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Basilica Sant'Apollinare Nuovo

Religious building, Ravenna

Basilica Sant'Apollinare Nuovo: Attraction informations

Acknowledged as a UNESCO heritage site in 1996, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo is located in Via di Roma, a central street where you can find some important buildings of Ravenna, such as the MAR (Ravenna Art Museum) and the Palace of Theoderic.

This church was built under Arianism, the worship practised by Theoderic (493-526 AD) king of the Ostrogoths, who ordered its construction in 505 AD, only to be used by his court as a palatine church.

When the Byzantine empire came to power in the city, emperor Justinian converted all the places of worship to the Orthodox faith, and the church of Sant’Apollinare was no exception. In the mid-6th century the church was dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours, protector of the Catholic religion from the Arian heresy. According to the tradition, the church was called Sant’Apollinare only in the 9th century, when the remains of the current Ravenna’s patron saint Apollinaris were brought here from the harbour of Classe to prevent pirates attacks. In order to distinguish it from the already built church of the same name, the adjective “Nuovo” (new) was added.

The interior mosaic decorations

In the beautiful mosaic decorations of the interiors one can easily notice the passage from Arianism to Catholicism, where both worships are recognizable as well as the corresponding iconographic styles.

The cycle of mosaics of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna are made of three overlapping bands, which cover the walls of the central nave. The upper one is also the oldest one, as it dates back to Theoderic’s age. The scenes represented in the 26 frames are taken from the life of Christ and that’s why they didn’t change under Justinian’s empire; this allowed us to admire the biggest mosaic cycle of the New Testament till now.

The central band, the one showing Saints and Prophets on a golden background, belongs to the same age. The lowest one, nearest to the observer, originally showed the themes of the Arianism. Yet, these mosaic were subsequently erased by Bishop Agnello and replaced with a new mosaic decoration that could comply more with the Orthodox faith.
That’s why we now see the two processions of the Saint Martyrs and Saint Virgins with their precious dresses and repeated gestures; they face each other from one side of the nave to the other and wind towards the apse.

The only exception to the changes made by Agnello are the scenes showing the port of Classe,  the biggest of the Adriatic see at the time - and Theoderic’s Palatium, the most iconic images included in all the books about Byzantine art.
Observing the mosaics that show Theoderic’s building, for instance, one can easily notice some hands on the white columns: they probably belonged to the king and his dignitaries, slipped away during the removal of the traces of Arianism from the mosaic.

Once outside Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, we can finally observe the simple bricks facade, typical of Ravenna’s churches, preceded by a linear marble portico of the XVI century.