Ravenna, S Apollinare Nuovo

Era 6AD
Location Via di Roma, 53, 48020 Ravenna RA, Italy

S Apollinare Nuovo is a three-aisled basilica, a luxurious and costly building, filled with marble columns, capitals, the chancel screen and ambo. It was located close to Theoderic’s palace and presumably Theoderic worshipped here: the imagery is often interpreted in terms of the connection between the church and the court. Only the mosaics of the walls survive, for the original apse collapsed in an earthquake in the eighth century and there is no record of what was depicted there.

The mosaics of the nave are set in three zones, which match each other across the church. The highest levels depict scenes from the life of Christ alternating with shell niches with doves and crosses: on the north side are thirteen miracle and parable scenes from Christ’s mission My favourite is the scene of the Gaderene swine, hurling themselves into the sea); on the south side, scenes of Christ’s Passion, from the Last Supper to the Doubting of Thomas (though without the flagellation and crucifixion). The second level on both sides shows sixteen standing male figures, who may be prophets or Biblical authors or members of a heavenly court – nothing identifies them. The mosaics of both of these registers are Theoderic’s and probably date to the 520s.

Below them, however, the lowest level has been changed. What it originally depicted is unknown. What it now shows are two saintly processions. On the north wall twenty two female saints emerge from the port of Classe and advance towards an enthroned Virgin and Child who are flanked by angels and adored by the Magi. On the south wall, twenty six male saints come out from the city of Ravenna from a building labelled as Palatium, ‘Palace’, and parade towards Christ. Alterations are most obvious in the mosaic of the Palace. Detached hands and arms are apparent on several of the pillars. These must once have been part of the depiction of standing figures, perhaps in orant positions with their arms stretched up and out, in what are now spaces between the pillars filled by knotted curtains and gold tesserae.

Most plausibly these figures were the king and his household, and it is likely that they were removed – for political reasons - when Ravenna became both a Byzantine and an Orthodox city in the late sixth century. Agnellus seems to have been the archbishop responsible, some twenty years after the Byzantine capture of Ravenna, for the replacement of mosaics in S Apollinare Nuovo and the rededication of that church to St Martin, a particularly efficacious anti-Arian saint. In his processions of male and female saints, only three are singled out: Martin, the leader of the men, and dedicatee of the church, through his purple cloak; Laurence at number four, in gold; and Agnes at number four for the women, who has a lamb at her feet. The women are led by Euphemia of Chalcedon, plausibly a reference to the anti-Arian Council of Chalcedon. But the reasons for why these forty-eight specific saints were chosen (all are labelled) is not known. The Magi, added between the Virgin and the saints, may perhaps be constructed as a Trinitarian, and thus anti-Arian, reference, though images of the Magi were generally popular in Christian iconography. How far Agnellus’s replacements were political (a removal and damning of Theoderic) and how far religious (anti-Arian and pro-Orthodox) is uncertain but the seizure and re-identification of the church reflects the political, religious, and cultural transformations of Ravenna itself. The heretical barbarian Theoderic’s church was ‘converted’ into Byzantine and Orthodox space through a series of secular and religious moves, from the legal transfer of ownership to a liturgy of reconsecration, the rededication of the basilica under a new name, and the removal of unsuitable images. This process was a sort of damnatio memoriae, left deliberately visible to those who looked hard enough, by which Agnellus and the Byzantine exarch sought to disparage, rather than to eradicate, the memory of their Ostrogoth rivals in Ravenna. But it took them long enough – twenty years - to get around to it.

The idea of narrative scenes high on the church walls is one that is found in Rome (they survive in S Maria Maggiore in the form of Old Testament scenes with Christian overtones). At S Apollinare Nuovo, the scenes focus on Christ, showing him as miracle worker and as the bringer of salvation. Intriguingly, the Ministry scenes do not occur in their New Testament order, whilst the Passion cycle moves from east to west. Sometimes the scenes clearly pair across the aisle: the two scenes immediately flanking the apse are the Wedding at Cana and the Last Supper which both reflect Eucharistic elements. In His Ministry, Christ is shown beardless, but at his Passion, bearded. Although the iconography of the mosaics is not unusual and can be seen across a range of media, much scholarly effort has gone into seeking a specifically Arian theology in the images, most notably in the context of this changing facial hair. It has all been remarkably inconclusive. Both bearded and beardless Christs are found in Orthodox imagery and attempts to suggest a doctrinal meaning for the shift remain unconvincing. Furthermore, though images of Christ may have carried an Arian element, perhaps through showing Christ the son of God working miracles redolent of his divinity, Orthodox Christians would also have seen in them the Incarnate Christ, son of Mary. As with the mosaics of the Arian Baptistery, these scenes of Christ clearly did not offend their Orthodox audience for, unlike whatever was going on in the lowest register, they remained untouched by sixth-century hands. Indeed, the changes made to the lowest level of mosaics in the later sixth century reflect, in their removal of probable images of the king, the changing political situation.

On the back west wall is a detached panel - an emperor's head. He is usually identified as Justinian (in older age), mainly because that's the easiest thing to do. We don't know for sure who he is, what date he is or where he originally came from.


Arianism (theological detour) Arianism was yet another theological dispute, Trinitarian rather than about the nature of Christ, though the two are inevitably related, and this time dating originally to the fourth century. Arius, a priest of Alexandria (d.336) proposed that Christ was a creation of God the Father, rather than his son born of Mary. So rather than a co-equal Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit, God the Father was the superior figure and the Holy Spirit was created by Christ and/or God. It was a very popular belief held by several emperors including Constantine the Great’s son, Constantius, increasingly accepted in Italy and the Balkans, especially by the ‘barbarians’, but condemned by the first Church Council of Constantinople in 381.

Theoderic: Ostrogoth and Arian. The fifth century saw the slow fragmentation of the Roman Empire in the West into a series of barbarian kingdoms maintaining greater or lesser aspects of Roman rule and cultural traditions. In the early sixth century, the most successful and powerful of these barbarian kings was Theoderic the Ostrogoth. He had spent a long time both as a child and a young man, as hostage and then favoured imperial official in Constantinople, even becoming consul under the late fifth-century emperor, Zeno. This exposure to the Eastern Roman Empire and his familiarity with the ways in which its emperors ruled seem to have influenced his own construction of authority. Theoderic returned to the Ostrogoths, becoming king in 488, and invaded Italy with Byzantine encouragement. Odoacer, who had deposed the last Western Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, and who called himself King of Italy, was defeated and killed in Ravenna by Theoderic in 493, leaving Theoderic as effectively leader of the remains of the Western Roman Empire, or what was actually the kingdom of the Ostrogoths. By the time of his death in 526, Theoderic was recognised as king in both Rome and Byzantium and his kingdom was a considerable one, taking in Italy, Sicily, the Western Balkans, and Spain, as well as having dynastic connections and influences across the different kingdoms in Europe - the Burgundians, Visigoths, Vandals and Franks. Under much of Theoderic’s rule, Italy prospered as he enforced peace and collected taxes.

Theoderic made Ravenna his main residence, and centred the administrative system of the kingdom, based on imperial bureaucracy, in the city. As a result, Ravenna became even more important, wealthy and populous, growing in size to perhaps 10,000, its greatest extent, and filled with a range of new buildings supplementing those of the previous century, from palaces and walls to aqueducts and granaries. Like many of the Christian barbarians who invaded Italy, he was an Arian Christian, and like the Orthodox Christian emperors in Rome and Constantinople, Theoderic built churches throughout his city. Symbolically, on its coins and in its mosaics, Ostrogothic Ravenna was compared to Rome and to Constantinople, until Theoderic’s dynasty came to an end in 540. It is clear that Theoderic’s building programme in Ravenna intended to promote a public image of the king as renovator, as the successor of the Roman emperors and as creator of a royal capital modelled on but also equal to Constantinople and Rome.

Theoderic’s mosaics in Ravenna underline these aspects of his rule and his romanitas. As previous emperors had in both the West and in Constantinople, he utilized mosaic in a secular context. In his palace in Ravenna was a mosaic showing the king paired with personifications of Rome and Ravenna. His mausoleum (in Ravenna) too may have contained mosaic, in the tradition of that imperial use of the medium.

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