Spending an hour with the Good Shepherd

I have arrived in Ravenna after years of desiring to come here to see the mosaics. As I have dreamed about Ravenna, I have learned more about it: the home of the Ostrogoth kings and, for hundreds of years, the government head of the western part of the Empire. One historian wrote, “When I want to see how the Middle Ages came into being, I go to Ravenna.”

Images of the beautiful Byzantine mosaics, especially those of Christ the Good Shepherd, in cool tones of green and blue were what first caught my eye. Experiencing Ravenna in the already-hot days of mid-June, I appreciate the cool tones and the cool inside the thick walls of the building even more.

On my first evening, I went to the Galla Placida a mausoleum built by a woman of noble birth who had been married first forcibly after her capture in war, then again after her re-capture to the man chosen by her brother. While her son was young, she ruled as regent. The mausoleum she built for her son and her husband is filled with mosaics, yet simple not stacked one image on another, but creating a single experience. It is a small building, in the shape of a Latin cross, with a sarcophagus in each of the 3 arms and the entrance in the fourth.

You could see it all in 5 minutes. Or you could spend a lifetime.

On entering, the beauty overtakes a person in the time I was there, I heard many gasps and “oohs!” because the mosaics glisten in shimmering light that comes through windows in which very thin alabaster forms a natural translucent pane.

The first mosaic one sees is that of the martyr St. Lawrence, pictured with the grill on which he was killed (tradition says he told his torturers to turn him over, because “I’m done on this side”) not exactly a comforting image of death. But to the left of the flames and the grill is a book cabinet; it contains four volumes, the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. These are what overcomes death; the cross in the ceiling, amid a dome of stars, shows the source of the victory. Apostles and harts drinking from the stream of life complete the images of eternal life through faith or so one thinks.

Turning to leave, above the door, I saw the image which captivated my heart so long ago: Christ, the Good Shepherd. It is placed so that one sees it after visiting the dead, as a reminder of the love of Christ and the beauty of eternal life.

Few people were coming to Galla Placida in the late afternoon, and there was a single chair in the small place. I moved the chair beside the lamp in the middle of the room, and spent the better part of an hour simply gazing at this image. No photo can adequately capture the gentle curve of Christ’s hand or the deep contentment of the sheep he is touching. All the sheep gaze towards him, not in obedience as to a rough or demanding shepherd, but out of trust and love. They look intelligent (yes smart sheep!) neither anxious nor lacking anything as they recline with abundant grass and water.

Christ’s cross is his shepherd’s staff, resting on his shoulder. It is the cross that has guided the sheep (and us) if they strayed off course, the cross that lets them see, from a distance, the location of the Shepherd. Christ cares for the sheep who are here his tender hand is evidence of that but he gazes out of the mosaic into a different place. He is watching for the rest of the flock, perhaps those who have wandered away or are still on the way and into the space which we occupy.

Time passed without noticing as I sat with the image. In that dark and quiet place, it was an invitation into the eternal timeless, into the joy and rest of the Kingdom.

What drew me to Ravenna for all these years? It was His love.

One comment

  1. Dear Suzanne, Thank you for this wonderful description of your contemplative experience at Galla Placidia. I, too, have longed to be there for many years and your report encourages me even more. Blessings on all your travels! Love, Lorie

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