Ravenna, S Apollinare in Classe

Era 6AD
Location Via Romea Sud, 224, 48124 Classe RA, Italy

Get the bus out from Ravenna to Classe, a few kilometres to the east. This used to be the port of the city (it is pictured on the north wall of S Apollinare Nuovo, with the female saints processing our from it), though the lie of the land has now changed. The bus (if you get the right one) will drop you outside S Apollinare in Classe.

This is a large basilica church, built by Bishop Maximian (the bishop pictured in S Vitale in Ravenna), and consecrated in 549. Filled with gorgeous Proconnesian columns, capitals and slabs, imported but carved on site, the building is wonderfully light and airy. Only the mosaic of the apse and triumphal arch/apse arch now survive, but there was almost certainly mosaic on the nave walls.

In the apse, in the middle of a landscape with flowers, trees, rocks and animals, stands the name-saint, Apollinaris, wearing a white tunic with a purple robe over the top, lavishly ornamented with gold spade motifs, his pallium looped around his shoulders, arms raised in an orans pose, the shepherd of his flock, as six sheep (the total of twelve may signify the apostles) approach him on either side. Above him in the blue sky is a huge elaborate jewelled cross with a little bust of Christ (bearded) in the centre; to either side of the cross are figures identified by inscriptions as Moses and Elijah; three sheep (Peter, James and John, the witnesses to the event) look hopefully up at the apparition. It is the Transfiguration of Christ, the New Testament moment when Christ appeared in his divinity to three select apostles. But it is a very unusual rendition of the scene (I’ve often used: ‘The apse of S Apollinare in Classe and the apse of St Catherine’s on Mt Sinai: compare and contrast’ as an exam question). It’s a mixture of the symbolic (Christ as jewelled cross; apostles as sheep) and the irrelevant (the presence of S Apollinaris) that gives the scene resonances of both the Crucifixion and the Second Coming, as well as celebrating the church’s own local name saint. Below the Transfiguration, in the spaces between the windows in the apse, Maximian carefully selected four Ravennate bishops, thus offering an excerpted history of the bishopric back to Apollinaris. Apollinaris was reputedly the first bishop of Ravenna and Maximian’s church was built at the site of his shrine. The bishop-saint is shown in liturgical vestments – the pallium, the dangling white scarf around his neck, was a part of the accoutrements needed for the celebration of the Mass; furthermore, it was in the gift of the pope and only those permitted by him could wear it. His presence in the centre of the curve, below the Transfigured/Crucified Christ, but looking down on the altar where his successors (especially Maximian) celebrated the Liturgy in his presence was surely a very powerful statement of the God-given piety of Ravenna and its bishops, four of whom were located below and to either side of Apollinaris.

The church was continuously refurbished throughout its history. On the Triumphal arch, the mosaics have been restored (perhaps in the seventh or the ninth century or even the twelfth, and certainly in the nineteenth) and it is unclear how far what is there now replicates what was there in the sixth century. The imagery now visible, a bearded Christ in the centre approached by twelve sheep emerging through red and blue clouds from the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem and escorted by the evangelists’ symbols (Matthew = man; Mark = lion; Luke = ox; John = eagle), is not dissimilar to elements from SS Cosmas and Damian in Rome or from elsewhere in Ravenna. Below this are palm trees (very early twentieth-century restorations) and images of two archangels (believed to be sixth century).

Below the apse and the images of the four bishops of Ravenna installed by Maximian in the sixth century are two seventh-century panels on the outermost walls. The first echoes the well-known mosaic panel from S Vitale in Ravenna, showing an emperor and his court, the archbishop next to him, receiving a scroll labelled ‘Privileges’ from the emperor. To the viewer’s left of the emperor, two further haloed figures (whose bodies have been entirely restored) may represent part of the imperial entourage. That the scene shows a gift to the church of Ravenna seems clear, but the actual event and actual figures remain less certain. The emperor may be the Byzantine emperor Constantine IV and the bishop of Ravenna, Reparatus (671-77); he may be the Byzantine emperor Constans II and Bishop Maurus, with Reparatus being the (not shown) patron of the image. In 666, Constans had granted Ravenna independence from the Roman church and Bishop Reparatus was very active in a number of political events: the scene may have been perceived as an amalgamation of all of these. As a mosaic, however, although it highlighted Ravenna as the capital of the Byzantine exarchate, it also emphasised the status of the church in Ravenna, and especially its bishop, granted privileges by the emperor himself. The second panel also makes reference to S Vitale, in this instance to the south tympanum. It depicts Abel and Melchisedek sacrificing at an altar in the presence of Abraham and Isaac. In contrast to S Vitale, the priest Melchisedek is the central figure, more than hinting at the bishop presiding at the altar located in front of these panels. Indeed, the apse at Classe throughout its programme succeeds in highlighting the importance of the bishop of Ravenna, for he performed the liturgy immediately below it and would almost certainly have stood at some point directly below Apollinaris, who himself stands below Christ.

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