The art essay

The Hospitality of Abraham (546–547) by Unknown

No guidebook can prepare the visitor for the experience of walking into the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. The dark portico, sunken into the ground by time, the dim outer aisle veneered with opaque marble revetment, and then…light. Airy arcades frame the central space along with scalloped galleries, and the walls seem weightless, as if the building were resting fleetingly around the worshiper.


The effect is buoyant, as if one is suspended in time and space, until the eye finally falls on the glittering shrine of the sanctuary. Light and color erupt in a tapestry of mosaics covering the walls and apse, featuring fundamental images from the story of the Lord’s self-revelation to man. Prominent among them is the representation of the hospitality of Abraham.


The emperor of orthodoxy


In 540, Emperor Justinian dispatched his army to regain the city of Ravenna for the Byzantine Empire. Since the fall of Rome in 476, Ravenna, the western capital of the empire, had been ruled by Arian Ostrogoths, the most illustrious of whom was Theodoric. As an Arian, Theodoric believed that Jesus was created, therefore not the Creator, and he built worship structures to further that belief.


Despite his heretical tendencies, Theodoric knew much about art, and after growing up in Constantinople, he had a deep sensitivity for the power of beautiful craftsmanship and imagery. His legacy included his commanding mausoleum, a stunning basilica, and an elegant baptistery.


Emperor Justinian needed to do two things. First, reassure the people of Ravenna that the city would continue to prosper under his leadership; second, restore the primacy of the orthodox belief in Jesus as fully man and fully God, the Second Person of the Trinity. To this end he chose the most effective vehicle of the age: art.


Justinian never set foot in Ravenna, but he entrusted the work to two great figures: Bishop Maximian for the decorative program and Giulio Argentario for the financing. Genius and generosity brilliantly merged to form the aesthetic centerpiece of Byzantine orthodoxy. The church, modeled with the undulating lines characteristic of Eastern architecture, contrasted a simple brick exterior with a shimmering skin of inlaid stone and mosaic inside. Awe was their greatest ally in reestablishing the belief that Jesus Christ was Lord and God.


The supernatural in nature


The story of the hospitality of Abraham stretches from the sanctuary entrance all the way back to the apse. Abraham receives a visit from three mysterious men, whom he hastens to serve with the help of his wife Sarah. The three men promise Abraham that, despite her advanced age, Sarah will bear a son. Framed by a triumphal arch, a motif used frequently in the sanctuary, the mosaic field rests upon three arches, initiating a Trinitarian theme that will be repeated throughout the space.


Sarah is the first figure of the scene, standing at the doorway of her house, swathed in heavy robes with her arms wrapped around her body as she lifts a finger to her mouth to hide her guilty smile of disbelief. Her husband, however, leans toward the three men, his posture deferential, his gesture that of offering. Sarah, who laughs at the news of her imminent pregnancy, closes herself off from belief, while Abraham is hopeful. It is no coincidence that Sarah is physically closer to the average faithful, expressing our doubt, while Abraham thrusts into the area reserved for the consecrated.


The three visitors occupy the center: three identical figures seated at a table before three loaves of bread. Two glance toward Abraham while the third looks forward.


The setting of the scene rejoices in nature: thousands of mosaic tiles in varying shades of green evoke a luscious bower. Flowers on the ground, crevasses in the grass, shrubs in the distance, and the great oak of Mamre surround the figures. The simple earth tones of Sarah and Abraham’s clothes give structure to their verdant setting like solid trunks in a leafy glade. The angels in their white robes add luminosity to the scene—a shining beacon of heaven in the midst of everyday life on earth.


These images celebrate creation, with bread on the table and laces on the shoes, but as the eye moves closer to the altar, the Creator makes his presence increasingly felt. On the right, Abraham, on the verge of slaying Isaac, now wears snowy robes like those of his visitors. As precursor to the Lord who will sacrifice his only Son, Abraham shares in some of that visual majesty. Around his raised sword, fiery clouds of blue and red (the antecedents of cherubim and seraphim) gather around the hand of God emerging toward Abraham. Turning one’s gaze a few feet further, the viewer finally sees the Pantocrator resplendent in all his glory in the apse.


Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit


In this space, heads turned upwards, minds elevated by sacred stories and hearts bedazzled by beauty, what better way to contemplate the Triune mystery?


The gentle Trinitarian repetitions—three loaves, three groups of figures, three arches, three windows in the apse—rhythmically prepare the viewer for the great lesson drawn by Saint Ambrose from the story of Abraham and his holy visitors: the revelation of the Trinity. Tres vidit, Unum adoravit— “Three he saw, One he adored”—wrote the honeytongued Doctor.


Bishop Maximian’s mandate was to restore orthodoxy to the capital of the empire, and he used the transcendent power of art to fulfill it. In this lunette, both images of Abraham, serving and sacrificing, lead to the Trinity, who remain still. Two look at Abraham, but the central figure looks straight ahead, his fingers joined in the ancient gesture of two fingers extended (to signify Jesus’ divine and human natures) and three fingers clasped (to represent the Trinity).


This verdant image is only a transitory vision, for the viewer is led to look further into the apse where Christ, with the same youthful mien of the three men, sits upon the globe, fully revealed to humanity as truly man and truly God.


 ■■ Elizabeth Lev

Writer and professor of art history in Rome, Italy

The Hospitality of Abraham (546–547), Unknown, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.