Apse Mosaic by Mary Elizabeth Podles

Column: A Thousand Words

Apse Mosaic

Church of Sant'Apollinare in Classe
by Mary Elizabeth Podles

The Church of Sant'Apollinare, particularly its glorious apse mosaic, is the happy byproduct of the political, economic, and artistic boom in Ravenna, Italy, in the fifth and sixth centuries a.d.; the subsequent bust preserved it practically intact. Saint Apollinaris, pictured in the lower half of the mosaic, was the first bishop of Ravenna and was martyred under the reign of Vespasian. His relics were enshrined in the basilica when it was consecrated in 549 by the (legendarily disliked) Bishop Maximianus. Thus the saint's prominent placement in the apse.

The mosaicist presents the saint in classic icon form: a fully frontal, full-length figure, vested as in life as a bishop, with hands raised in an orans or praying posture. The sheep ranged on either side of him among lilies and flowers represent his earthly flock, who look toward him trustingly. Often in such Byzantine mosaics, the patron saint is flanked by real people, patrons of the church or imperial officials, as in the famous mosaics of Justinian and Theodora in the nearby basilica of San Vitale. Here, however, the flock is shown only symbolically. Only the saint appears as a human figure, appropriately enough, as his human remains rest in the altar directly beneath his feet. His praying posture also reflects that of the celebrant at the altar, as he partakes in heaven of the liturgy below.

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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.

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