In April I went to visit Ravenna, on the Adriatic coast of Italy, in company with some of my art history friends.
We had been studying the art of mosaics, their history and how they were made, and we wanted to see the most famous examples in their original sites. Made from tiny pieces of coloured stone, they adorned church buildings, basilicas, baptisteries and mausoleums. They have survived, as bright as new, since the fifth and sixth centuries in Ravenna, which was once the western capital of the Empire of Roman Catholic Church under Theodoric, then taken over by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his wife the Empress Theodora, both Christian rulers, in the sixth century. They built a wonderful basilica church, San Vitale, dedicated to the glory of God, and adorned it with mosaics on walls , arches and apse, showing Christ in majesty and processions coming to worship.
The images are breathtaking, their colours vivid, and perhaps the most striking thing of all is how the natural world appears everywhere in the mosaic pictures. These early Christians wanted to show the glory of God’s creation- everywhere there are flowers, fruits, birds and animals, all integrated into the worship of the Creator God. Everywhere there are biblical references- the fruit of the vine (“I am the vine, you are thebranches”), doves of the Holy Spirit drink from the fountain, the source of eternal life, and I was told there are 52 different birds shown in these mosaics!
In those days the ordinary people could not read and did not have books, so the mosaic pictures told the stories found in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, as did fresco paintings in churches in other places, and even some remain here in Sussex. You may find similar references to the natural world in stained glass windows in many of our English churches, often with local scenes celebrating the riches of Gods creation with flowers, animals and birds found locally.
One of my favourite verses from the Bible is:
“Consider the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I tell you, Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these”.
It was lovely to see reminders of these verses portrayed in stone and to think of the continuity of the biblical teaching from so may hundreds of years ago.
We also visited two other basilicas dedicated to the local sixth century bishop and saint, Apollinare. There, the processions of martyrs and saints coming to worship Christ in Majesty are also accompanied by palm fronds, flowers and birds. At Saint Apollinare in Classe, just outside the town at the ancient Roman port of Classis, Christ is shown as shepherd of the sheep, with his disciples in the form of sheep, in a heavenly meadow. Saint Apollinare’s robe is covered in bees, symbolic of his role as leader of a monastic order- monks were workers in cells like the bees! I am told there is an old custom of telling the bees if someone dies, as they will fly straight up to God to announce the passing of a loved one from life on earth to that in heaven.
Sermons in stones still have relevance to us today as we care for God’s beautiful creation around us.
Creation Care Team