You would never guess that main attraction of the Bode Museum in Berlin is a mosaic from Ravenna, Italy. The Bode Museum on Museum Island houses a unique collection of Byzantine art, and I went there specifically for their Byzantine collection. I had no idea that a mosaic from Ravenna was waiting for me at the end of the exhibition hall. Ravenna holds a special place in my heart because it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. I have not yet been to Turkey to visit the Byzantine splendor there but, I’ve been to Ravenna, and the Torcello Church in Venice, and there is just something special about those places, and that time period.
The Ravenna Mosiac at the Bode Museum came from the church of San Michele in Africisco in Ravenna, Italy, and was dedicated by bishop Vittore in May 545 C.E., and consecrated by the archbishop Maximianus in 547 C.E. The mosaic depicts Christ in the center, with the Archangels Gabriel and Michael on either side. The frieze of vine and doves is supposed to represent the twelve apostles. The basilica was paid for by the banker Guiliano Argentario, and was originally meant as an offering to the Archangel Michael.The church survived until the time of Napoleon, when it was dismantled and sold to fill one of his requisitions. The bronze horses of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice suffered a similar fate, but they were eventually returned to the Cathedral. The Ravenna Mosaic would never again return to its place of origin.
The fact that this mosaic survives at all is a miracle.The Church of San Michele in Africisco, is not one of Ravenna’s Byzantine beauties, or even a UNESCO world heritage site. It is a ruin today, and used as a shopping area. If the mosaic had not been dismantled and sold in the early nineteenth century, it may have crumbled into a ruin with the church. Somehow it managed to survive. In 1843 the King of Prussia, Frederick William IV, saw something special in the mosaic when he purchased it and had it brought to Germany. Today, one hundred and sixty years later, it stands as a monument to the Byzantine past at the Bode Museum.
The Bode Museum itself is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is part of a complex of five museums on the Spree River in Berlin, Germany. The first exhibition went up on Museum Island in 1797, and the Bode Museum was built in 1904. Even though the Bode was one of my favorite museums on the Island, there are still four more museums to visit, each with a different permanent collection, and each can fill up an entire day. The Pergamon Museum is the most popular of the five museums. If you plan to see the Pergamon Museum, make sure you are there before opening. If you try to go in the afternoon as I did, the only way to get in is a 2-3 hour wait and you enter “Mad Max” style… one man leaves, one man enters. Fortunately the day I went to the Pergamon was not my last day in Berlin, so I returned the next morning right before the 10am opening with no problem. Just make sure you purchase your tickets or Berlin Welcome Card in advance in order to bypass the ticket line. The Pergamon is so spectacular, with the Ishtar Gate from Babylon, and the Pergamon Altar, that I have to save that for a future blog post.
Part of the mystery of the Ravenna Mosaic in Berlin is what happened to the two saints on either side? The saints Damian and Cosmus (physicians) were depicted on either side of the mosaic, but their images have been completely removed. I’d like to think they were saved, and sit on the wall of someone’s private collection today.