Its simple lines were altogether different from the soaring heights and lacy stonework of a Gothic cathedral. Brightly colored murals surrounded the wide arch separating the apse from the nave and decorated the stone bands that topped the arcades underneath the high clerestory windows. Most of the windows opened to the elements, though someone had made a half-hearted attempt to glaze those closest to the door. The peaked roof above was crisscrossed by stout wooden beams, testifying to the skills of the carpenter as well as the mason.
I found Noah and his ark. A global disaster and the narrowly avoided extinction of all life-forms were not auspicious. A saint heroically slew a dragon, but it was too reminiscent of hunting for my comfort. The entrance of the church was dedicated to the Last Judgment. Rows of angels at the top blew golden trumpets as the tips of their wings swept the floor, but the image of hell at the bottom – positioned so that you couldn’t leave the church without making eye contact with the damned – was horrifying. The resurrection of Lazarus would be little comfort to a vampire. The Virgin Mary wouldn’t help either. She stood across from Joseph at the entrance to the apse, otherworldly and serene, another reminder of all that Matthew had lost.
– Shadow of Night, Chapter 10
As noted in The World of All Souls, one of the inspirations for Saint Lucien’s is the Ravenna church, Sant’Apollinare in Classe. The church was initially begun around 535 by Bishop Ursicinus. It was consecrated in May 549. At the time of the consecration, the relics of S Apollinaire were also translated into the church. The exact location is unknown, but it is likely that they were placed near the altar, which is considered the holiest part of the church. Translations were unusual in the Early Middle Ages because Roman law forbade dismemberment and the moving of bodies. It was, however, allowed if the saint died in exile or the gravesite was deemed “unworthy” of the saint. Translations grew in popularity over the course of the Middle Ages as the Cult of Saints developed: there are multiple stories in saints’ vitae that describe dream sequences of a saint appearing to someone complaining that their body and relics were being mistreated and should be (re)moved from their current burial place. (This was often justification for questionable acquisitions, including flat out theft.)
The church’s architectural forms are reflective of wider Early Christian architecture, with a central nave and aisles ending in a central apse, and have undergone little change. The apse was raised in the 9th century when a crypt was inserted below; the clerestory level was repaired in the 8th century. Sant’Apollinare was a popular pilgrimage site within Italy; its importance was widely recognised by the end of the sixth century when it becomes the traditional burial place of the Archbishops of Ravenna.
The building boasts over fifty windows, which help punctuate the building with light, and contribute to the mystical qualities of the church’s mosaics.
As with other sites in Ravenna, the mosaics in Sant’Apollinare in Classe reflect an on-going Byzantine influence in their design and execution. Mosaics were favoured in Early Christian church decoration for a variety of reasons, including their ability to reflect light, referencing Christ as the Holy Light. Some of the glass tesserae are reused spolia from nearby Roman sites; spolia, in general, reference the triumph of Christianity and Christian Empire over a pagan past and empire, and further imbue the sight with meaning. The predominantly gold background helps form a conception of heavenly splendour.
The Sant’Apollinare mosaics were famous in the Middle Ages. In the Liber Pontificalis of Angellus, a book that describes papal donations and history throughout the Early and High Middle Ages, the play of light on the mosaics is described: ‘No church in any part of Italy is similar to this one in precious stone, since they almost glow at night just as they do in the day.’
The mosaics can be divided into two sections: the Triumphal arch showing Christ flanked by the Four Evangelists in symbol form. Sheep emerge from the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The archangels Michael and Gabriel are evident on the lower sides of the composition.
The second section is the apse mosaic, which depicts the Transfiguration of Christ. The Transfiguration, recorded in Matthew 17, tells of how Christ appeared as God to James, John, and Paul on an unnamed mountain. Origen, writing in the third century AD, claimed that the mountain was Mt Tabor, an idea which was parroted by later theologians. However, archaeologists and biblical scholars disagree on the exact site. During the Transfiguration, Elijah and Moses also appeared and spoke with Christ.
The mosaic depicts Christ, not shining in white as described in the biblical account, but symbolised through a crux gemmata that features a small image of Christ in the centre. As noted, the mosaics would Below, three sheep are evident, representing the three saints that were present. Flanking the cross are images of Elijah and Moses floating in a multi-coloured sky. Saint Apollinarus, the first bishop of Ravenna and the church’s namesake, appears under the jewelled cross with his hands raised in praise. The saint’s presence helps relocate the scene of the Transfiguration from the mountain to the church itself, with the saint acting as a bridge between the biblical event and the contemporary audience in the church.
While Matthew’s church does not appear to have mosaics, it is decorated with various murals. Churches, throughout the Early Christian period and the Middle Ages, were often colourful places decorated with multiple art forms that reflected not only the splendour of a church’s patrons, but also highlighted God’s glory.
The murals at Saint Lucien’s depict a range of typical iconography found in Christian churches and art more widely.
Noah’s Ark: The story of Noah and his ark is recounted in Genesis 6-9.
Raising of Lazarus: John 11 describes how Christ resurrected Lazarus after he died from an illness. Christ tells his Apostles that Lazarus died so that they may believe in Christ’s power as the Son of God.
Last Judgement: Based on passages in Matthew and Luke (as well as passages in the Old Testament and Revelation). Often depicts Christ in Majesty with people flanking him on his left (the damned) and his right (the saved). The damned are often shown naked, being lead to the Devil by assorted demons. Saints, angels, and prophets are sometimes in the imagery.
Saint Slaying a Dragon: One of the most popular images of saints slaying dragons is that of Saint George, whose medieval legend included slaying the dragon. Dragons also feature in the life of Saint Margaret, who was swallowed by the Devil (posing as a dragon), but burst out of him. Margaret is the patron saint of mothers and those in childbirth.
Virgin Mary: The Virgin features throughout Christian art and architectural decoration. The Christ-child is often depicted on her lap, which becomes a type of throne. Joseph is rarer in art outside of depictions in the Nativity. One of the earliest extant images of the Virgin in wall painting is in San Clemente in Rome.
Contemporary architecture in France references the Early Christian types that are found in Sant’Apollinare. Rounded arches, reused marble columns, and small clerestory windows are found in several of the extant sixth-century buildings.
The Baptistery of St Jean at Poitiers is thought to be the oldest Christian building in France. The majority of the present structure dates to the mid-seventh century, and replaced a large part of the original Gallo-Roman structure. The interior is largely contemporary and features Roman spolia. It later served as an abbey and parish church. Its twelfth-century wall paintings include scenes of the life of John the Baptist and an image of Constantine, whose Edict of Milan (313) acknowledged Christianity as a legal religion and ordered that reparation be made to those who had been persecuted.
The Crypt of Saint Laurent, dedicated to the local saint Oyand, in Grenoble is now part of the Museum of Archaeology and dates to the first half of the sixth century with Carolingian additions. The site has been in use since the fourth century, perhaps as an Early Christian memorial site, though this is by no means certain. It fell into disuse by the early eleventh century and was subsequently converted into a priory. The crypt was rediscovered in 1804.
Sources and More Information:
Borini, Giuseppe, trans. Gusting Scaglia. Ravenna Mosaics. Oxford: Phaidon, 1978.
Bosso, Annie and Renée Collardelle. “Grenoble.” Grove Art Online.
Camus, MT, Georgia Wright, Virginia Chieffo Raguin and Kathryn Wright. “Poitiers.” Grove Art Online.
Nordhagen, Peter. “Ravenna.” Grove Art Online.
Stalley, Richard. Early Medieval Architecture. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.
Verhoeven, Mariëtte. The Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna: Transformations and Memory. Turnout: Brepols, 2011.