138 – Transfigured

Apse Mosaic, c. 549. Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna.

This coming Tuesday, at 6pm, I will be Revealing Ravenna – or at least, talking about the remarkable mosaics, putting them in their historical and religious context, and explaining why the best Byzantine art is in Italy, rather than in Istanbul. And the following week I will be lucky enough to visit them in person. But seeing as I know not all of you can come with me, and not all of you will be free on Tuesday, I thought I would write about one of the mosaics today – particularly as this one will not really get much of a look in, because it’s not really in Ravenna. In subsequent weeks I will start what is effectively a new ‘series’, talking about the increasing number of exhibitions which are opening in museums in London, across Britain, and even Europe-wide. Once more I’m doing this because I know that not all of you will be able to get to all of them – but also, in case you are able to go, to serve as an introduction. So far only one of them is on sale – Frans Hals: The Male Portrait, inspired by the exhibition at the Wallace Collection. That talk will be on Monday 25 October. Gradually, once I’ve been able to check everything out, I will release tickets for Vermeer: On Reflection (2 November), Hogarth and Europe (16 November), and Alison Watt (23 November). These will all be on Tuesdays, because I will be teaching a course for the National Gallery on Mondays – but more about that when that too is confirmed. There will be details about everything on the diary page, of course. Meanwhile, back to Ravenna.

I have not often visited the church of St Apollinare in Classe for the simple reason that it is a little out of the way – although maybe not as far as I used to think. Although it is one of the suburbs of Ravenna today, Classe (two syllables, clas-sé) was originally the port of the Roman city, its name coming from the Latin for ‘fleet’ – classis ­– and it was about 4km away. Each time I go, I am struck by the simple majesty of the building, although this is the result of complex historical processes which turn out not to be not simple at all. The church itself has a standard ‘basilica’ structure, with a central nave and two side aisles, separated by arcades, which lead to three apsidal endings. Originally the walls of the nave would have been covered with mosaics, but these have been lost. They were replaced with frescoes in the 18th Century, of which only the roundels with portraits of the bishops of Ravenna have survived, just above the arcades. The upper part of the walls, and the walls of the side aisles, have been stripped back to bare brick – wonderfully evocative, but decidedly modern in ethos. But at least they do not distract from the central apse, which is the true treasure of the church.

The church was dedicated to St Apollinare (five syllables – A-pol-lin-ar-é) in 549 – which gives us the approximate date for the mosaic within the apse. It was founded by Ursicinus, bishop from 533-536, and was dedicated by Maximian, who had also managed to get a promotion, being Archbishop from 546-556. Apollinare himself was said to have been the first bishop, having been converted to Christianity by none other than St Peter, although the ‘life’ which reports his deeds and martyrdom was, in all probability, written by Maurus, Archbishop from 642-71. There is no concrete historical evidence that Apollinare ever existed, if we’re honest, and Maurus almost certainly wrote his ‘life’ to make the diocese of Ravenna look more important, and to emphasize its apostolic origin. Indeed, one of the major subjects of the mosaics is the apostolic succession.

In the semi-dome of the apse we see Apollinare, dressed as a bishop, and with his arms raised. This is the attitude taken by an orant – someone at prayer – a common image in early Christian art. Walking towards him are a number of sheep: six on each side, making twelve in total, like Jesus’s apostles. But why are they sheep? Well, the earliest images of Jesus show him as ‘the Good Shepherd’, and indeed, priests and vicars today still refer to their congregation as their ‘flock’. Here Apollinare’s flock is the same size as Jesus’s. Apollinare therefore stands in for Jesus. If not Christ’s vicar on Earth, he is at least Christ’s vicar in Ravenna – and this is precisely what the apostolic succession is all about. In John, Chapter 21 Jesus appears to his followers after the Crucifixion and asks Peter the same question three times. The third time is in John 21:17,

He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.

He has already, in Matthew 16:18-19, told Peter that he will give him the keys of heaven:

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Either of these quotations, taken separately, would serve to affirm Peter’s position as the first leader of the church after Jesus. Together, the message is reinforced. Peter takes Jesus’s place, and then, according to the belief current in Ravenna, Peter both converted Apollinare and appointed him bishop: so Apollinare takes Peter’s place, in Ravenna at least. In the mosaic he leads 12 sheep as Jesus led the 12 apostles. Above his head is a blue circle, set with stars and a jewelled cross. Three more sheep stand on the ground, two people appear in the golden sky, and a hand appears from the clouds. But I’ll come back to these details later.

About 120 years after its dedication, the church was partially remodelled, and additions were made to the mosaics above the arch of the apse. We see Christ blessing in the centre, surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists. On the left the eagle stands for St John, the angel is the symbol of St Matthew, and the lion – as anyone familiar with Venice will know – is St Mark. This leaves the ox to represent St Luke. The most handy mnemonic to remember these is that plant which makes such good hand cream – the ALOE. If the letters stand for Angel, Lion, Ox and Eagle they are in the right order for the canonical arrangement of the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Below these symbolic beasts, and once more against a golden sky, twelve sheep have left the gates of two jewelled cities – Bethlehem and Jerusalem – processing towards Jesus in the same way that their equivalents do towards Apollinare just below.

And further down again, below Apollinare, there are four figures depicted in the mosaics between the windows. They are all bishops, all of whom were Apollinare’s successors. In traditional accounts, he was the first Bishop of Ravenna, his episcopacy lasting until his martyrdom in 79 CE. From left to right the first of the chosen few is Ecclesius, the 24th Bishop, in position from 522-532, who founded the church of San Vitale (home to some of the glorious mosaics I will discuss on Tuesday). He is followed by St Severus (c. 308-c. 348), the 12th bishop; Bishop Lacuna (dates unclear); and Ursicinus (533-536), 25th Bishop and the founder of this particular church. OK, so there never was a Bishop Lacuna, it’s just that I can’t get a good enough detail to be able to read his name and tell you who he is. These four bishops show us, in abbreviated form, how the apostolic succession continues – Jesus appointed Peter, Peter appointed Apollinare, and he is followed by a number of successors in turn, down to the present incumbent. But what exactly is going on above Apollinare’s head?

Most striking is the jewelled cross in the blue circle. In the apse mosaic of San Vitale, Jesus sits atop a similar blue circle: it can be seen to embody the cosmos, over which he rules. The cross needs no explanation, although the jewels with which it is embossed express its value, as they do for the cities seen on either side of the mosaic in the additions. There are twenty of them in the cross: four on either arm (reminding us, perhaps, of the four evangelists), leaving 12 going from top to bottom – a reference, perhaps, to the 12 sheep, and so to the apostles. In the very centre we see, as an apparently minute depiction, the face of Christ. To the left and right of the cross are the letters alpha and omega, the beginning and the end of the Greek alphabet, as God proclaims more than once in the Book of Revelation. This is chapter 1 verse 8:

I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.

Underneath the cross are the words SALVS MVNDI – ‘the health of the world’ – or, to put it more explicitly, ‘salvation’ – and above we see (although not very clearly) ἸΧΘΥϹ – ‘ichthys’, the Greek word for ‘fish’. The fish was one of the earliest symbols for Jesus, and is derived from an acronym. The letters stand for the Greek words meaning ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’. Nowhere in this image is Jesus explicitly named, nor, with the exception of the tiny image of his face, is he visible. But what of the three sheep, and the two people in the sky? Should we see the sheep as three of the apostles, by comparison with the others below? And if so, who are they? They are not named. However, the two half figures in the sky are. The one top left is labelled ‘Moyses’ – or Moses. The top right inscription is harder to read, but it is Elijah. The presence of these two Old Testament prophets is the key to the understanding of the mosaic. Here is Matthew 17:1-3 (and helps to know that ‘Elias’ is just another version of ‘Elijah’):

And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart, And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.

This is The Transfiguration, itself transfigured. The three sheep represent Peter, James and John. Matthew says that ‘his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light’, but in this mosaic Jesus is transfigured into pure symbol, whether as the cross, or as the words: ‘alpha and omega, salus mundi’, ‘ichthus’. Too perfect to represent, Jesus becomes entirely transcendent. Later on (17;5) Matthew tells us that, ‘a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’. The disembodied hand is that of God himself, and is the visual equivalent of the ‘voice out of the cloud’. And how better to represent ‘a bright cloud’ than with the light reflecting from a gold mosaic?

In the context of the church the meaning of the mosaic becomes clear. At the top, Jesus is seen as if in Heaven, blessing the congregation. His word is conveyed by the four evangelists beside him, and preached by the twelve apostles who process towards him – albeit in ovine form – from Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Below, in the apse – on Earth – he is transfigured. Seen in the presence of Moses and Elijah, and witnessed by Peter, James and John, this is the Son of God. In a direct line below him, Apollinare takes his place, having been appointed by St Peter, where, praying, he leads his own flock. His role is then taken by successive Bishops and Archbishops, whose throne would originally have been in the apse, directly behind where we now see the relatively modern altar (the same was true for all churches, although the only English cathedral to have its cathedra in this original position is in Norwich). Everything – the mosaics, the architecture and the original fixtures and fittings – would have combined to say that the apostolic succession continues to this day.

The steps leading up to the altar date from the restructuring of the church in the 670s. By raising the floor a crypt could created beneath the high altar for the display of the relics of Sant’Apollinare, allowing pilgrims to pay homage without disturbing the celebration of the mass. In the mosaic Apollinare appears directly above his own relics, as well as directly above the modern-day Bishop, who would be, in a more worldly and less symbolic way, presiding over his own flock. There should be no doubt as to the authority of this man – it descends from Christ, is justified by his suffering on the cross, and has been passed down from the first Bishop, himself installed by St Peter.

By the 9th Century the harbour silted up and the importance of Classe diminished. Not only that: pirates patrolled the nearby coast, and they would not be cowed even by the direct display of God’s authority. To protect Apollinare’s relics from the raids, they were moved to a church in the centre of Ravenna. Built as the chapel of the palace of King Theoderic, and dedicated to Christ the Redeemer in 504, in around 540 it was re-dedicated to St Martin and then, in 856, it was re-dedicated a second time, to Sant’Apollinare. Today it is known as ‘the New Sant’Apollinare’, or Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. The changes of dedication are reflected in subtle changes to the mosaics, which take on an added complexity. But I’ll be talking about all that on Tuesday.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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