Sant'Apollinare is one of the most significant sites of Byzantine art in Italy, not only because of its history but also due to the remarkable preservation of its nave mosaics—one of only two churches in the world still having its nave mosaics intact. The basilica-planned church originated in the early 6th century under the patronage of the Ostrogoth king Theodoric, whose palace was situated to the south. On the south wall towards the west end, the mosaics depict the imperial palace. In the 560s, Byzantine Emperor Justinian assumed control of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo and undertook renovations to the interior. This included alterations to the wall mosaics, likely aimed at removing any Arian associations tied to the church. The processional figures, probably added by Justinian, replaced Arian or Theodoric-associated imperial imagery.
On the south wall, the imperial palace is represented, visibly modified from its original form. Initially, human figures occupied the rounded archways. Upon close inspection of some columns, remnants of hands can still be discerned. A procession of male martyrs runs along the wall, leading to Christ enthroned and surrounded by four angels. The martyrs hold crowns of victory and are set within a green landscape partitioned by palm trees. The 26 male martyrs are led at the front by a depiction of Saint Martin, to whom the church was rededicated.
A similar iconographic program is replicated on the North wall. At the west end, a cityscape of Classe, the port town of Ravenna, unfolds. A procession of female martyrs, mirroring that of the male martyrs on the opposite wall, can be seen. The figures are also depicted holding crowns and are surrounded by the same green landscape and palm trees with a gold background. The procession of these 22 female figures is led by the three magi towards the virgin enthroned, with a Christ child in her lap, and surrounded by four angels.
Above the processional figures, on either side, another frieze can be seen. Each of these figures, holding either books or scrolls, is interrupted by the windows of the church. It is unknown exactly who these figures are supposed to depict, but they are considered to be saints, prophets, or evangelists.
The separation of processional male figures on the right and females on the left (when facing the apse) aligns with the way that men and women would have been separated during the church services. This is not the only way that the mosaics would have mirrored the functions of the church. Above the frieze of figures and windows, small scenes of the life of Christ can be seen. The scenes are depicted symbolically, but one in which anyone would be able to identify the story that each image conveys.
The mosaic furthest towards the east end of the church, next to the apse, is a depiction of the Last Supper. The positioning of this image, closest to the apse, is reflective of the Eucharist, which would have been received at this end of the church. In the mosaic, we can see Christ seated at a table with twelve apostles. The table is situated with two large fish in the center and loaves of bread around them. Christ is shown to be significantly larger than the other figures in this scene while dressed in imperial purple, pointing to his importance.
Credit & Support
Anastasia Garvey '24
Kaden Levitt '24
Number of Photographs