Byzantine Art as Propaganda: Justinian and Theodora at Ravenna

Apse mosaic in basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. Built 547 CE / Photo by Petar Milošević, Wikimedia Commons

Justifications for the propagandizing elements in these mosaics are not difficult.

By Dr. Patrick N. Hunt
Lecturer in Archaeology
Stanford University

Power on earth was once – and sometimes even now – perceived as a result of power in heaven. The great double mosaic of Justinian and Theodora at San Vitale in Ravenna is a forceful exercise in demonstrating power through art as propaganda, fusing political and religious imagery for a double statement of authority. In the 6th century, many intellectual Christians, not necessarily an oxymoron despite the possibility thereof, would have found these mosaics hubristic. Even the cynical could have found these mosaics troubling. Yet there are at least three possible reasons why this propaganda was justifiable for a Byzantine ruler. The mosaics here are perhaps the greatest of early Byzantine if not all post-Roman mosaics; they do serve as embellishment to reinforce the grandeur of Justinian, perhaps simultaneously last Roman emperor and first Byzantine emperor.

Fig 1 Mosaic of Justinian and Retinue at Apse Entry, San Vitale, Ravenna, c. 546 CE

But first, it is necessary to argue that this double procession is Byzantine and not either Roman or Palaeo-Christian. Although Justinian is often considered the last truly Roman ruler in the East and this art is in the West far outside of Constantinople as well as chronologically outside what is easily Byzantine a few centuries later, it is nonetheless Byzantine. No less than David Talbot Rice places Justinian and his world within a new Byzantine framework “But more vital for art…was the reign of Justinian…for then the new Byzantine Empire was set on a sure foundation and an art and architecture which were both wholly Christian and also wholly new.” (1) This is also acceptable if one likewise agrees with the thesis of John Julius Norwich that the rule of Justinian (and Theodora) helped create a political atmosphere that would prevail for centuries in Byzantium: “More than any other monarch in the history of Byzantium, he [Justinian] stamped the Empire with his own character; centuries were to pass before it emerged form his shadow.” (2).” It is these premises followed here. The authority of the emperor to convene Ecumenical Councils of the Church (553 CE) and effectively hold the western Pope Vigilius between 545-553 mostly hostage against his will in or around Constantinople (although Rome was in hostile Goth hands anyway) are but two evidences of this fusion of political and religious power.

Justifications for the propagandizing elements in these mosaics are not difficult, particularly if one is Christian emperor, however that word Christian was understood at the time given abundant heresies and a politically-charged orthodoxy that often depended on more subtle factors like a ruler’s belief rather than a mere majority of members purportedly led by the Holy Spirit. First, since Constantine, the Roman Christian emperor is the temporal shadowy image of the heavenly Christ just as Christ is the eternal blazing sun the earthly emperor reflects, a favorite Neoplatonic principle (Epistle to the Hebrews 8:5, 9:25 & ff., 10:1) . Second, Justinian would have held that the scriptures themselves established his secular authority. No doubt, if he knew them (and he must have endorsed the basic ideas if not the actual scriptures) Justinian would have relished New Testament passages where believers were admonished to respect earthly authority as if divine (Epistle to Titus 3:1; First Epistle to Timothy 2:2; Epistle to the Hebrews 13:17), and to accept the premise that God raised and established all earthly rulers, kingdoms, nations and like powers (Isaiah 14:9). How much more so if the ruler saw himself as Christian! Third, however human, a Christian emperor would have some religious oversight of his people just as a pastor and ecclesiast would have oversight of his flock. This would later evolve into a fundamental of Absolutism in Europe even when the secular power was more subject to ecclesiastic office. In Justinian’s day, the role of emperor was after all still far more authoritative than any archbishop or patriarch, partly because the weight of the Roman Empire was still at least not so dim a memory and the title of emperor was more or less a thunderous even if vestigial idea. Fourth, Christ himself was seen as a victorious Lord of Hosts over myriad angels, mighty in battle and apocalyptically wielding a sword in the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse1:16, 2:16, 19:15). Perhaps some would see the highly visible halo around Justinian as blasphemous – a Christlike posturing – but he certainly wished credit for trying to unify the Church in East and West, ultimately unsuccessful.

Fig 2: Justinian mosaic detail

The octagonal Church of San Vitale was apparently paid for by the banker Julianus Argentarius. The Ravenna mosaic of Justinian, although it is not necessarily a portrait of a 64 year old man with graying hair born in 482 CE whereas the mosaic must be around 546 CE, shows a face used to authority. A more likely portrait is at Santa Sophia from 532 CE where Justinian donates the church to Christ. But it is more the setting here at Ravenna that is impressive than the man himself, an apple of silver in a frame of gold, to reverse the Proverb. With Justinian in the center it is easy to see the symbolism of twelve men flanking him as if he is Christ and they are his twelve disciples. There is still some debate if this mosaic duple is meant to represent a procession as is often argued, as if moving into the apse of San Vitale, which I would also maintain. On our right, mostly clerical power is assembled at his left arm whereas this is balanced by secular political power on our left but at his right. If it is possible to reconstruct some understanding of significance, the leaders of the procession would be clerical not only because it is a sacred place they are about to enter vicariously but also because Justinian needs to emphasize from where his earthly power derives and where it proceeds. But to make it certain his imperial power is very much backed up by military strength, the retinue of six soldiers (count six heads) is armed and ready. Again emphasizing religious continuity, the Chi-Rho shield reminds of Constantine’s legendary dream and victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE as well as where earthly authority rests on a militant Christ.

Fig 3: Platoon of Six Soldiers Holding Chi-Rho Shield

One of the political statements in this church may be the reassertion of “Constantinopolitan orthodoxy” against the Arian Goths who controlled Ravenna off and on but who were expelled for awhile in 540 about the time the San Vitale decorations including mosaics were planned and soon executed in finished state for the dedication in 548. Thus, “a political message is added to the theological, liturgical and dedicational messages of the sanctuary,” (3) whose octagonal form is best seen from above.

Fig. 4 San Vitale view, apse nearest viewer

The officials cannot be easily named, although much has been written about the brilliant general Belisarius as one of them, most likely the bearded man on the left wearing the purple tablinum (?) and with a lozengy insignia on his right shoulder – possibly a general’s epaulette? – although the old eunuch Narses with the title of Magister militum who usually received credit for Belisariius’ victories could also be a candidate. Responsible for helping put down the Nika Revolt against Justinian in 532, Belisarius was then only twenty-eight, whereas in 546 he would have been fourteen years older at a mature forty-two years. The bearded man standing next to Justinian wears a officer’s or court epaulette [?] on his right shoulder. In and out of favor due to Theodora’s jealousy and fear of usurpation, Belisarius had been promoted only to Comes stabuli (Count of the Stable) rather than Magister militumin 544. If the rival general Narses, however, was indeed old and certainly a eunuch as well, one would expect him to be beardless and perhaps a better good candidate for the official on Justinian’s left. Yet again another, probably more likely, suggestion has the official on Justinian’s left as the patron banker Julianus. I would maintain, as most others have, that a reconciled Belisarius – who also captured and restored Ravenna to Justinian in 539-40 – is on Justinian’s right with the general’s shoulder epaulette insignia [?] and that the patron banker Julianus Argentarius is on Justinian’s left and that Narses is not present; the other official is not likely known. Julianus was also apparently of Greek origin and possibly acquired part of his wealth through enterprises in overseeing silversmithing. Some evidence exists to suggest he was the banker who donated 26,000 gold solidi for building San Vitale. (4) These are difficult identifications to make with any compelling certainty.

Fig 5: Officials: Belisarius?, Justinian, Julianus?

At least one of the clerics is easier to identify only because the archbishop Maximian’s name is written over his balding head as he carries the crucifix, accompanied by other priests carrying the incense and holding the jeweled Scriptures respectively. Alongside a likely deacon here, Maximian was archbishop of Ravenna from 545-553 so the San Vitale mosaics are possibly his raison d’etre and means of establishing himself alongside Justinian. There are two schools of thought on what Justinian is carrying. The first is that Justinian seems to be carrying the host bread of the Eucharist. The second sugestions is that Justinian carries an empty paten for offering something like the Host (in which ritual technically only a priest should minister). It makes some sense for this to be connected to the Eucharistic ritual for symmetry if Theodora carries the sacramental wine or at least the chalice. associating Justinian even more with Christ as the redemptive Bread of Life (or sacrificiant High Priest). Justinian also serves just as easily here as the imperial provider and Redeemer of his people, especially considering his frustrated mediatorial role between East and West. Although neither Justinian or Theodora were ever present in Ravenna is immaterial; their imperial presence is maintained through these statements of authority for eternity rather than for a brief dedicatory moment. The builders and planners thereby also obtain vicarious authority and orthodoxy by invoking the glory of the emperor and empress.

Fig. 6 Theodora’s Procession with Retinue

On the opposite mosaic, Theodora’s image is perhaps more a portrait, probably giving a glimpse of her ruthless ambition. Drenched in pearls and under a shell alcove evoking Venus whom she bodily served more than the Theotokos, Mother of God, yet she is also haloed and the center of focus as perhaps some like Procopius thought only a Mary ought to be as Blessed among Women. Her retinue also consists of several officials processing in front – one an unidentified general? – as she carries the chalice of Holy Wine (or at least the empty chalice) likely to represent Christ’s sacrificial blood. But this is again problematic because only a priest should be so consecrated to minister herein. Her officials even open the curtain, perhaps symbolic of the Temple Veil, for her imminent entry into a Holy of Holies. That these propagandizing ideas of Theodora’s sanctified purity – perhaps an ironic compensation for her notorious background – were a travesty for Procopius, who raked her more severely in his writing than any other person, seems less remarkable through history now than up close at the time, however transformational a conversion she might have had. This is somehow despite her swift executions eliminating rivals and her strident position of Empress with a throne alongside Justinian leading her biographers to have often suggested that she was the real power behind the Imperial Christian ruler Justinian claimed to be, greatly influencing her husband beyond the norm.(5) Theodora, according to Procopius, was a former young whore who took on all comers by the dozen when she had worked as a circus performer. Eventually she rose to the slightly less onerous role of courtesan – although the boldest and most infamous in Constantinople – and eventual mistress to an administrator before possibly setting her sights on Justinian whom she married in 525, having herself crowned empress in 527 with Justinian as emperor. Theodora was unstoppable in the 6th century; we can only imagine her in the Twentieth or Twenty-first!

Fig. 7 Detail of Theodora Image

Here is part of Procopius’ anything but hagiography of Theodora:

Never was a woman so completely abandoned to pleasure. Many times Theodora [before her “gentrification”] would banquet with ten young men who had a passion for fornication…after exhausting them she would go to their attendants (by now more than thirty) and copulate with them as well in an futile effort to satisfy her
unquenchable lust…Although she made ample use of the three apertures Nature
gave her body, she complained her nipples needed openings to attempt intercourse
there as well…In the theater she would lie naked and spread herself out, having 
trained hungry geese to pick off grain sprinkled by slaves over her private parts
…” (6)

Now we probably see Procopius’ demonizing and niggling account as most unfair and possibly inspired or at least influenced by prior accounts of Messalina in Rome. That geese were a symbol of Aphrodite, the divine patroness of courtesans, was not lost on Procopius. But in a patriarchal world, Theodora was first a savvy entertainer and then a political power in her own right. She was unflinching as empress and the backbone for Justinian in the Nika revolt when he would have fled and she refused to budge. Facing the threat of death, which she would prefer to abdication or flight, Theodora said “Imperial purple makes a very fine shroud.” (7) As Bustacchini and others have long pointed out, Theodora’s dress also shows a procession of the Persian Magi with Phrygian caps bringing gifts as she does – very similar to that nearby mosaic scene at Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo – equating her with wisdom (sophia) and possibly a further propagandizing effort to forge an identity with the Hagia Sophia itself as her shell alcove behind her testifies to her near-divine importance.

One of Theodora’s retainers pictured here below, possibly closest to her immediate left, was likely to have been the far more royal Princess Julia Anicia, herself daughter of a previous emperor, Anicius Olybrius (before Justin) and ultimately descended from Constantine, the patroness of greater basilicas in Constantinople than anything other than Santa Sophia and possible its equal, although Justinian also built 25 churches in Constantinople alone. These three ladies immediately behind Theodora (on her left, our right) are the most eminent, one of them (middle) possibly Antonina, the wife of Belisarius (perhaps shown by the insignia on her dress hem that matches his general’s shoulder epaulette [?]) and also a close friend of Theodora. One other possibility is that it is Joannina, daughter of Belisarius and Antonina, who was married to the imperial grandson Anastasius. The mosaicist’s mastery of shading shows best on the priceless white silk garments of the royal lady on the far left closest to Theodora.

Fig. 8 Theodora’s retinue of Ladies, one of whom is likely Princess Julia Anicia

When Justinian stood inside the newly finished Santa Sophia in 537, it may have been symbolically to Theodora his famous anecdotal whisper: “Solomon, I have surpassed you.” Justinian is discredited with losing as much of Byzantium as gaining and was infamous even in his day for his extravagances as an importer of luxury goods, monumental builder and art patron. Perhaps it was Theodora who persuaded him how immensely valuable silk was for him to eventually send a few monks to China to steal silkworms in hopes of starting a rich Byzantine silk industry and thereby become independent of Persia’s wealthy middlemen monopoly, which he did on a grand scale once the bamboo with purloined silkworms arrived intact having survived the long and arduous journey from China. (8) 

Power in politics and religion is perhaps rarely better expressed, as Bustacchini, Pegues and many others also note, establishing the intended connection in both subtle nuance and clear symbol.(9) That these Ravenna mosaics also help set an artistic precedent for subsequent Byzantine monumental portrayal in mosaic, while following tradition, is also maintained strongly here, a formal symmetry that Rice calls “rhythmical composition”. That these mosaics are fascinating gauges of power in the early Byzantine world is a given. Perhaps they are best measure of Byzantine imperial ambition as well. “[N]o other work of art . . . conveys the spirit of Byzantium with so much eloquence as do these two mosaics.” (10) The flatness of frontal pose, dominant for a static millennium in Byzantine art, makes it difficult to gauge movement or anything beyond monumental eternity. Yet, according to Rice, “No greater or more enlightened patron of art than Justinian has ever lived”. (11) The best authority on early Byzantine military matters would be Treadgold, who also addresses the San Vitale contexts in careful scholarship. (12) As Cameron notes on how complicated it is to understand Justinian, “Contemporary sources have left us a deeply contradictory set of impressions of the emperor.” (13) Extravagant and self-serving patron with grandiose religio-political and military ambitions may also be added to Justinian’s complex incentives for his rule and his propagandizing motives, although he often seems overshadowed by Theodora, making him appear weaker than he could otherwise be perceived. If Christ never intended to rule over the Romans in this world, Justinian (and most likely Theodora) certainly did.


  1. David Talbot Rice. Art of the Byzantine Era. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997 repr., 9.
  2. John Julius Norwich. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. London: 1988; A Short History of Byzantium. New York: Knopf, 1997, 82.
  3. Lyn Rodley. Byzantine Art and Architecture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 84-5
  4. Gianfranco Bustacchini. Ravenna: Capital of Mosaic. Ravenna: Cartolibreria Salbaroli, 1988, 26.
  5. Owen Chadwick. A History of Christianity. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995, 169.
  6. Procopius. Works. 7 vols. H. Dewing, tr./ed, London, 1940.
  7. Peter and Linda Murray. Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, 284, quoting Procopius and others.
  8. Patrick Hunt. “563 CE: How the Byzantines Acquired Silk.” Great Events in History: The Ancient World vol. 1, Salem Press, 2004,
  9. Emily Pegues, “The Mosaics of St Vitale, Ravenna”, Sweet Briar College Art History Senior Seminar, 2000,
  10. Otto von Simson. Sacred Fortress: Byzantine Art and Statecraft in Ravenna. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948, 27. Also quoted in Pegues and elsewhere.
  11. Rice, 47
  12. Warren Treadgold. “Procopius and the Imperial Panels of San Vitale,” Art Bulletin 79 (1997): 708-23. (Co-author). Also see his Byzantium and Its Army . Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.
  13. Averil Cameron. “An accompaniment to Justinian and his age.” Journal of Roman Archaeology 19 (2006) 721. This statement is found in her review of M. Maas, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian, 2005.

Published by Stanford University, 07.12.2006, under the terms of an open access license.



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