The Mosaics of the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna

The mosaics found in Sant'Apollinare Nuovo always bring particular interest. Many may not be aware that the basilica was originally constructed for the Arians by the Ostrogothic King, Theodoric, in the year 505. However, after the city was conquered by the Emperor Justinian it was repurposed to Catholic use and, at the time, consecrated anew and dedicated to St. Martin of Tours, then later being re-dedicated to St. Apollinare. 

The mosaics that are left to us today line the central nave and are found in an upper and lower band. The upper band, which depicts saints and Old Testament prophets, are original to Theodoric's time, but as the lower band contained a number of depictions that were Arian in nature, these were removed and new mosaics were put in their place under Justinian's rule. 

It is this lower band, which depicts holy virgins processing toward the Blessed Virgin on one side and martyrs processing toward Christ on the other, that generally excites the most interest, no doubt in part because of their impressive and unique scale as well as the sense of movement and procession that they do indeed invoke, leading us -- pictorially -- from the city and port of Ravenna toward the Heavenly City of Christ and -- architecturally -- leading us from the narthex to the altar. While it is not uncommon to see groupings of martyrs of course, the number and the way in which they are depicted here is rather more unique and certainly quite striking. 

Regrettably the original mosaics of the apse and triumphal arch were destroyed in an earthquake and we have lost the medieval altar and presbyterium.

As noted, the procession of the holy virgins and martyrs terminates in the figures of the Blessed Virgin and Christ respectively, both enthroned and robed in Byzantine royal dress and both flanked by a pair of angels to either side.  That of the Virgin also includes a depiction of the Epiphany with the Three Magi following the Star of Bethlehem and bearing their respective gifts for the Christ Child. 

The martyrs -- led by St. Martin of Tours who is shown wearing his distinctive cloak -- are shown wearing white togas, carrying their laurel-crowns of victory with palm trees separating each martyr from the others -- the crowns and palms being symbols of martyrdom of course. They walk on a field of green that is punctuated by flowers. Above each are inscribed their respective names.

The same general schema occurs with respect to the holy virgins who are dressed in the Byzantine courtly dress of the period -- which is hardly a surprise as this lower band of mosaics was executed during a period of strong Byzantine influence in the region. 

As we commented, these figures are all processing from the city of Ravenna toward the Heavenly City, with Ravenna being represented by its port to one side, the palace of Theodoric on the other. 

The port of Ravenna - Ravenna was at one time an important port city

Detail of the palace

The upper band, as noted, are earlier and contain figures of saints and prophets of the Old Testament set between the windows of the nave, and above these figures is a third band showing smaller scenes taken from the life of Christ -- miracles and parables to one side, scenes from the Passion and Resurrection on the other.

Certainly these mosaics are one of the great treasures of both Christendom and civilization generally.

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