Gustav Klimt and the Ravenna Mosaics


The splendour of Byzantine churches with their glinting domes and stunning mosaics can be seen spread throughout the Mediterranean. Nowhere are they more beautiful than in Italy; St Marks in Venice and Monreale Cathedral being two of the most spectacular examples.


St. Marks Basillica, Venice

We know that Gustav Klimt was a frequent visitor to both Venice and Ravenna, and it seems likely that he drew inspiration from the glorious Byzantine art which he would have been surrounded by in both cities.


In ancient times, Ravenna was a thriving seaport, which rose to power in the 1st century BC under the Emperor Augustus. The town converted to Christianity in the early 2nd century AD. As Rome’s power declined, Ravenna was made capital of the Western Empire in 402 AD. The following century it came under the rule of Thedoric and the Arian Ostrogoths, and in 540 the city became part of the Byzantine empire under Justinian. Justinian reigned as emperor between 527 and 565. His building campaigns, especially in Constantinople, align him with the great Roman Imperial builders like Augustus, Trajan, and Hadrian. His structures combined defensive walls with highly decorative interiors. Religious piety had long been a priority of Roman authority. For Justinian, the construction of temples and altars was a tangible expression of his piety, linking him to his ancestral traditions. He considered himself the defender, both of political order and of the religious Orthodoxy, launching a series of military campaigns against the Ostrogoths, who had been converted to Arian Christianity, considered a heretical form of the faith. For Justinian, the Emperor was anointed by God as the chosen leader of the empire. The Ravenna mosaics clearly reflect Justinian’s religious and political priorities.


In Justinian and his Attendants, (above), Justinian is surrounded by members of the clergy to his left with the most prominent figure, the Bishop Maximianus of Ravenna being labelled with an inscription. To Justinian’s right are members of the imperial administration wearing a purple stripe against their white robes, and at the very far left side of the mosaic appears a group of soldiers, one of whom is holding a bejewelled shield.

This mosaic thus establishes the central position of the Emperor between the power of the church and the power of the imperial administration and military.


In Constantine, Justinian and the Christ Child, (above), from the Vestibule of Hagia Sophia, we see Emperors on either side of the Virgin, enthroned with the Infant Saviour. She is flanked by Constantine the Great as a saint and Justinian the First; both emperors are haloed.  The Virgin holds the Infant in her lap.  Constantine carries the City that bares his name, while Justinian supports in his hands the Church of St. Sophia.  The green ground beneath the figures recedes away in darkening horizontal layers, drawing the eye into the mosaic, giving a three-dimensional backdrop to the two-dimensional figures.  The bright gold tiles create an air of celestial brilliance around the figures with their blue robes.

Byzantine art is characterised by two-dimentional portraiture, often of mythical and religious scenes. The jewel pigments combine with gold make the walls explode with colour, vibrating with every pulse of light. Originally, the cathedrals would have been lit only by candles. In the darkness, the flames would have danced over the surfaces of the mosaics; the effect would have been dazzling.

We can clearly see this Byzantine influence in Gustav Klimt’s work. Note the flat visual planes, gold leaf and mosaic-like designs in both The Kiss and the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, (below). Square and rectangular forms are tessellated against one an other, giving the impression of gold tiles, their vibrancy brought out by the indigo and amethyst shades typical of the Byzantine mosaics.


But while the Byzantine mosaics were the epitome of religious piety, Klimt uses this style in an erotically charged way, celebrating the female form and female sexuality. In Judith I, (1901), tones of gold and blue are juxtaposed on the fabric around Judith’s shoulders and the collar around her neck, which appears almost to be throttling her as she gazes out at the viewer with her lips parted and her eyes half shut. The collar is encrusted with jewells, reminiscent of the shield in In Justinian and his Attendants.


Throughout his career, Klimt drew from a myriad of influences: Japanese Rinpa art, Impressionism, classical Greek and Egyptian styles being just a few examples. But his most famous paintings owe a great deal to the Byzantine mosaics he saw during his many visits to Northern Italy.


Emma Rose Millar is author of the award winning novel FIVE GUNS BLAZING. Her second novel, THE WOMEN FRIENDS: SELINA, will be published by Crooked Cat Books in December 2016. For further details, visit her author page on Amazon.


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