Visiting Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna

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:

The Arian Baptistry in Ravenna

The Arian Baptistry is a small building in a courtyard near the Church of the Holy Spirit in Ravenna. It was built in the early 6th century by Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths who made Ravenna his capital after conquering much of Italy.

At one time the the whole of the interior must have been decorated with mosaics and frescoes. Many tons of tesserae were found underneath the baptistry after damage to the building during the last war. Today though the only part of the interior that is decorated is the dome and it is truly magnificent.

The central roundel of the dome mosaic depicts a beardless Christ standing naked in the River Jordan. On the right, standing on a rock is John the Baptist, holding a shepherd’s crook in his left hand and touching Christ’s head in blessing with his right hand. Over Christ’s head is a dove releasing a spray of water or pouring out the Holy Spirit on him.

Seated on the left of Christ is an old man, holding a reed (?) in his right hand, personifying the River Jordan. Next to him is an upturned water vessel and a pair of red crab claws pop out rather incongruously from behind the top of his head. He is a very pagan looking figure in an otherwise Christian iconographic setting.

Surrounding the roundel of Christ’s baptism is a procession of the Apostles, six moving clockwise and six anticlockwise. Both sets of Apostles are processing towards the throne of God, not occupied by a figure, but draped with a white garment (possibly a symbol of Christ’s suffering). On the throne lies a purple cushion surmounted by a cross also hung with a purple cloth.

All but two of the Apostles carry a crown of martyrdom in their cloth-covered hands, a sign of reverence.It is also a reference to the Byzantine court when servants used cloths to cover their hands as a sign of respect to the Emperors when presenting them with things.

The Apostles are separated by date palms, each slightly different from each other in design.

At the head of the two processions are St Paul on the left (not one of the original Apostles, but considered by the Church to be an equal of the Apostles) holding not a crown but two scrolls representing his epistles. On the right stands St Peter holding the keys of the Kingdom.

As I looked at the dome, I wondered how this mosaic expressed an Arian view of Christianity. Before the elaboration of the theology of the Trinity, Arius a 3rd -4th century priest in Alexandria developed the idea that Christ had been created by the Father and was therefore not co-eternal with him. Although it was condemned as heresy by the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, Arianism had a strong hold over the church and it was this sect of the church into which Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths was baptised.

I still cannot see how this belief is translated into the iconography.

To illustrate the lengths to which I go to get the right shots for this blog, I had to lay down on the floor of the baptistry to try and get the dome into my camera’s frame. This caused much amusement to some Italian visitors who passed me their cameras to take photos for them while I was down there. Jumping up unaided, I made a little bow of appreciation when they cheered me spontaneously.

Ravenna – the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

This squat building sits right next door to the much bigger and grander Church of San Vitale. Built of red brick, like all of Ravenna’s main churches, in the shape of a Latin cross, it gives no hint of its stunning mosaic-covered interior. Called the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia it was built in the middle of the 5th century AD and was originally attached to the portico of Church of Santa Croce whose bell tower can be seen in the background of the picture. The portico was removed in the early 17th century to make way for a road that now separates the two buildings.

Galla Placidia was the daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I and the mother of the emperor Valentinian III, acting for a several years as his regent. She died in 450 and was buried near the original Basilica of St Peter in Rome, not in this little church. Perhaps the church was used initially by the family as a memorial chapel in her name.

It takes a little while for your eyes to adjust to the dark interior  after the blinding Italian sunshine and then the first thing that strikes you is the richness of the colours in the mosaics; deep blue, gold, red and green. The unifying theme of the mosaics is salvation through Christ and eternal life. The main mosaic in the lunette facing the entrance depicts the martyrdom of St Lawrence:

The saint is shown carrying a martyr’s cross in one hand and an open gospel codex in the other

as he makes his way towards the gridiron, the instrument of his martyrdom, in the centre of the picture with the fire already burning beneath it:

To the left of the mosaic is an open cupboard ho;ding copies of the Gospels:

As a bookbinder, there are two things of particular note in this mosaic. The depiction of the books in this mosaic is rare visual evidence of codices with front flaps and leather ties, a distinctive form of eastern Mediterranean binding. Secondly, it is also rare to see books displayed on the shelves of a cupboard, with their fore edges facing out, exactly how books were stored on shelves in libraries in the medieval period.

The ceiling is covered with crosses in roundels against a rich deep blue and gold background, depicting the heavens. I can’t convey the impression they made in a single picture but they made me gasp when I looked up:

In the dome, where in later Byzantine churches you would expect to see the Pantokrator, is a simple cross against the rich colour of the sky. Symbolic representations of the four Evangelists are shown in the corners:

There are also depictions of the Apostles with doves and a fountain. The tops of the lunettes of the Apostles contain a shell design, sometimes found on Greek grave steles, symbolically signifying death. It also features in the famous mosaic of Theodora in the neighbouring church of San Vitale, perhaps indicating that the mosaic was completed after her death.

Two lunettes (only one included here) show deer by a pool with vegetal motifs, one said to represent spring, the other summer.

The detail of the glass tesserae mosaics is very rich and clearly required craftsmanship of the first order at a cost that could only be afforded by an Imperial family. It would be interesting to know where the craftsman came from.


These geometric patterns struck me having a very modern look:

There’s also a rich vein of vegetal motifs in the mosaics:

In the lunette over the entrance is a depiction of a beardless Christ as the Good Shepherd surrounded by the souls of the righteous, symbolised by sheep . I like the way the artists have shown all the sheep with their heads turned to look at Christ.

In the three niches at the intersections of the Latin cross are large marble sarcophagi. this one was claimed to be that of Galla Placidia:

and the other two were thought be be of Constantius and Honorius, though this may well just be myth:

The alabaster windows are not original but were a gift of Victor Emmanuel III in 1909.

One final feature to note is the pine cone on thew top of the church, another indication of a funerary monument.

Finally as you leave the grounds of the church there are two sarcophagi with similar Christian motifs to those inside the mausoleum.