Ravenna: In search of Byzantine mosaics – Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and in Classe

Saint Apollinaris is said to have brought Christianity to Ravenna in the 1st century. Two basilicas are named after him, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and Sant’Apollinare in Classe. “Nuovo” is the older church, already inaugurated in 504 as an ostrogothic Arian Basilica dedicated to Christ the Redeemer. Under Byzantine rule, this church became othodox-catholic, and in the 9th century the relics of Saint Apollinaris were transferred from Classe to Sant’Apollinare Nuovo – hence called “nuovo”. The original Basilica for Saint Apollinaris was built in Classe, near the port. It was consecrated in 549 by Maximian, when Ravenna was under Byzantine rule. Both basilicas are just wonderful – let us dicsover them.

But first let us recap again: In March 2018 we spent five days in Ravenna to see the town with its eight sites of UNESCO World Heritage:

  • two from the Western Roman Empire (402-476): the Mausoleum Galla Placidia and the Orthodox or Neonian Baptistery.
  • four from the Ostrogothic Rule (493-540): Theoderic’s Mausoleum, the Arian Baptistery, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (remodeled during Byzantine times) and the Archbishop’s Chapel.
  • two from the Byzantine Rule (540-751): San Vitale and Sant’Apollinare in Classe (both started during Ostrogoth times, but inaugurated in Byzantine times).


Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

Yes, the older of the two basilicas named after Saint Apollinaris is called “Nuovo”. This is the view from outside. The bell tower is round with the typical double and triple windows. The narthex has been added later.

Inside the basilica measures 35mx21m. The nave is flanked with two rows of twelve columns in Greek marble. The mosaics are above the columns.

On the left hand side women martyrs are walking towards…

… Maria and Jesus with the three Magi.

On the right hand side, martyrs are walking towards Christ sitting on his throne and flanked by four angels.

It is assumed that the processions of the martyrs have been added by the Byzantines. The former decoration of the Arians was different, perhaps a line of courtiers.

Above the processions are 26 panels that describe the life of Christ (13 on each side). The example below shows the healing of the lame and the separation of the sheep from the bucks.

Most interesting is this Last Supper. Christ and the apostles are lying on long chairs as the Romans used to do for their meals. Never before have I seen such a “Roman” Last Supper. But why not? Why should the apostles and Christ not have behaved like the Romans, when eating?

Ursula and Leni intepret each of the 26 panels. It is like reading the Bible, and I have to admit, I read the stories from the Bible like people did at that time. With such beautiful mosaics it is a great pleasure to discover them and to enjoy, how the artists made the essence clear. For instance, a lame that carries his bed on his back has just been healed – it is simple and clear.


Sant’Apollinare in Classe

On a sunny day, we take out our car and drive south to Classe, the ancient port of Ravenna. Here we find the basilica originally dedicated to Saint Apollinaris, namely Sant’Apollinare in Classe.

The nave is even larger, 55.5mx30.5m. The mosaic is in the choir.

It shows Christ, symbolized by a cross. The cross is flanked by two angels. Below the cross stands Saint Apollinaris that the church has been dedicated for. He is preaching and talking to the audience in the church and to the sheep surrounding him on the meadow. Stones, trees, bushes, flowers and birds surround the Saint.

In the middle of the cross, there is a small portrait of Christ.

The evangelists are flying above the scene. I am surprised to see the bull of Lukas: It is portrayed from the side and from the front at the same time – very much like a Picasso painting. May be that Picasso has visited this Basilica as a young man?

The lion of Mark looks very, very gentle, but may be this is what his evangelium is about… a story that should convey joy.

At the side we find three old acquaintances that we have come across in San Vitale: Abel sacrifying a sheep, Abraham about to sacrify his son Isaac and Melchisedec bringing wine and bread.

Beautiful, beautiful, just beautiful.


Taking a break from all that culture

After all that culture we need a break and we benefit from the fact that the sun has started to warm Northern Italy. We drive to Fosso Ghaia and go for a walk in the pine forest.

Then we drive to the Lidos or the beaches south of Ravenna. They are empty, empty and just empty. One lonely man is raking the sand. If he continues at that speed, he will never complete his work until Easter in about four weeks, when the first guests are expected and the beaches start to fill up with lines of arm chairs and umbrellas. I cannot imagine the crowd looking at this empty sand beach.

We find just one (only one) restaurant open. It is full with craftsmen. They may be repairing the many holiday chalets and appartments that have their shutters closed right now.

Back in Ravenna we have a farewell dinner in the restaurant Capello, where I can also buy wines from the Emilia Romagna. I take with me Sangiovese, Lambrusco and Albana. The area is known for excellent food. Names like Parma (ham and cheese), Modena (vinaigre) or Bologna (spaghetti sauce) are resonating with me. And there is also more culture to see here. Perhaps I should plan to return soon…

Clementina Rizzardi: “Ravenna, Eight Monuments World Heritage”, Municipality of Ravenna
Carola Jäggi: Ravenna, “Kunst und Kultur einer spätantiken Residenzstadt”, Schnell+Steiner, Regensburg 2016
Jutta Dresken-Weiland: “Die frühchristlichen Mosaike von Ravenna”, Schnell+Steiner, Regensburg 2016.

2 thoughts on “Ravenna: In search of Byzantine mosaics – Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and in Classe

  1. Great post and pictures!

  2. peterspetra says:

    Thank you, Valérie, Petra

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