Friday, July 23, 2021

The Basilica of St Apollinaris in Classe (Part 1)

Today is the feast of St Apollinaris, bishop and martyr, who according to a tradition which is not considered historically reliable, was a personal disciple of St Peter, and accompanied him from Antioch to Rome. The Apostle sent him north from Rome to be the first bishop of the small city of Ravenna in the Emilia-Romagna region; after various persecutions and exiles, he was martyred in the reign of the Emperor Vespasian, ca. 79 AD. In the late 5th century, Ravenna was the capital of the Ostrogothic Kings, who had 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; over the next few weeks, we will be sharing Nicola’s photos of these monuments, taken during a recent visit. (Earlier this month, we did the nearby abbey of Pomposa in three parts: part 1, part 2, part 3.)

The older of these two churches is not in Ravenna itself, but the nearby city of Classe, a bit more than 3 miles to the south-southeast, and once an important commercial and military port; in antiquity, it was directly on the sea, but due to the silting-up of the Adriatic coast, it is now more than 5½ miles inland. The church was consecrated in 549, and like all churches of its age, has undergone numerous alterations, the most significant being the loss of all the mosaics in the central nave and side aisles. The apse mosaic, however, is still quite well preserved, and justifiably one of the most famous examples from the early Byzantine period. The narthex was added onto the original brick façade in the 9th century.
The circular bell-tower, which stands at over 124 feet, was also built in the 9th-century. Notice how the window space increases as it rises, which decreases the weight of each stage.
The apsidal mosaic, with the Cross in the center on a blue background to represent heaven. Instead of Christ in His glory and majesty, only His face appears within a small medallion in the middle of the Cross, an expression of the humility with which He accepted the Passion. The prophets Moses and Elijah appear in the sky to either side, while the three sheep near the circle represent the Apostles Peter, James and John. These are the five witnesses to the Transfiguration, which, as the Church Fathers explain, took place to prepare the Apostles for the Passion. At the bottom, St Apollinaris himself is shown with a chasuble and pallium; the sheep to either side of him represent the faithful of Ravenna.
In the lower band are shown (left to right): the Archangel Michael and the Apostle Matthew; the Roman Emperor Constantine IV with the clergy of Ravenna; four bishops of Ravenna; Abel, Melchisedek and Abraham (in a single panel, a reference to the mention of them in the Supra quae propitio of the Canon); St Gabriel and another, unidentified Saint. Closer photos of all of these are given below.
On the arch above the apse, Christ the Pantocrator, the symbols of the Four Evangelists, and two holy cities, Jerusalem and Bathelehem, with six sheep walking out of each one, representing the Twelve Apostles. 
“as Thou deigned to accept the gifts of Thy just servant Abel, and the sacrifice of our Patriarch Abraham, and that which Thy high priest Melchisedek offered to Thee, a holy sacrifice, and immaculate victim.” This panel and the one opposite are both of the 7th century, roughly contemporary with the earliest textual witnesses to the Canon of the Mass. The sacrifices of these Old Testament figures are, of course, referred to as prefigurations of the Sacrifice of the Mass well before then by the Church Fathers.
The Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV (668-85) confers the privileges of an Imperial envoy on 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. This panel is also of the 7th century, but has been very heavily restored.
The Archangel Michael and St Matthew; these panels and the ones shown in the next photo were added in the early 12th century, very likely to replace earlier versions of the same motifs.
The Archangel Gabriel and an unidentified Saint.
Between the windows below the apse are represented four archbishops of Ravenna, Ss Ecclesius and Severus...
Ursus, whose name means “bear”, and “Ursinus” whose name means “little bear.”
The altar in the middle of the nave is the place where St Romuald (950 ca. - 1025 ca.), the great monastic reformer and founder of the Camaldolese Order, was praying when St Apollinaris appeared to him in a vision, and confirmed his call to the monastic life.
An altar at the head of the left side aisle, dedicated to St Eleucadius, the successor-but-one of Apollinaris as bishop of Ravenna.

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