Some of the best Byzantine mosaics in the world are in… Italy! It’s true: Although the Byzantine Empire, which dated from the 4th to 15th centuries A.D., was based in modern-day Istanbul, it also stretched into Italy—even taking over the entire Italian boot in the reconquest of the 6th century. Even today, you can see amazing Byzantine churches in Italy.
That’s right – you don’t have to go to Turkey to see some of the best Byzantine art in the world, including their magnificent mosaics. Here are six of our favorite Byzantine churches in Italy to see mosaics and other beautiful works of art.
Art historians usually say that, in Italy, Byzantine mosaics were done after Emperor Justinian I tried to reunite the Byzantine empire’s two halves during his reign from 527-565. Before that, mosaics still were in the ancient Roman, classical style. So it wasn’t until the 6th century that the Byzantine style really was codified. It was characterized by a severe, ethereal style that was much different from the naturalism of ancient Roman art. Those are the mosaics we’ve included in this post!.
St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice
Wow—not only is St. Mark’s Basilica gorgeous, but it has 8,000 square meters of mosaic! The ceiling mosaics inside, like this one, mostly date to the 12th century, and show scenes from the New Testament. Their severe, formal style makes them thoroughly Byzantine.
Insider’s tip: Love exploring churches? Discover five incredible churches in Venice that unlock the history of the Floating City.
Santa Cecilia in Trastevere in Rome
The Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere is famous for its underground ruins, its touching sculpture by Carlo Maderno, its medieval frescoes… and for these mosaics. The 9th-century Byzantine mosaics you see in the apse show the Second Coming, with Christ in the middle.
San Vitale Basilica in Ravenna
The original (!) mosaics in this 6th-century church are considered some of the greatest achievements in Byzantine art. The glittering gold scenes cover the walls and ceiling of the choir, and the style is right at the cusp between late antique Roman and Byzantine. For lovers of Byantine art, gazing at the jaw-dropping mosaics inside the Basilica of San Vitale is worth a trip to Ravenna!
Monreale Cathedral in Sicily
There are so many mosaics in the glittering building of Sicily’s Monreale Cathedral, one scholar estimated that they took more than 100 million tessarae (the little pieces that go together to make a mosaic)! They show Christ in the vault, plus two different images of William II, the Norman king. Their formalism and severity is truly Byzantine.
Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna
Most of the mosaics here are original to the church—i.e. date to the early 6th century! Extraordinary examples of Byzantine mosaic, those on the nave and clerestory show scenes from the life of Christ and saints. The mosaics at the top of each wall are the church’s oldest and show scenes from the New Testament.
Basilica of Santa Prassede in Rome
Right around the corner from Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major), Santa Prassede dates to the 9th century and still has its original—and Byzantine—mosaics. Although the apse mosaics are beautiful, the side chapel of St. Zeno may be even more breathtaking. The only chapel in Rome entirely covered in mosaic, it was built to house the relics of Zeno, a 4th-century bishop of Verona.
Love visiting churches when you travel? Check out 20 amazing churches in Italy that are guaranteed to take your breath away and fill you with awe.
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