The S. Apollinare Nuovo Mosaics: Their Meanings in Place and Ritual

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The basilica of S. Apollonare Nuovo located in Ravenna, Italy, stands as a brilliant example of early Christian art from the sixth century. The nave of the basilica is comprised of three horizontal tiers of biblical mosaic depictions. The top tier displays images from the Gospels, with Jesus’ miracles and parables on the north and the Passion on the south side. The mosaics were not simple decorations for the site of worship, but were a shared experience that involved a personal, cyclical shared communion with Jesus and his deeds. The placement of the mosaics, as facing pairs along the north and south walls, symbolically relate to each other and add to the depth of the significant rituals that took place there.

The first pair of mosaics depicts Jesus casting demons into a herd of swine in order to heal a possessed man (New International Version, Mark 5:1-20) as well as the Apostle Thomas, who doubts Jesus’ resurrection until he physically sees Jesus’ wounds from the cross (John 20:24-29). In the depiction of Jesus with the swine, the immense power that he commands becomes clear, so much that demons beg him permission to be released into swine if they must leave the man they possess. Mark stated that “He gave them permission and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs” (5:13). In light of this, it seems almost ludicrous to witness Thomas’ doubt at the resurrection of Jesus, directly across on the south wall. In this scene, Thomas is seen bent over in what is likely humility and chagrin, as Jesus, now bearded and appearing wearier, lifts his hand to display the wound of his crucifixion. According to John, Jesus said to Thomas upon his realization, “Because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (20:29). These two mosaics relate the miracle of Jesus’ power even over the vilest of creatures, demons, and the folly of doubt in the face of such past miracles.

The miracle of Jesus casting out the demons into swine and the skepticism of Thomas mosaics both demonstrate the artists’ desire to realistically portray the two events to the viewer. According to Janson and Janson, the Christian framework and ethos establishes events as “cycles”, and this is especially true with the depictions of Christ in the basilica (246). Within these cycles, the worshipper could literally become a participant in the episodes of the cycles of Jesus’ actions (Goethals 138-139). Between the miracle of Jesus with the swine and the chagrin of doubting Thomas, a worshipper at the basilica would have been reminded of the foolishness of questioning the son of god, and strive to prevent falling into the pattern.

Additionally, Jesus appears youthful and unbearded in all his depictions on the north wall, but appears older and with facial hair in the mosaics on the south wall. However, Jesus is posited as a king in all of the mosaics, wearing the royal purple and gold robes of a Roman ruler (Borchgrave 20). As the viewer gazes back and forth at the mosaics, a sense of the cyclical nature of life is evoked, while never lowering the status of Christ as the son and symbol of god. In fact, the horror of the Crucifixion itself is conspicuously missing from the mosaics of Apollinare Nuovo, likely to reinforce the supreme majesty of Jesus and his teachings as the focal point of worship (Borchgrave 20). Despite the lack of the Crucifixion, the mosaic of the two Marys at the tomb, located symbolically on the west side of the south wall, a figurative connection to the setting sun, subtlety but meaningfully reminds the viewer of cycle of Jesus’ death and resurrection (Borchgrave 20). As it will be seen in the following mosaics, the reference of cycles, the folly of skepticism, and the failure of Jesus’ followers serve as vivid reminders to the worshipers of the basilica about the potential pitfalls of the Christian faithful.

The next two mosaics, the raising of Lazarus from the dead and the denial of the Disciple Peter are positioned on the north and south walls respectively, moving towards the eastern side of the nave. Unbearded and cloaked in his royal robes, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead despite the doubts of Lazarus’ sister Martha. As Jesus requested the stone blocking the tomb of Lazarus be removed, Martha said to him, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days” (John 11:39). As with doubting Thomas, the youthful Jesus replied to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of god?” (John 11:40). With these words, the stone was removed and Lazarus walked out, still wearing his funeral bandages.

In the mosaic of Peter’s denial, Jesus, now older and world-weary, grimly prophesizes Peter’s denial of him, despite Peter’s passionate pleas, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I would lay down my life for you” (John 3:37). Jesus exasperatedly tells Peter, “…before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!” (John 3:38). It is as if, at this point in his life, Jesus understands the inclination towards folly that lay in his followers and perhaps all humankind, and directly informs Peter of his own impending foolishness. The mosaic illustrates Jesus’ declaration to Peter with a rooster symbolically positioned between them, as Peter scratches his head in bewilderment at the statement. Jesus gestures towards Peter in an admonishing fashion, demonstrating not only his spiritual power as a prophet, but also his very human disappointment at his Apostle and friend’s future behaviors. In this way, the mosaics serve a dual purpose: they both humanize and deify Jesus Christ, making him at once relatable to the viewer and a standard by which to aspire.

Again, Jesus is seen in two cycles of his life, early and late, proving the tendency of his followers to lack faith in him and god. In each of the mosaics, the Byzantine style is very apparent, with the ghostlike, floating images of the characters depicted rather weightlessly, and the background of gold exemplifying the power of Christ and his innate holiness (Gardner and Kleiner 224). With this context of power and spirituality, the audience is once again invited to become a part of this visual narrative, especially as the traditional Ravenna passages in the bible were read during Lent (Milburn 171). The ethereal, golden and shining mosaics must have acted to solidify the faith of the Christians of this basilica, as they concentrated on avoiding the fallacies of Jesus’ apostles. As pointed out by Goethals, “The adornment of ritual spaces offered to worshipers a consistent encounter with a shared visual text” (139). Surrounded by the living examples of Jesus’ life and miracles, viewers would have experienced a profound compulsion to adhere to the teachings of Christ, which would be further bolstered by the very public environment of the church.

The final two mosaics, located in the eastern section of the north and south wall, depict the miracle of youthful Jesus turning water into wine, and his weary form amongst his exhausted disciples who cannot stay awake with him to endure his trials in the garden of Gethsemane. Both of these mosaics, positioned on the eastern side, depict earlier scenes than the previous mosaics on the western end, once again drawing attention to the symbolic construction of the very basilica itself, and the importance of symbolism in the Christian expression (Goethals 139). In the water to wine mosaic, Jesus was attending a wedding in Galilee when his mother approaches and informs him that the supply of wine has been exhausted. Jesus ordered the servants to fill some nearby pitchers with water, which he changed into a very fine wine (John 2:1-8). The master of the ceremony told the bridegroom, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first, and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best until now” (John 2:10). Jesus had performed a miracle, one that would be followed by many more; the beginning of what would become a legacy of miracles followed by the lacking faith of his disciples.

On the south wall, facing the miracle of the water into wine, an angst-filled Jesus stands above his sleeping and inattentive disciples, bearing the burden of his destiny alone. Jesus asked of his disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch over me” (Matthew 26:38). However, despite his request, “…he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping” (Matthew 26:40). Disappointed and exhausted, Jesus admonished his flawed followers as they slept, “Watch and pray that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Several times that night, Jesus returned to his disciples, but they slept on, unable to offer him the support he requested. Although this event is a disheartening one, it also provides a comfort. Despite the many failings from this point in the Passion forward, Jesus did not abandon his disciples. It is meaningful that this mosaic is positioned in the eastern section of the nave. As a worshiper would turn to leave the basilica, they would exit with the miracle of Jesus’ defeat of death itself; the ultimate message of faith.

There are deeply symbolic meanings to the mosaics of S. Apollinare Nuovo, in their depiction, art style, and position in the nave itself. Each of the mosaic depictions demonstrates the inevitable failings of humans, and the eternal hope that is Jesus Christ as a focal point. The nave is arranged so that the faithful enter into the Jesus narrative with time flowing backwards, and exit with the hope and promise of resurrection through faith in Jesus and god.

Works Cited

"Bible Search." Bible Search. Version 2013. American Bible Society, n.d. http://bibles.org.

Borchgrave, Helen. A journey into Christian art. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.

Gardner, Helen, and Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner's art through the ages: a global history. 13th ed. Boston: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2010.

Goethals, Gregor T.. "The Imaged Word: Aesthetics, Fidelity, and New Media Translations." Fidelity and translation: communicating the Bible in new media. Franklin, Wis.: Sheed & Ward;, 1999. 133-172.

Janson, Horst Woldemar, and Anthony F. Janson. History of art: the western tradition. 8th ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2004.

Milburn, Robert. Early Christian art and architecture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.