Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe: an early Christian masterpiece adorned with unique mosaics
The city of Ravenna, a precious treasure chest in the heart of Romagna, boasts eight monuments declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, but only one of these is located outside the city centre, in the Classe district to be more precise.
We are talking about the grand and solemn Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe, the largest example of an early Christian basilica in the world, adorned with splendid polychrome mosaics that have survived almost intact over the centuries, and surrounded by the green countryside of Romagna.
A must-see for those visiting the city for the first time, the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare is part of the Classe Archaeological Park together with the Ancient Roman Port and the CLASSIS Ravenna, the Museum of the City and Territory.
The symbolic site of the cult of St Apollinaris
The history of the Basilica is linked to the founder of the Church of Ravenna, St Apollinaris. It was the patron Iulianus Argentarius who financed its construction by order of Bishop Ursicinus between 533 and 536 AD to house the remains of the patron saint. The choice of where the building would be erected was not left to chance, but had an important symbolic meaning: this area used as a cemetery until the 4th century was supposedly the site of Apollinaris' martyrdom at the behest of Vespasian around 70 AD.
The consecration took place a few years after its construction, in 549, and since then the Basilica has become one of the symbolic places of St Apollinaris' cult. For more than 1,500 years, visitors are amazed even before walking in: a 30-metre high façade almost twice as long and a 10th-century bell tower more than 37 metres high can be admired even from afar, but it is by getting closer that you can admire the many details of the oldest architectural tradition.
The mosaics of Sant'Apollinare in Classe to be admired at an easy pace
Do not be fooled by the simplicity and rigour of the façade and prepare to be amazed as soon as you cross the threshold. The bright and spacious interior is divided into three naves by 24 Greek marble columns with Byzantine capitals. The walls of the nave feature frescoes with portraits of future bishops and archbishops of Ravenna, while the side aisles of the basilica, once covered with precious marble, now house a unique collection of sarcophagi dating from the 4th to the 8th century.
Walk down the nave and prepare to look up. The apsidal basin and triumphal arch house one of the largest mosaic surfaces to have come down to us from antiquity. In the centre stands the representation of Apollinaris, depicted with raised arms in a gesture of prayer and surrounded by 12 white lambs symbolising the 12 apostles.
In the upper part, a large cross studded with precious stones presents the face of Christ in the centre, while on both sides, below the hand of God emerging from the clouds, we find the figures of Moses and Elijah witnessing the Transfiguration.
Further below, in the spaces between the windows, the four founding bishops of the main basilicas of Ravenna are represented: Ursicinus, Ursus, Severus and Ecclesius. On either side of the apse are two 7th century panels depicting the Byzantine emperor Constantine IV and Abraham, Abel and Melchizedek around an altar as they offer a sacrifice to the Lord.
Info and times
Visits to the Basilica are possible from Monday to Saturday from 8.30am to 7.30pm and on Sundays and holidays from 2pm to 7.30pm, with the last entry 30 minutes before closing time.
With the exception of the first Sunday of the month, 2 June and 23 July – when admission is free of charge – the entry fee is set at €5.
Concessionary rates and combo tickets are available with other places of worship in Ravenna or together with the other two sites of the Archaeological Park.