Sant Apollinare in Classe

Sant’Apollinare in Classe is a World Heritage Site in Ravenna (about 60 miles south of Venice on the Adriatic Sea) that is one of eight early Christian structures UNESCO cites as being among the most important of their type in the world. It is located in the nearby suburb of Classe, which was the original name of the entire city and about four miles south of the Ravenna city center where the other buildings are clustered. The structure remains much as it was when construction first began about 532 AD, with only some changes and additions, such as the apse being raised to accommodate a new crypt, the addition of a bell tower, and the loss of its atrium in the west courtyard.

Dating to the mid-sixth century, this Byzantine basilica in Ravenna is an imposing brick church that, according to UNESCO, is "an outstanding example of the early Christian basilica in its purity and simplicity of its design and use of space and in the sumptuous nature of its decoration.” It is a contemporary of the Basilica of San Vitale and was built about 100 years after the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Each of these is also a World Heritage Site in Ravenna along with the other five structures. While the brilliant mosaics in the mausoleum are older, the ones in Sant’Apollinare in Classe are the among the finest Byzantine mosaics in the world. In addition to the mosaics, it is also an elegant building with notable early Christian sarcophagi, mostly containing the remains of Ravenna archbishops.

Inside this Byzantine basilica in Ravenna are two rows of 24 Greek marble columns that end in a green mosaic of sheep and trees surrounding Saint Apollinaris, patron saint of the city, where he stands in a bucolic pasture. You will find this saint featured in another World Heritage Site in Ravenna, the Basilica Sant’Apollinare Nuovo where the relics of the saint were moved from Sant’Apollinare in Classe to protect them from raiding pirates.

Most of the walls and floor in the very large nave were once covered in mosaics, but these have largely disappeared. However, the presbytery and apse of this Byzantine basilica in Ravenna boast the finest of brilliantly colored Byzantine mosaics in the world. In addition to the main St. Apollinaris scene at the end of the pillars, you will see the Transfiguration with Christ, Moses, Elijah, and the apostles, Peter, James, and John. There is also a scene with Old Testament figures and the four Evangelists, including John who sent his apostolic visions to the Seven Churches of Revelations in Turkey.

The sarcophagi in Sant’Apollinare in Classe are also important in the history of early Christian art and architecture. Decorated with some biblical scenes, they are notable for the ancient Christian symbols carved into them, including the chi rho, a pictogram with the first two letters of the Greek alphabet; the peacock, early symbol of resurrection; the cross; and the alpha and omega, representing the eternal nature of Christ and God. The lid on the Sarcophagus of the Six Niches is carved with fish scales; in the front are six niches containing date palms, crosses, and peacocks drinking from the source of everlasting life. The entrance fee to enter Sant’Apollinare in Classe is a bit lower than for those churches in the city center, and there is good taxi or bus transportation to reach it. It is open daily.

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