Sant’ Apollinare in Classe is a wonderful basilica with an imposing bell tower. The church tower is a dominant landmark that is visible for miles across lush, green pastureland. The basilica was consecrated in the 6th century AD. It was dedicated to Sant’ Apollinare who was the first Bishop of Ravenna, and one of the early Christian martyrs who died for his faith.
Legend has it that Sant’ Apollinare was appointed by St Peter as the first Bishop of Ravenna. It was the days of the Roman Empire and a time when it was illegal to be a Christian. However Apollinare’s faith was very strong and he insisted on spreading the Christian message far and wide, despite the consequences he might experience. The Roman soldiers based in Ravenna arrested Apollinare on several occasions, torturing him and throwing him out of the town. But he refused to be silenced and despite continued persecution he carried on teaching and spreading the word of Christ. Eventually he was silenced for good. He was escorted out of the city and murdered a few miles to the south in the small town of Classe (which was a sea port in Roman times).
According to the Roman Catholic Church Apollinare was originally from Antioch an important Roman town in the Eastern Mediterranean (modern day Syria). However there is no written historical evidence to tell us where he was from and indeed no record of when he was born or even when he died. So much of his story is a mystery which was augmented and expanded after his death. The only part of Apollinare’s story that seems probable is that he was Bishop of Ravenna for 26 years – around 180 AD. When he died for his faith, in a field just outside Ravenna, his position as a Christian saint and martyr was secured forever. The road to ‘saintdom’ in the Roman Catholic Church usually takes a century or two to achieve. In the case of Sant’ Apollinare it was 549 AD (at least three hundred years after his death) when the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe was built to commemorate and honour his name.
The Basilica was built on the site of the saint’s murder, adjacent to an early Christian cemetery, which in turn had been built on top of a pagan burial site. The church itself is relatively simple from the outside, with an elegant portico entrance lined with ancient stone fragments creating a small architectural museum. Inside the church there is a wide open space, with two rows of gleaming white marble columns creating a light and bright interior. Around the edge of the church there are various magnificent, white marble sarcophagi (vast, ancient burial tombs), monumental in their scale. However the truly exceptional and unique element of the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare is the breath-taking display of brightly coloured mosaics, dating from the 6th century that decorate the apse and walls of the altar. These mosaics are fresh and sparkling and depict Apollinare in paradise, a veritable Garden of Eden surrounded by beautiful flowers, trees and lush green grass. The mosaics date from the 6th century which make them almost 1500 years old. The luminosity of the colours and the eloquence of the stories being told in the mosaics leave visitors gazing in awe at their beauty and depth. It’s hard to believe the mosaics aren’t brand new – such is their brilliance and lustre.
On this site during the Second World War there was a decisive battle between the retreating German troops and the Allied Forces moving north through Italy. The Battle of Ravenna threatened the integrity of the Basilica and the spectacular Byzantine mosaics. Thanks to the quick wit and diplomatic skills of Colonel Vladimir Peniakoff (known popularly as ‘Popski’) the German soldiers were persuaded to retreat without damaging the incredible historic and cultural heritage of the church and its artistic decorations. Perhaps the first Bishop of Ravenna, Sant’ Apollinare was looking down on his territory from his celestial paradise and decided to protect his beautiful basilica for future generations to enjoy.
Venice to Ravenna on the old Roman road – read this article for more on the drive from Venice to Ravenna and the fabulous mosaics of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe. There’s also more on Popski here too.
For more on various saints you might enjoy:
- The legend of St Lucy – Santa Lucia in Italy – 13th December is her Feast Day
- St Catherine of Alexandria
- Saints and Angels in Venice…
- Festa di S. Martino – Venezia
- Venice – Giudecca and Sant’Eufemia
A NOTE ON SAINTS – The stories of the saints and tales associated with their lives are known as hagiography. Quite often these tales were embellished over time. The early Christian saints were generally preaching Christianity in the last days of the Roman Empire. This was a time when Christians were persecuted and put to death for their faith. In 313 AD the ‘Edict of Milan’ was passed which effectively permitted religious tolerance within the Roman Empire. After the ‘Edict of Milan’ came into law Christians could practise their religion freely.