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Consecrated in 549 A.D., shortly after San Vitale, and by the same Bishop Maximian. Not many people know that "in Classe" is not a particular doctrine within the Roman Catholic Church - it sort of sounds that way - but it is the neighborhood in which the port of Augustus developed, as mentioned above. St. Apollinaris was the first Bishop of Ravenna, and brought the gospel of Christ to the area. The church is about 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) from the center of Ravenna.

The church complex stands out, visually, in the countryside, primarily because of its campanile (bell tower), one of the earliest round towers, and built adjacent to the church in the 10th century. It is a nine story freestanding structure, placed on the north side of the church. It seems that since early Italian churches of the Basilican plan were relatively long and low, that some expression of reaching towards the heavens had to be achieved. The vertical campanile was a perfect answer to the problem.

It is 34.5 meters tall (123'). The window treatment is unusual, in that the lowest levels have single openings, which then become pairs, and finally triplets, all adding some grace and lightness to a very early and slightly primitive design. Everything we see is made of brick, externally.

This church epitomizes the concept of "basilica." It is a long rectangle, with an apse at the eastern end opposite the western entrance. There originally was an atrium in front of the church. Atrium defined once more as a courtyard, sometimes in front of, sometimes in a building, often to the side in monasteries. Recent excavations have provided that information here. This was typical in early churches, and might stem from Judaic temple designs (a place to dust off the desert sand). Later, mosques would also provide such forecourts. It seems that people needed to assemble, perhaps bring in their means of transportation, possibly clean up a bit, refresh themselves and their animals, etc. An atrium with a well or a fountain could provide such amenities. Another reason why an atrium is such a pleasant design tool is that it acts as a vestibule, providing a transition from outside to inside, from there to here. Mosques also employ this configuration, providing a place for ritual cleansing.

Well, there is just a porch now, to be known as a narthex.

Internally, free-standing marble columns form arcades on either side of the nave (the main aisle), create side aisles, or ambulatories (walk about spaces). We are racking up a bit of vocabulary here, but this is our introduction to basic church design, and there's a lot ahead, all employing the same basic terminology.

The column capitals are light, deeply carved, and surmounted by the Byzantine stilt or impost block. That impost seemed to ease the transition of two arches descending down onto one slender column, at least visually.

The side aisle walls, now bare brick, were once covered with beautiful marbles, taken away in the 15th century to decorate the Temio Malatestiano in Rimini. The floor was once completely covered with mosaics.

What now attracts serious attention is first the proscenium arch, which frames the semi-circular raised altar area in the apse; that, too, is covered with mosaics. All of these ingredients - the carved capitals, imposts, and mosaics are basic Byzantine. The proscenium arch goes back to either the 7th or 9th centuries.

A portrait of Christ, set into a medallion, is centered directly over the archway. Beside him, in the midst of stylized clouds, are the Evangelists, the Eagle, Winged Man, Lion, and Bull.

Below those depictions twelve lambs (six on each side), representing the Apostles, enter the scene from gates of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

As you can begin to see, church decorations, completely woven into the fabric of their buildings, told stories to their congregants, most of whom were undoubtedly illiterate. The scenes and symbols depicted would tell Biblical stories to the people.

The mosaics of the half dome of the semi-circular apse were probably created in the middle of the 6th century. The upper blue mosaic sky contains a cross of gold, with the head of Christ. Above that cross are the Greek letters IXOYC, which mean "fish," but form an anagram for initials representing "Jesus Christ Son of God Savior." Early markings of fish symbols can be found on the walls of catacombs of Rome, where early Christians practiced what was at the time, on occasion, an illegal religion. So now, you know the rest of that story.

The medallion containing the cross is flanked by figures representing Moses and Elijah emerging from clouds. Immediately below is the praying figure of St. Apollinare.

Measurements of the interior are 55.5 meters in length by 30 meters in width (182' x 99').

The dais, on which sits the altar, is a descendent of the original basilica form, which had a chieftain (actually the word in Greek means “kingly”) holding court, or conducting business from a raised elevation from which he could then see everything going on around him.

The long form of design, as illustrated in this basilica, was to enhance church functions, as processionals became common within the liturgy of the church. I remember seeing Pope Paul VI carried down the aisle of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome on his throne. It was an impressive sight, although I do not believe Pope John Paul II involved himself in such activity. It is not the most humble of proceedings, but undoubtedly attracted the passion of congregants throughout history.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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