were some attempts to differentiate one character from another.

What impressed me the most was the detail that had such historical value. I marveled at how a picture could speak a thousand words. Historians learned about the way people of this period dressed and what kind of hairstyles they had. The jewelry and fabrics of clothing were other helpful features for those interested in the era.

The Basilica of San Vitale

The Basilica of San Vitale


There were also many dazzling mosaics in the presbytery on the wall, loggia, women’s gallery and vault. I especially liked the four peacocks perched on blue and white globes. I liked the detail of the feathers. They brought to mind the peacocks strutting in front of Ploškovice Chateau during that visit to north Bohemia in 2005. I also was drawn to the star-studded sky.

Lastly, we visited the red brick Sant’ Apollinare in Classe with its cylindrical bell-tower. The section of Ravenna called Classe had been situated on the seashore before the sea withdrew. Construction started on the basilica in 532 AD, and it was consecrated in 549 AD. There used to be a cemetery here that included Apollinaris’ grave. Inside there were two rows of 24 elegant marble columns with Byzantine capitals. The apse was filled with mosaics of two parts – those above the cross and those below it. Above the cross we could see the transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor. There were 99 gold and silver stars in the background, or so I was told. I was too mesmerized by the stunning artistic treasures to count. The area below the cross was dominated by the figure of Sant’ Apollinare surrounded by 12 sheep among rocks and greenery. Apollinaris was raising his arms, gesticulating as he prayed fervently.

The Basilica of Sant' Apollinare in Classe

The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe


Ravenna had more than lived up to my expectations. What captivated me most about the mosaics was the use of bright color schemes. The vividness of the images made the time periods when they were created all the more vivid. I had learned about Roman and Byzantine art and the Arian religion and now knew some of the names of the main players during Ravenna’s glorious days. I had seen Goth culture merge with Roman culture. I had seen red brick structures whose exteriors spoke of simplicity and harmony and whose interiors were complex and dazzling, filled with symbolism and color.

We went back to Bologna, and I was more than satisfied with the day trip. I knew that Ravenna would always hold a special place in the memories of my travels.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

The Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo

The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo