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19.08.08 Johnson, San Vitale in Ravenna and Octagonal Churches in Late Antiquity

19.08.08 Johnson, San Vitale in Ravenna and Octagonal Churches in Late Antiquity

The mesmerizing church of San Vitale in Ravenna is the finest building built in the Latin West in the sixth century and one of the most beautiful, interesting, and important buildings built in all of late antiquity. It has received a lot of attention over the years, especially from art historians interested in its stunning mosaics. Johnson claims, with perhaps some slight exaggeration, that the architecture of the building has received less attention than it deserves. He aims to remedy that deficit.

Johnson's approach is both intriguing and instructive. He identifies thirty-five octagonal churches built in late antiquity and works through them chronologically from the early fourth century to the mid-sixth century. Only three of these buildings are still standing in pretty much their original form: San Vitale, of course, along with Sts. Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople/Istanbul, and St. George at Izraa, Syria. A few churches are known only from literary references or from sketchy reports by nineteenth- or early twentieth-century visitors. In a few cases substantial ruins can still be observed while in other cases there is very little physical evidence. Johnson goes through each one of these churches in as much detail as he can muster. Where possible he gives copious measurements. This material will be of greatest interest to his fellow architectural historians; it makes for pretty tough reading for the non-specialist. Johnson also gives what information he can about the patrons or builders of the churches, about their dedicatees, and about the history of the buildings.

After an Introduction that explains the basic principles of Roman and Byzantine metrology, Johnson devotes 108 pages to churches other than San Vitale and then twenty-nine to San Vitale itself and a further eleven to "Observations and Conclusions." I mention these figures just to give readers of this review a sense of the shape of Johnson's book. I should add, too, that the book's plates are beautifully presented and often extremely helpful in understanding buildings that are no longer extant.

To repeat: Specialists will appreciate Johnson's meticulous metrology. What can the rest of us take away? To the extent that "we" can extract a general argument, it looks like this. The Romans built octagonal buildings, sometimes with memorial or funerary associations. Christians adopted this form in the fourth century. But imperial mausolea were also sometimes octagonal in the fourth century which gave the form a prestigious bump. A good number (neither "we" nor Johnson seem to know the number) of baptisteries were octagonal. The symbolism of the number 8 was significant too. All of this makes sense. But Johnson's careful research identifies thirty-five octagons in late antiquity whereas we can pretty easily cite hundreds of extant or referenced basilicas. This begs the question: Why octagons? There does not appear to be a good answer to this question. Where San Vitale itself is concerned, Johnson accepts an earlier dating for Sts. Sergius and Bacchus and notes that Bishop Ecclesius of Ravenna was in Constantinople as part of a delegation sent by King Theodoric at a time when he could have seen the church under construction. Perhaps this stunning new church inspired the design of the church he began building in Ravenna.

Why did the octagon vanish after San Vitale? One of Johnson's arguments for the placement of octagons helps to answer the question. Johnson argues, plausibly, that almost all octagons were erected as martyria. They either centered on the place of a martyr's death or on that of his/her burial. Once the translation of relics became possible, location became less significant.

This is a good and interesting book that will be of particular interest to architectural historians. That said, I cannot conclude without saying that this is one of the most poorly produced books I have seen in years. I think that one page in three has a silly misprint. More seriously: Greek names are sloppy, for instance Procopius is sometimes Procopios--even on the same page. Hebdomon is always Hebdoman. Stryzygowyski often loses his first "y" and Deborah Deliyannis acquires an odd "a." Both articles and prepositions are often omitted. Plurals often lose their s. The author resolves the famous anagram ICHTHUS as "Jesus Christ Savior of the World" when it plainly means "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior." Greek words printed in Greek font regularly lack or misplace their diacritical marks and breathing signs. I did not check systematically but as I was going along I do not think that Johnson ever cites a primary source except in translation: does he command Latin and Greek? Since a number of his buildings exist wholly or party in texts, did he see and can he read them all?