Lunetta del Buon Pastore in Mausoleo di Galla Placidia
Photo by Aidan Charron

As I am writing this, it is early March. About this time one year ago, I was on a trip with my Greek study abroad program visiting Venice and Ravenna. Both northern Italian cities are known for their (sometimes irksome) contribution to the history of Greece between the fall of the western Roman Empire and the founding of Modern Greece in 1832. Venice is uniquely situated in a deep marsh through which sleek wooden boats and the famous gondoliers navigate the picturesque canals. Venice is also home to San Marco’s Basilica, which is heavily influenced by Byzantine art and architecture that seek to immerse the beholder in a holy communion with Christ and the saints. On the outside, San Marco’s does not necessarily appear this way; its facade is in some ways a product of the tendency of the Venetians to make everything glitzy, glamorous, and sometimes gaudy. But on the inside, almost every square inch is covered in mosaics of Christ the Pantokrater or a scene from Holy Scripture. When you enter San Marcos, Christ’s eyes demand your attention, and the saints beckon you into their holy presence. The domes give you the sense that heaven is descending to meet earth, covering it with Christ’s judgement and mercy.

A few hours away, the port city of Ravenna features many of the most significant Byzantine era mosaics in its churches and mausoleums. In Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, the mosaics’ earthy tones and bright gold leaf compliment the depictions of God’s creation and the focal point of Lunetta del Buon Pastore, or a Lunette of the Good Shepherd.[1] The mausoleum is a resting place for the dead, and the imagery seeks to comfort and invoke a sense of peace. A stone’s throw away is La Basilica di San Vitale, an impressive Roman basilica that was built during the reign of the eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I, who reconquered western Roman territory that had been lost since the Fall of Rome. Both sides of the apse show well-preserved mosaics honoring Justinian and his wife, Theodora, as they enter into Christ’s presence with the Eucharistic hosts. Yet as much as Justinian and Theodora would have liked themselves to be the center of attention, your gaze is stolen away by a depiction of Christ the Pantokrator sitting upon the earth and flanked by angels, Saint Vitalis, and the Bishop Ecclesius, who commissioned the church to be built. In his hands, Christ holds a crown and the scroll “sealed with seven seals.”[2]

Interestingly and atypically for depictions of Christ, He is shown as a young man without a beard. The same is true for the Good Shepherd in the mausoleum: Christ is young and clean-shaven. There is no barrier between His holy face and the beholder. His humanity is fully seen, refreshing, familiar, intimate. For the beholder, there is no way to hide from Christ’s presence. The one who holds all power in His being is human, and He is looking at you so that you may look at Him.

During my visit to Italy, I was enrolled in a class about Byzantine art and architecture.  The professors who were leading the trip were well acquainted with the history of Venice and Ravenna, which helped to develop my understanding. And yet there was something missing. The mosaics and iconography of these churches are transcendent, but the artists and craftsmen who toiled over the gold and tesserae might not have imagined that their masterpieces would one day not be used for devotion or to compel reverence. When we visited San Marco, visitors and tourists had almost free rein of the basilica: we could go up and down the aisles, around the altar where Saint Mark’s remains are entombed, and up onto the roof to take in the stunning view of Venice. But most surprisingly to me was the space dedicated to the Mass, as it was only one transept in which a priest led a handful of mostly elderly Venetians in the liturgy. Not only was the amount of worshipers disheartening, but it was saddening that the faithful were relegated so that they were not allowed to use the full basilica for worship. I asked my professor about this, and he explained that UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) made it such that the basilica was dedicated to tourism, but since it was still under the Vatican’s jurisdiction, they negotiated an accommodation for the congregation. San Vitale and the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia are also UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but the basilica is no longer a church and is now a museum.

I am not anti-UNESCO; the work they do to preserve, educate, and provide access to sites is essential. Nor am I trying to criticize the Roman Catholic Church or any other church that collaborates with UNESCO to preserve their buildings and sites. I am also not in a position to offer any sort of solution to this conundrum. In one sense, this is a particularly European phenomenon; churches and religious spaces are not always sacred anymore, and if they are, then they may still rely on impious visitors and tourists to provide the resources for upkeep. But this phenomenon in Europe is merely a symptom of secularism, which we encounter in America, too. The West has lost sight of the mosaic that is the Christian tradition, or perhaps the West as it has been shaped since the beginning of the Modern Era has never seen the mosaic in its fullest.

This is not meant to be a jeremiad of how Western society has strayed. Nor is it a vain wish to return to a time when kings and emperors ruled as God’s vice regents. Rather, this is a reminder of where we, Christ’s Body, now stand and where The Bell Tower is oriented. We are in a liminal space where churches that were once sacred are no longer and where our minds are not so readily being transformed into Christ’s.[3] In this issue, we have a myriad of authors who are faithful representatives of the Christian mosaic, some of whom are speaking directly to societal conflicts and others who are uplifting Christ’s body with poetry and stimulating ideation. Our hope is that this journal will be a basilica of Christian thought—of Christ’s mind—to help us in our unbelief and encourage us to diligently heed the Holy Spirit’s inspiration in and through the minds of the faithful at Hope College.

[1] A lunette is a hemispherical arch.

[2] Rev 5:1.

[3] Phil. 2:5.

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