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Mosaics and power in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, built c. 500, renovated 560s, Ravenna, Italy. A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris, Smarthistory, and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. And we believe that this is where the Ostrogoth king Theodoric worshiped. In fact, his palace was next door. - [Beth] These were foreigners. They were not Romans, but in the fifth century they occupied Italy and Ravenna was their capital. - [Steven] The goths were Arian and the emperor in Constantinople was Orthodox. And so we have this church as evidence of these two different beliefs and their confrontation. When the church was first built by Theodoric to be his palace chapel, the name was different. This was a church that was actually dedicated to Christ the redeemer. - [Beth] The church began its life as an Arian church, but then when Justinian the emperor in Constantinople sent his general to get rid of the goth king and to take this back for the Orthodox faith, he rededicated this church and many of the mosaics were changed at that point to reflect Orthodox beliefs and to erase what was felt to reflect Arian beliefs. Unlike perhaps the most famous church in Ravenne, San Vitale, which is a central plan, Sant'Apollinare Nuovo is a Basilica plan. And when we looked down the nave, we see fabulous mosaics. - [Steven] In fact, this is one of only two churches in the world that retain its nave wall decorations. The other one is in Rome, Santa Maria Maggiore. On the West side of the church we see the palace of Theodoric and this is the palace that would have been right next to this church. We don't know how accurate a depiction it is. And then across from that, we can see the port city of Classe, which is just south of Ravenna. In the Southeast corner, you have Christ on a throne surrounded by four angels and opposite that is another mosaic representing Christ, this time as a child on his mother's lap, also surrounded by four angels. - [Beth] The precessional figures that we see down the center of the nave, on one side male, on the other side female, replaced the mosaics created during the time of Theodoric. So some art historians conjecture that what was here that had to be replaced specifically had to do with Arianism, which was now heretical, or perhaps with Theodoric and his family. We just don't know. On one side female figures, virgin martyrs, emerge from that port city of Classe at the west end and make their way led by the three magi toward the Virgin Mary and the Christ child surrounded by four angels. - [Steven] Their outfits are spectacular. There's tremendous detail in the pattern of these textiles. - [Beth] The female virgin martyrs that we see all carry crowns. They each have halos around their heads. And although there is that green landscape that they're standing in with flowers and palm trees between them, there is no sky. There's that flat gold background that is typically Byzantine in style. - [Steven] On the south wall a long line of male martyrs parallel the female martyrs on the other side. They're also holding crowns, which they'll be offering to Christ. And at the front of the line is Saint Martin, to whom this church was rededicated after the Ostrogoths were vanquished. There's another frieze of large figures that are interrupted by the windows on the side of the church. These figures hold books and scrolls. They may well be saints. They may well be profits. We're not sure who they are. Above that are smaller scenes of the life of Christ. - [Beth] The mosaic that we see furthest towards the east end of the church, furthest toward the apse where the Eucharist would be performed, is a scene of the Last Supper. We see Christ with his 12 Apostles. And this would be the moment when Christ announced, one of you will betray me, but he also would have said, here's the bread, this is my body. Here is the wine, this is my blood, and remember me. This is the institution of that sacrament of the Eucharist that would have happened here at the east end of the church. We're used to seeing the Last Supper, because we're familiar with Leonardo's Last Supper, but this is so different in how the artist represented the story. - [Steven] Well, this is a thousand years earlier than Leonardo. And what we see are figures that are seated around a table that are almost lying on their sides, the way that the ancient Romans used to dine. We see on the table, two large fish, loaves of bread, and the largest figure, Christ, dressed in imperial purple. - [Beth] And he's larger than everybody else because he is more important. And so you can see this Byzantine medieval way of representing in a symbolic way, but in a way that's legible and clear, so that anyone here would have known and been able to identify the story. - [Steven] Just imagine the scene for a moment. The Ostrogoth king, Theodoric, has taken Italy. He's made Ravenna his capital. He's built a fabulous palace. He's built this extraordinary church and here he would pray, here he would take Communion. And just to the right up at the highest level we have a mosaic that shows the institution of that very act. (jazzy piano music)