Loyola University Chicago

Medieval Studies

Labyrinth of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy

Type: Chartres
Status: Exists, possible replica

                                                                      San Vitale[1]

Following the split between the Eastern and Western portions of the Roman Empire, the capital in the West moved to Ravenna.  Because of Rome’s strong pagan past, Ravenna offered a new beginning for the Western emperors, just as Constantinople did for the rulers in the east.  It was a site where the Christian basilicas would not have to compete for attention with the great pagan temples, as those in Rome did.  Even today, nearly two thousand years later, there are many churches which stunningly illustrate the jubilant confidence that the Church enjoyed during this period, and nowhere is this clearer than in San Vitale.[2]

San Vitale is best known for its beautiful mosaics which adorn every aspect of the church from the ceiling to the floor.  Sadly, with heads turned up looking at all the iconography, few have taken the time to look down at the floors.  If a visitor did this, he or she would come across a mosaic-labyrinth measuring about 3.4 meters in diameter which is located just west of the sanctuary.[3]  Although originally thought to date from the sixth century, it is now generally believed to have been placed at a much later date, probably between the years 1538-39.[4]   As such, the labyrinth of San Vitale is a relative latecomer and being comprised of only seven concentric circles instead of the standard eleven, there has even been some doubt as to whether or not it should be counted as a medieval mosaic labyrinth.

That being said, its placement near the mosaic of the Mystical Lamb demonstrates a continuation of medieval beliefs.  Because the lamb is symbolic of Christ and with the labyrinth’s 384 marble triangles leading walkers from its center to the exit in the west, there can be no mistaking the connection between the two symbols.  Giving this a little context, prior to the Reformation, the Catholic Church would often theorize that following his Crucifixion, Jesus descended into Hell whereupon he gathered the souls of all the good people, broke their bonds, and enabled them to go to heaven.  Therefore, the labyrinth in Ravenna could be a representation of the individual’s decent into Hell or Purgatory, and with Ariadne’s thread, which was placed there by the Grace of God, they could hope to escape.[5]


                              San Vitale Ravenna[6]


                               San Vitale[7]

[1] Source: "First Presbyterian Church of St. Louis." Labyrinth Prayer. Web. 11 Apr. 2010. .

[2] Annabel Jane Wharton. Refiguring the Post Classical City: Dura Europas, Jerash, Jerusalem, and Ravenna (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[3] Craig Wright, The Maze and the Warrior (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2001) 35-36; Julien Durand, Pavees-mosaiques, (1857).

[4] Wright, 35-36; See also Wiktor A. Daszewski, La Mosaïque de Thésée: Etudes sur les mosaïques avec représentations du labyrinthe, de Thésée et du Minotaure, vol. II of Nea Paphos (Varsovie, 1977) 117 ; Friedrich Wilhelm Deichmann, Ravenna :Hauptstadt des spatantiken Abendlandes, Kommentar, 2. Teil (Wiesbaden, 1976) 54-55.

[5] Wright, 35-36.

[6] Source: "Das Labyrinth Vor St. Othmar." PFARRE ST.OTHMAR - MÖDLING. Web. 11 Apr. 2010. .

[7] Source: Ravenna- Basilica Di S. Vitale 010 on Flickr - Photo Sharing!" Welcome to Flickr - Photo Sharing. Web. 11 Apr. 2010. .