A day in Ravenna can be so amazing……I was there once before, when my daughter was a little girl with her schoolmates and teachers, but I didn’t truly enjoy the visit. This time it was different….
This basilica was built by Theodoric sometime after 500 AD as an Arian cathedral dedicated to Christ; it was converted into a Catholic church dedicated to St. Martin around 560. The dedication was changed again in the 9th century to St. Apollinare, first bishop of Ravenna, when the saint’s relics were moved here from Sant’Apollinare in Classe for protection from pirate raids. The basilica’s present name, the “New Basilica of St. Apollinaris,” does not mean it is newer than its namesake in Classe – it is actually several decades older. Instead, the “Nuovo” was added to distinguish it from another church of St. Apollinaris in the city, which has since disappeared.The apse of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was originally covered in mosaics like the walls, but these were unfortunately removed during 16th century renovations. The present apse and porch date from the 16th and 18th centuries. Along with other ancient monuments in Ravenna, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995. The advisory body remarked, “Both the exterior and the interior of the basilica graphically illustrate the fusion between the western and eastern styles characteristic of the late 5th-early 6th century. This is one of the most important buildings from this period of crucial cultural significance in European religious art.”
The interior of the church measures 138 by 69 feet and contains 24 marble columns from Constantinople. Greek monograms can be seen in many of the capitals; these are markers of the workshops in which they were made. The present floor level is four feet higher than the original height, which occurred during restorations at the beginning of the 16th century. The walls of the nave and clerestory are covered in glittering mosaics from the early 6th century AD. Some of them date from the Arian period under Theodoric (496-526), including the 26 panels depicting scenes from the life of Christ, the large portrait of Christ enthroned, and the depictions of Theodoric’s palace in Ravenna and the port at Classe.
The remaining mosaics – the standing prophets, processions of saints, the Three Magi, and the large Virgin and Child – date from the Catholic period around 560 AD. At this time the palace of Theodoric and port of Classe were severely altered to remove all portraits of the Arian Gothic rulers. The top row of mosaics on both walls depict scenes from the life of Christ as described in the New Testament. These are among the oldest mosaics in the church, dating from Theodoric’s time (493-526). Although they were commissioned for an Arian congregation, the subjects are similar to those depicted in orthodox Byzantine art. However, there are some notable differences: the Arian mosaics show a traditional Roman artistic style; they represent Christ naturalistically; and they leave out the Crucifixion. However, other scenes from the Passion and Resurrection are included. The cruciform halo around Christ’s head in each scene is almost certainly a Catholic addition – it overlaps awkwardly with other figures in some examples. Amazingly, all the biblical mosaic panels are original and unaltered save two: the Miracle at Cana was much altered during a poor restoration in the 19th century; and the Healing of the Paralytic was fully restored after damage from an Austrian bomb in 1916. The latter, however, was painstakingly restored to its original appearance using photographs taken before the damage. At least two artists carried out these mosaic panels: the scenes in the left wall show Christ as youthful and beardless; those on the right wall depict him as a mature man with a beard. Those on the right are artistically superior to those on the left, but both artists depicted their subjects full of color and movement.
At the west end of the nave, the spaces between the columns of the Palace of Theodoric and the front of the wall of the Port at Classe were originally filled with portraits of Theodoric and his court, but these were censored out when the Catholics took over the basilica in c.560. The palace spaces were blacked out and covered up with curtains – a floating hand can still be seen on a column! And the wall at Classe is now plain masonry.