The Byzantine Beauty in Berlin

Church of San Michele in Africisco Mosiac from Ravenna in Bode Museum Berlin Detail

Ravenna Gabriel Apse Mosaic in BerlinYou 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.

Detail Ravenna Apse Mosaic Berlin

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.

Church of San Michele in Africisco Mosiac from Ravenna in Berlin

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.

Ravenna Apse Mosaic Bode Museum Berlin

Detail of Ravenna Mosiac from Bode Museum BerlinThe 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.

Detail of Church of San Michele in Africisco Mosiac from Ravenna in BerlinPart 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.

Bode Museum Mosaic Detail

More Information:
Church of San Michele in Africisco
UNESCO World Heritage Mosaics in Ravenna


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  2. Dear Jen,
    I don’t know if you read old comments? I enjoyed your post on the mosaics of San Michele in Africisco. I study Byzantine art in Ravenna, and have the pleasure of seeing the other famous works of this city often, but I have not yet been able to visit the Museum in Berlin, I really hope to sometime this year.
    Just a few notes:
    1. The church was deconsecrated (like many) during the occupation by Napoleonic forces, then sold, as you mentioned. It became a fish vending location, as it stands right in the piazza where the market was (a market is still located in this piazza, only now it is indoors). San Michele is now a Max Mara store, you can go inside and see how the remains of the church next time you visit the city.
    2. The mosaics were actually relatively well protected up until their sale to the King of Prussia in 1843, as a wooden wall had been erected in front of them by one of the fish-vending owners.
    3. The work was sold to the King, who was made aware of their existence thanks to some drawings presented to him by one of his officials, and basically he strong-armed the Church into selling them to him. He did not “save” the works, as they were protected, if not necessarily being appreciated (although Byzantine art in general was not well-liked by many Europeans until the latter half of the 19th century). The first damage occurred when they were removed (because any intervention of this sort considerably affects the well-being of the art). The sections were taken to storage in Venice, which was subsequently bombed by the Austrians, which caused even more damage. They were finally sent to Berlin between 1850-1851.
    4. When they arrived the king of Prussia had the sections re-composed, according the his own tastes and desires. He sold some sections. Just because. It was then placed in storage in 1861, where it remained until 1904, when it was installed in the Bode Museum, with heavy modifications. It would later suffer even more damage during WWII.

    I wonder if the perception of this artwork being saved comes from the description at the Bode Museum? It stands to argue that it suffered more being removed, transported, indifferently stored and restored over the years. Some fragments of this mosaic are also at the Museum at Torcello – which I also think is really a wonderful place.
    Thanks for your service, not just in the military but as a teacher! I hope this comment doesn’t come off as snooty, my intention was only to clear up a few points 🙂

    • Hey! Thanks for your comments. I absolutely LOVE Byzantine art and I appreciate any new info or perspectives. I have been to Torcello also. Did you read my post “Two ferries to Torcello? So what happened to the two saints that are missing? Were they part of the sale by the King? I thought it looked strange with those two missing saints on either side. I have a lot more pic from the museum if you would like to take a look at them.

  3. Hi Jen
    Every 2 years I take former Sunday School students on a ‘Grand Tour.’ Ravenna is one of my favorite places, along with the whole country of Turkey–incredible place and people. Thanks for the info on San Michele–I will be in Berlin in June 2015 and will of course do the Bode Museum. I have waited until after visiting Pergamum to see that museum so I can see in my mind’s eye how it would look. That site is incredible so I am now anxious to see the altar. I’m doing Turkey again in 2017–if you want info, I have plenty to share

    • Hi Jill, thanks for the comment. I would love to hear all about your upcoming adventure to Turkey.I’m thinking of going this summer. I don;t know if it’s going to happen but we’ll see!

  4. What happened to the two missing saints? Probably deemed too Catholic for the Protestant Germans – and removed on purpose. Sorry, I know that’s sad, but that’s the probable answer.

  5. Dear Jen,
    I was very surprised when I saw the “main Christ” in the middle in a style before the image or Edessa was refound, and the smaller image of Christ above in the style matching the common portrayal of Christ after the mandylion of Edessa was refound in the City wall of Edessa (today Sanli Urfu, Turkey) around 525 .

    Perhaps the large image was made before the finding of the image of Edessa (or before the image of Jesus came known in the byzantine world) and the smaller one above after this.

    If you are interested in the Story how the portrayal of Christ became standardized I can provide you with information.
    Thanks for your Information.


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