Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

Ravenna was once the seat of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is said to have once contained the sarcophagus (it was later accidentally burned) of one of the most important women of the empire, Galla Pacidia. She was the daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I and Empress consort to Constantius III, the Western Roman Emperor. She was a devout Christian and played an important role in restoring and expanding a number of religious structures, including the Basilica St. John Lateran and St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome (two of the Seven Pilgrim Churches) and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

This architecturally important mausoleum in Ravenna Italy is located about 60 miles south of Venice. It is a bit inland, but connected to the Adriatic Sea by a canal. The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is a small and simple, rather unpretentious looking structure shaped like a Greek cross, and located behind the San Vitale Basilica. Some of the finest Byzantine mosaics in the world are located in this Basilica and other early Christian structures in Ravenna. Together, all eight of them comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This mausoleum in Ravenna Italy is one one of the eight early Christian monuments listed by as a World Heritage Site. UNESCO cites the mosaics in the Galla Placidia Mausoleum as one of the principal reasons for including this particular structure. These are the oldest mosaics in the city, as is the building itself built around 430 AD, and are remarkably preserved. The main scene depicts the martyrdom of St. Lawrence as he approached the hot iron grill. Probably the most important is the representation of Christ as the Good Shepherd surrounded by sheep. The apostles appear on the walls above. The colors of the mosaics in the Galla Placidia Mausoleum are brilliant and breathtaking, lit by translucent panels of alabaster over the windows that admit the warm hues of sunlight.

These alabaster panels were added in 1908 for better viewing. The entire vault is covered with these beautiful mosaics that are more than 1,500 years old. The mosaics in the Galla Placidia Mausoleum are rivaled only by those of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Milan and of the Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina in Sicily, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The latter were protected from degradation for 700 years by a twelfth-century landslide.

As its name suggests, this mausoleum in Ravenna Italy also is a burial place. Inside there are three niches that are home to marble sarcophagi. Traditionally, they contain the remains of Galla Placidia, her second husband Constantius III, and her son Valentinian III. There is some doubt about this tradition, and most scholars believe the sarcophagi date to a later period and that Galla Pacidia is actually entombed in Rome.

While the mosaics in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia are the oldest and most important, you will find other stunning Byzantine mosaics in two other of Ravenna’s early Christian churches—Sant Apollinare Nuova and in Sant Apollinare in Classe.

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