Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo was built by Theodoric in the early 6th century as a church for his nearby palace. Originally dedicated to St Martin of Tours, it changed its names several times, before being dedicated to St Apollinaris when his remains were moved here from Classe in the 9th century.
Apart from its bell tower it is externally an ugly church. But inside it is quite a different story, the clerestory windows and high Greek marble columns give it a sense of spaciousness and airiness. Unfortunately, when we visited it was the day for dusting the mosaics, making it a challenge at times to avoid the men at work.
The mosaics are high up on the walls on either side of the nave and consist of three levels. The first level depicts female martyrs on the left of the nave and male martyrs on the the right. The clerestory level depicts saints and Apostles, and the top layer illustrates scenes from the life of Christ.
The female martyrs on the left hand side are shown leaving Classe (Ravenna’s port on the Adriatic), depicted as a fortified imperial city.
Each holding a martyr’s crown and separated from each other by a date palm, the martyrs form a long procession heading in the direction of the altar. Curiously, their faces look look almost identical:
The processions culminates with the Three Magi carrying their gifts: their figures, bending in hommage, a dramatic contrast to the static procession of martyrs:
The Magi are clearly differentiated in their features and their clothing, as well as by their gifts. I have read somewhere that this may be the first time they are named in Christian art. One curious aspect is the bright Phrygian bonnets they are wearing. Drawings over 300 years ago show them wearing crowns and it is thought that for some reason these were replaced when the mosaics were renovated in the 19th century.
The focus of the procession is the enthroned Mother of God with an infant Christ, flanked on either side by two Archangels. Her hand is raised in blessing.
Paralleling this scene on the opposite wall is an enthroned Christ, also flanked on either side by two Archangels:
The procession of male martyrs making its way towards Christ is headed by St Martin, highlighted by his purple robe:
Interestingly, the male martyrs are much more clearly differentiated in their facial features and not just in terms of whether they are bearded or clean shaven:
The starting point for this procession is not Classe, but what was originally Theodoric’s Palace. Originally the mosaic probably showed Theodoric’s court, but some time after the Byzantine capture of the city in 540 this was covered over:
Bizarrely you can still see various hands and arms that were part of the original mosaic reaching round the columns :
Here are some examples of the mosaics on the 2nd and 3rd levels:<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">Finally, on the west wall an excellent depiction of Justinian:Finally, on the west wall an excellent depiction of Justinian: