The art essay

Apse Mosaic of Saint Apollinaris (548–549) by Unknown

Little remains of the ancient village of Classe that would suggest its once grand status as a premier port for the Roman navy. Yet, set amidst the fields expanding to its north and surrounded by a small entourage of umbrella pines and cypress trees, the antique Basilica of Sant’Apollinare invites the reflective visitor to a moment of nostalgic meditation and contemplative wonderment. Passing through the shadowed narthex into the expansive basilica, the pilgrim’s eyes and heart are dilated by the airy and luminous space therein. In this solemn interior, the eye is gently moved forward by the undulating rhythm of the arcaded colonnades delineating the nave. The space is defined by more than just the visible architecture of the relatively simple basilica: it is enlivened by the invisible light pouring in from the arched windows perforating the basilica walls. Glowing in the midst of the nave, washing the red brick walls with warm hues, this light achieves its most dazzling display glittering across the mosaic of the apse calotte (niche) where Saint Apollinaris stands as celestial intercessor and witness to Christ’s radiant glory in the Transfiguration. Apse Mosaic of Saint Apollinaris (548–549), artist unknown, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare, Classe, Italy.


The apostle and the emperor

 Having reclaimed Ravenna in 540 from the occupying Ostrogoths, the Emperor Justinian began his project of refashioning an orthodox Western empire. After the fall of Rome in 476 to Odoacer, the West had been menaced by the heresy of Arianism, wherein Christ was professed as merely a celestial creature, not God. Appointed by the emperor as Archbishop of Ravenna, Maximian had been charged with the task of reinvigorating true Christian faith in the Incarnate Son. This “re-Christianization” of the West would be accomplished by the transformation of the seat of imperial power—Ravenna—into a beacon of the Faith. This could not be achieved merely through creeds and formulas: rather, the emperor and the archbishop sought to rekindle the flames of faith by fostering popular devotion through sacred art. A 6th-century legend, the Passio Sancti Apollinaris, recounts the life and martyrdom of Saint Apollinaris, the first Archbishop of Ravenna, whose burial site was just southeast of the city near the blossoming port of Classe. The legend of Apollinaris burgeoned into popular devotion, and the cult of this great saint increased in importance. According to the Passio, Apollinaris was born in the city of Antioch, and there he served as presbyter beside his bishop, Saint Peter the Apostle. Together they came to Rome, where they ministered to the early Christians in the Eternal City: and it was by the command of Peter that Apollinaris received his mandatum to bring the Gospel to the city of Ravenna. After many years of eloquent preaching and devoted service to his flock, Apollinaris—the “apostle to Ravenna”—was denounced to Emperor Vespasian as a Christian. While preparing for exile, he was seized by the pagan priests of the city and severely beaten, dying from his wounds a few days later, a martyr for the Faith.


The Transfiguration in paradise

 Dedicated by Maximian in May 549, the basilica in Classe served two principal purposes: first, to connect the faith of Ravenna to its apostolic origins through Apollinaris, whose tomb lay nearby; second, to convey an orthodox vision of Christ. It is by the apse mosaic that these two themes are most poignantly conveyed. The apse calotte is disposed in two registers. In the upper register, a bejeweled cross is circumscribed by a blue orb, speckled with stars and set against a celestial gold background. Such jeweled crosses, as in the Church of Santa Pudenziana in Rome, recall the second coming of Christ in glory. This eschatological theme is reinforced by the inscriptions above and below the cross: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior,” in Greek, and “Salvation of the World,” in Latin. On either side of the crossbeam are written the letters Alpha and Omega, hailing Christ, the beginning and the end, the Creator and Re-Creator of man. The eschatological overtones of this crux gemmata meld into a unique depiction of the biblical scene of the Transfiguration, which forms the narrative context of the mosaic. Here, Christ manifests his divine majesty and glory from the cross. Flanking the cross are Moses and Elijah, each surrounded by clouds indicating angelic and heavenly realities. From the zenith of the apse, the hand of the Father descends in benediction, recalling from the Gospel his thunderous announcement: This is my beloved Son. Below unfolds a tapestry of variegated verdant hues, lushly described vegetation, and playful animal life. Evergreen trees—typical of the landscape of Emilia-Romagna and symbolic of eternal life—and the mossy rocks provide a natural symmetry to the scene. Resounding with further eschatological themes, this fruitful paradise subtly communicates with the  © Luisa Ricciarini / Leemage. VI Transfiguration depicted above through the gaze of the three sheep, representing the Apostles privy to this epiphany—Peter, James, and John.


Divine light in human flesh


At the center of the lower register, donning his episcopal pallium and a chasuble decorated with bees (symbolizing eloquence), Apollinaris stands with hands raised in the orans position, the priestly posture in offering the sacrifice of the Eucharist. He is surrounded by twelve sheep, representative of the entire flock of the faithful he dutifully shepherds. Though dead to this world, the apostle to Ravenna lives in the midst of paradise: illuminated by the light of Christ, True God manifest in the Transfiguration, Apollinaris remains a powerful intercessor for his see. As the natural light flooding the basilica glitters over the tiles of the mosaic, the divine, eschatological light of Christ shines forth, gleaming in the bejeweled cross and reflected brilliantly in the prayerful intercession of Saint Apollinaris. Though the human countenance of the Lord is scarcely described in the Transfiguration scene, the flesh of Apollinaris becomes the locus for Christ’s divine light to illuminate the faithful of Ravenna. In gazing upon his visage, the viewer is invited to contemplate with the eye of his heart the true light, which enlightens everyone (Jn 1:9), the Incarnate Son, to whom Saint Apollinaris is so exemplarily conformed.

Father Garrett Ahlers Former student of patrology and ancient Christian art in Rome

Apse Mosaic of Saint Apollinaris (548–549), artist unknown, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare, Classe, Italy.  © Luisa Ricciarini / Leemage.