The inexplicable hands of Ravenna

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Four angels stand on grassy hummocks, their sandalled feet on tip-toe as they stretch up against a golden sky to support between them a wide disc of blue on which is displayed the Chi-Rho, the monogram of Christ, shining in tesserae of gold. The angels wear long tunics with palliums draped over their shoulders, for the mosaic that depicts them, on the vaulted ceiling of a chapel in the archbishop's palace in Ravenna, was made in the sixth century, nearly 1,500 years ago.

Two things make these mosaics so astounding. One is that their colour is bright and fresh, for we are tend to think of ancient objects as faded and stained. The other thing is that the mosaics covering the interiors of seven churches in Ravenna from this period are so accomplished that one is forced to think that there has been no artistic progress in the centuries since.

"The marble flourishes with bright rays and all the stones in starry purple shine richly," says a Latin inscription at the chapel entrance. "Small things confined in space are made so beautiful that they surpass the large. To Christ, whose temples exist in the human heart, nothing is small and he dwells happily confined by these walls."

These churches were meant as houses of prayer and gates of heaven. The human figures represented are often in an attitude of worship – that is to say, with hands uplifted with palms turned outward. This conventional bodily attitude is familiar in stone carvings and paintings in England too, as late as the 16th century. Sometimes when Apostles are shown with upheld hands before the risen Christ, for example, their gestures are now mistaken for surprise. But this ancient attitude of prayer is still used by the priest today at the altar in the central rite of the Eucharist....

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