Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Basilica of St Apollinaris in Classe

On the calendar of the Extraordinary Form, today is the feast of St Apollinaris, bishop and martyr. The traditional story of his life states that he accompanied St Peter from Antioch to Rome, was appointed by him to be the first bishop of Ravenna, a small city of the northern Italian region now called the Emilia-Romagna; after various persecutions and exiles, he was martyred in the reign of the Emperor Vespasian, ca. 79 AD. This story is not regarded as historically reliable, and his feast was removed from the general calendar in 1969; in the most recent revision of the Missal, however, he was put back, but on July 20th, since his traditional feast day is now occupied by St Bridget of Sweden, who died on this day in 1373.

In the late 5th century, Ravenna was the capital of the Ostrogothic Kings, after they had definitively overthrown the Roman Emperor of the West in 476. It was subsequently retaken by the Eastern Roman Empire, and became the seat of the Byzantine governor of Italy, known as the Exarch of Ravenna, until the mid-8th century. Several Christian monuments survive from this period, including two churches dedicated to St Apollinaris. The older of these is not in Ravenna itself, but the nearby city of Classe, an important commercial and military port; in antiquity, Classe was directly on the sea, but due to the silting-up of the Adriatic coast, it is now more than 5½ miles inland.

The façade and bell-tower.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Gerd Eichmann, CC BY-SA 4.0
The apsidal mosaic of the church is one of the best preserved examples of early Byzantine work in Italy, dating to the mid-6th century. St Apollinaris is represented in the lower middle, wearing a stole and with his hands raised in prayer. At the very top, Christ Himself is shown, as He is in many early Christian images, with six sheep to either side of Him, emerging from the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. These represent the twelve Apostles, of course, and the representation of Apollinaris in similar company is probably intended to remind the viewer of his close connection to the Apostolic era, and therefore also of the antiquity of the see of Ravenna. (Click to enlarge.)

Image from Wikimedia Commons by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro; CC BY-SA 4.0
The face of Christ is placed at the center of the Cross, with Moses and Elijah to either side; the three sheep (two to the right, one to the left) represent the Apostles Peter, James and John. This is therefore a symbolic representation of the Transfiguration, the moment at which Christ revealed His Divinity to His Apostles for the first time, foreshadowing the glory of His Resurrection, which can only come through the suffering of the Cross.
Image from Wikimedia Commons by Pequod 76, CC BY-SA 3.0
A closer view of St Apollinaris.
The following images by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro are all taken from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Below the apse to the right, this image of the sacrifices of Abel, Melchisedek and Abraham was added in the mid-7th century; this motif is taken from the Basilica of St Vitalis in Ravenna itself.
On the opposite side, the Emperor Constantine IV (652-85) is shown granting the privileges of an Imperial envoy to the archbishop of Ravenna. The golden halo originally meant simply that the figure wearing it was important, without reference to holiness, and was still used in this way at the time the mosaic was made.
Between the windows below the apse are represented four archbishop of Ravenna: St Ecclesius,
St Severus,
St Ursus, whose name means ‘bear’,
and St Ursicinus, whose name means ‘little bear’.
To the left of the apse, the archangel Michael.

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