Apostasy Watch: The Temple in San Apollinare Nuovo

This image from San Apollinare Nuovo, the 6th c. basillica in Ravenna, Italy has been the foundation of wide spread folk speculation in Mormonism.  It appears to be a veil with a hand sticking out in a welcoming gesture to follow the hand inside.  Furthermore, the robes of some of the figures coming out of this place (seen below) are white and have familiar markings (though in different places than LDS might expect).  LDS members have promoted this image as evidence for early Christian practices of sacred rites similar to the endowment in the LDS temple.  This image recently came up in conversation so I decided to look into it a bit more.

When I visited this site many years ago, I asked an attendant working there what the meaning of the hands poking out from behind the curtain could be.  He told me that there had once been figures standing in the doorways  that had been erased.  If you just want to short story, I am completely convinced that this is the correct explanation.  I will explain why below if you want the nitty gritty details.

San Apollinare Nuovo is now dedicated to Saint Apollinaris, the first missionary to have brought Christianity to Ravenna and Classe, the port city to Ravenna.  There is another church dedicated to this Saint in Classe, and San Apollinare Nuovo was not originally decidated to him, but was later rededicated in the 8th c.

This church was originally built in 504 CE by the Ostrogoth emperor Theodoric as his palace chapel.  The palace is no longer extant, but is actually the building represented in the mosaic where the hands are sticking out.  If you read the writing at the top of the building, it is not a religious building at all, but clearly says PALATIVM, or “palace.”

This image appears on the right side of the nave.  The two sides of the nave feature two processions. On the left, virgins, or perhaps female martyrs, led by the three magi, process from the city of Classe, near Ravenna, to the infant Christ on Mary’s lap.

On the right, male martyrs process from the Palace of Theodoric, to an adult, resurrected Christ sitting on his throne. In its iconography, it combines both the city and the Palace as centers of Theodoric’s kingdom and links them in a direct line to the church, Mary, and Christ.

The popularized interpretation of this scene as evidence of temple practices faces a number of problems.  First, the hands themselves are often fragmented and only appear on the columns themselves.  Even finger tips are cut off.  Full arms extending behind the curtains do not exist.  The best explanation remains that the images inside the columns were erased and the curtains put up in their place.  The figures inside the columns were likely standing in the orans position of prayer with arms extended.

Second, the supposed temple imagery does not make any sense in the overall context of the scene.  This building is clearly a palace, and would not have any religious function, especially not the performance of sacred rites.  The two sides of the church present parallel processions (last I checked, not part of the temple), one from a palace and one from the city.  Why would only males be leaving this place of sacred rites and females leave from the city?  Furthermore, the figures are processing away from the veil, not toward it.

If the views of experts who have worked closely with these mosaics is that the images inside the columns of the palace are a later edition, why and when were the figures inside the Palace erased? Well, the Ostrogothic emperor Theodoric happens to have been a heretic of the Arian variety.  The Gothic forces controlled much of Italy until the Byzantine emperor Justinian began to try to reunite the old Roman empire under his authority, taking Ravenna in 540.

After Justinian’s generals retook control of the areas held by Arian Gothic tribes, they kept the churches and converted them back to orthodoxy.   Justinian rededicated this church in 561 to Saint Martin of Tours, a renowned opponent of Arianism.  Specific memories of both Arianism and Gothic rulers were erased.  It is extremely likely that Theodoric, his generals, and perhaps his family appeared in the palace.  The churches built under Justinian feature himself and the Empress Theodora prominantly.

After the Byzantines took control of Ravenna, 36 years after Theodoric had built his major church,the image of the former heretical emperor Theodoric might have been just too much.   All that remains of Theodoric and his court piously standing in his palace are the fragments of some limbs that the mosaic craftsmen, for whatever reason (perhaps finding a consistently matching color?), decided to just replace the outline inside the columns alone.  So, unfortunately, this is not a convincing piece of evidence for ancient Christians practicing temple ceremonies.

11 Replies to “Apostasy Watch: The Temple in San Apollinare Nuovo”

  1. great. now i might as well cancel my trip to ravennna.

    i have heard the temple interpretation of these mosaics floated around a few times. any idea how it got started? maybe i don’t want to know.

  2. “The popularized interpretation of this scene as evidence of temple practices faces a number of problems.”

    I’ve not seen this before. Who popularized this interpretation?

  3. I remember when I first saw this stuff. It made my pulse jump and I got all woozy feeling. And that, as I have come to learn, is my faux-dar going off.

    This is just a visual version of Mormon proof-texting, like the mountain of the lord in Micah or baptisms for the dead in 1 Cor.–kind of cool for the believing community, but nobody who doesn’t already buy the interpretation is going to be convinced by it.

  4. Heard about that offhand before; didn’t know much about it. More interesting to me was the room full of early Christian sarcophagi in the Vatican Museum. It’s loaded with Nibley’s famous ‘orantes figures’ – persons praying with upraised hands.

  5. great post — thanks for the write-up of this church and the mosaics. I agree that there is little to no reason to think that the hands or anything else in those mosaics hints at anything similar to Mormon temple rituals. But aren’t those mosaics wonderful, nonetheless! What an incredible and historical church. I hope to go there someday.

  6. I was completely fascinated by my trip to Ravenna, and especially the Basilica di San Apollinare Nuovo. The whole matter of concern is within the three levels of mosaics found there and the story they tell. Many artists took part in the mosaic work of S. Apollinare Nuovo, for there are distinguishable differences in the variations of line, effects, and style. The three periods of artwork are a striking testimonial of the conflict between Arian and Catholic (both Eastern and Western) worship.
    First, the palatine church of Theodoric and its mosaics were intended for Arian worship and were influenced by Arian doctrine, as well as the Hellenistic-Roman tradition. The artisans not only carried out their iconographic commission but also put human psychology into their work with highly refined mosaic technique. Second, under Justinian I, the mosaic artwork in the church was altered to reflect the Eastern Orthodox doctrine. These changes were directed by Archbishop Agnello and were a deliberate “re-writing” of art history to obscure both the reign of the barbarian king and his Arian beliefs. Third, since Ravenna came under the authority of the Popes in the late 8th century, other creative works were added. And, the Roman Catholic Church directed remodeling work and restoration projects (for our interest, on the mosaics) necessitated by natural catastrophes and human disasters.
    Of particular note in this latter category are the “restorations” done by an artisan from Rome named Felice Kibel in the mid-1800s. Asked to restore damaged sections of almost every mosaic in Ravenna, he apparently was more interested in showing off his own talents than in faithfully replacing fallen tesserae. He also added “details” which were not part of the original icons and which reflected the later Roman Catholic tradition. Because of this, many in Ravenna consider Kibel to be worse than a bad plastic surgeon.
    The mosaics run in three bands along each of the side walls. The upper band consists of 26 scenes, 13 on each side, from the life of Christ and represents the most ancient extant mosaic series on the New Testament. They are located above the 11 windows of the middle band. The panels on the left wall depict miracles; those on the right depict the parts of the Passion of Christ, the Road to Emmaus and the appearance to Thomas. Interspersed with the scenes are other panels with symbolic motifs, such as jeweled crowns and white doves, which are a symbol of believing Christian souls. There is little evidence for changes being made by Archbishop Agnello in this top band of mosaics. They are small rectangles that are hard to see if you are standing in the nave, which may be why they were not “updated.” However, there are clearly identifiable elements of Arian belief in these mosaics. Also, some erroneous “repair” work of Kibel was done in this band.
    Noticeably absent from these portrayals in the upper band are any scenes depicting the Jesus’ birth or baptism. To the Arian Goths Jesus was really neither on the same level as God or man. They did not agree with the orthodox interpretation of Divine Incarnation and, consequently, such scenes would be devoid of meaning. And, since flagellation and crucifixion were considered degrading as forms of punishment, illustrations of such would have offended the sensibilities of early Christians and, thus, are not found here.
    To the Arians, Christ was considered as a Teacher; a guide and an example to be followed and imitated in order to reach salvation. The biblical accounts of the calling of Andrew and Peter, the healing of the blind man of Jericho, and the exorcism of the man with Legion demons, have in common the idea of the individuals following the Teacher after their encounter with Him, and therefore, are depicted in these mosaics.
    Another example of the Arian dogma that Jesus is subordinate to the Father is expressed in the episode of the raising of Lazarus, in which Christ prays to the Father to allow Him to perform the miracle (John 11: 41-42).
    In the New Testament cycle mosaics, the Teacher is not dressed in the usual clothes of early Christian iconography but wears a purple robe. (This is repeated in the lower band of mosaics where Christ seated on the throne and the Virgin Mary wear the royal, amethyst-colored costumes.) The apostles are shown in white robes that have a right-angled mark (known as gammadia) placed in them.
    In the left (north) wall illustrations; i.e., the scenes of His miracles and public life, the face of Christ is unshaven. On the right (south) wall in the scenes of the Passion, He is bearded. For the Arians, this emphasized that Christ grew older and became the “man of sorrows,” as spoken of by the prophet Isaiah. The first known depiction of the face of Christ with a beard was here in the Ravenna mosaics. (Earlier depictions from catacombs, etc. have since been discovered.) It has been suggested that the Roman custom of letting one’s beard grow as a sign of mourning during times of pain and ill-fate may be the rationale for this interpretation.
    The middle band of mosaics has representations of 32 white-robed male figures of Prophets, Apostles, and Evangelists (16 on each side) between the windows. Here again, each robe has a symbol, the most common of which is a gammadia. That each of these individuals carries a Code, book, or scroll, according to one writer, symbolizes a legitimization of the prestige and culture of Theodoric’s power. These figures are more expressive and individualized than others in the basilica. This band of mosaics has the least amount of commentary from writers and art historians, usually addressed in only 1 or 2 sentences.
    The changes made in the lower band of mosaics is the territory of the greatest differences of opinion. When Archbishop Agnello commissioned his modifications to the mosaics of Theodoric, he concentrated mainly on the representations in the lower band. Whatever was depicted there was the most offensive to his Byzantine/Orthodox outlook of all the artwork done in the basilica. The Roman church would make further adjustments after they came into possession of the building. Understandably, there are also contradictions among the writers about the original content and those responsible for the adaptations carried out on this band.
    There is no detailed record of precisely what was portrayed. We can describe what is there now. We know what was altered. From these changes, and from the historical records, we can infer what had been there before. The famed “Processions of Martyrs and Virgins” are presently shown. On the right wall, 26 martyrs dressed in white robes, are led by a character identified as Saint Martin away from the Palatium in Ravenna to the figure of a bearded Christ, seated on a throne flanked by four, sentinel-like angels.
    On the left, what is now shown are 22 virgins leaving the port city of Classe led by the 3 Magi to the Madonna with the child Jesus, who are also attended by four female, sentinel angels.
    Some historians simply ascribe the work of the lower band to Archbishop Agnello. They note the stylistic differences in the artwork. The mosaics in the two upper fascias are clearly of traditional Roman style, while those in the lower fascia have the influence of Byzantine art –belonging to the times of A. Agnello as well. In the rows of male saints and virgins, (these latter dressed in gorgeous garments, like the ladies-at-court in Byzantium), the figures are repeated, each one with an inexpressive face, a flattened body, identical one with the other, and spaced equally; they are alternated with palm trees, themselves identical, and in their slow progress towards the apse, they create a composition based on rhythm, which is one of the most characteristic aspects of Byzantine art.
    Those heading the processions, namely St. Martin and Ste. Euphemia, were strong opponents of Arianism. Indeed, like St. Anthony of Padova, St. Martin had the epithet Malleus Haereticorum, Hammer of the Heretics, and Ste. Euphemia is remembered for her strenuous upholding of the ideas of the Council of Chalcedonia (451 A.D.), in which the dual nature of Christ was re-affirmed. The depiction of the Magi adoring the Christ Child as God is also anti-Arian in significance.
    The first palpable problem with this attribution is that the Palatium on the right of the basilica and the city of Classe on the left are illustrated in the lower band. The question is asked, “Why would A. Agnello show the two most prominent architectural works of Theodoric, especially if he disagreed with the Arian and Gothic influence epitomized by Theodoric?” Also, elements of the upper band of mosaics are repeated in this lower band, most notably the depiction of the parable of the Publican and the Sinner at the Temple. From the mosaics in the upper band, a curtain is suspended between the pillars of the temple and also in the Palatium of the lower band. There seems to be an obvious correlation between the Palatium of King Theodoric and the Temple of Jerusalem.
    The A. Agnello position ignores the fact that there have been obvious modifications to the mosaics that pre-dated the reconditioning done by Kibel.
    However, most writers acknowledge that A. Agnello made changes in this band that were substitutions for representations of episodes in the life of Theodoric or for allusions to Arianism. My guess is that his motivation was to make modifications in accordance with his Eastern Orthodox culture by removing the Arian magistrate and integrating the three Kings and male and female saints into the procession. Curiously, these writers minimally detail or differentiate the changes.
    It is believed that originally, the members in the processions were part of the imperial family. On the male side, the images emerge from the Palatium, “the Palace of the King,” on the south wall. Between the columns of the palace hang curtains, and, it is believed, initially Theodoric’s family members stood before the curtains. In the middle tympanum of the palace, Theodoric was depicted on horseback, with personifications of Rome and Ravenna on either flank. A. Agnello eradicated all these figures and those in the middle were replaced with gold tiles. Intriguingly, the images of a right hand extending from behind the curtains remain on four of the columns.
    The prevailing hypothesis for this replacement was the removal of the court intelligentsia and every reference to the period of Gothic domination to reinforce the concepts of catholic orthodoxy. We can only speculate what actions these mosaics depicted these individuals doing in front of the curtains and why, if the intent was to remove Theodoric, et al., the right hands depicted on the columns remain. If they could remove Theodoric, why could (did) they not remove the hands from the columns? Perhaps there was a significance understood by the Arians that was lost to the Eastern Orthodoxy of Justinian.
    A courtly procession from the Ostrogothic royal palace to Christ and Mary seated in majesty on opposite sides of the nave was part of the original work. I surmise that Theodoric employed Byzantine artists to produce it (possibly because it was the lowest band and most readily seen – remember that Theodoric came to power with the blessing of Byzantium) and that half a century later Archbishop Agnello employed Byzantine artists to customize the pictures.
    As said before, the 26 saints leave the palace marching in single file to the throne of Christ. They each carry a crown and wear a white robe that has an emblem (once again with the common right-angled gammadia design being prominent) except for the lead, St. Martin (for whom the basilica carried his name for nearly 300 years) who is dressed in a purple robe. It is also evident in the tile work that his figure was modified and re-identified under the direction of Archbishop Agnello. The martyrs are identified in writing in the mosaics above their heads. It is definite that these appellations were added after Theodoric because some of the individuals lived after Theodoric. On either side of the purple-robed, Christus Rex, are two sentinel angels with white robes featuring the gammadia symbol, this time in gold. The original intent of this band of mosaics was to show Theodoric’s regal power and Arian beliefs by having his family leave his palace and go directly to the throne of Christ.
    On the female side, each of the images is clothed in a white robe with a colorful over-garment and apron. Each wears a white veil and also carries a crown. The sisters leave the city of Classe and follow, in single-file, three men (now identified as the Magi) to the figures of the Madonna and the Christ Child on her lap. The portrayal of Classe was dramatically revised to please Justinian. Whatever was shown there – most likely a representation of Theodoric and four others, according to some writers – was completely replaced by a golden, brick-pattern, mosaic wall. However, the remaining portrayal of three ships, the sea, and the port of Civitas Classis show Theodoric’s political propaganda by depicting his kingdom as capable of dominating the seas and governing the world, East and West, as did the Romans. The capital of the western Roman empire, under his rule, had been returned to its early splendor.
    In the similarities of expression and dress, the female figures, designated as virgins since the time of Archbishop Agnello, represent the equality of souls in eternity. They show no class distinctions as they proceed in an orderly manner to the Madonna and Child. The slight exception is Ste. Agnes, unsurprisingly with a lamb at her feet, fourth in line behind those identified as Ste.s Euphemia, Pelagia, and Agatha of Catania. Some writers have said that the crowns they carry represent gifts for the Christ Child.
    Three men lead the Virgins. It is obvious that they, also, have been extensively revised and reworked, which undercuts any reliable historical analysis. One writer says that A. Agnello “…added the Three Wise Men, adoring the Christ, by divine revelation of the star…” Another writer suggests that Kibel added the names of the Magi when he did his “restorations” in the mid-1800s. No one has hypothesized who these three men might have been before they were transformed into the Magi by A. Agnello and what role they played in leading these Virgins to the enthroned Madonna.
    The royal cortege advancing to the image of Mary with the Christ as the blessing lawgiver exalted the Arian Barbarians. Christ is no longer an infant, but old enough to reign and bless with the command of the right hand, and to represent Wisdom and the Light of the World with the sacred scroll held in his left hand. He, also, has the gammadia mark on his robe. In contrast to the Arian mosaic of Christ on the opposite wall, Mary gets a more stylized and hieratic treatment (small head, hands, and feet), which suggests she was remade by Agnello’s artisans.
    The early use of imagery to educate the illiterate or semi-literate on the Christian faith and biblical messages and stories is most superbly displayed at Ravenna’s Basilica di San Apollinare Nuovo. Images were used like texts to establish the doctrine taught. San Apollinare Nuovo is also the most important illustrated evidence of the clash between Arian and Eastern Orthodox creeds. The result of the growing importance of imagery, at times, resulted in a dependence on imagery. About this time in the Christian world, the images of Christ and other religious figures began to be treated as holy objects in their own right – not mere representations, but an embodiment of the personality. To devalue the reign and refute the doctrine depicted by Theodoric at his basilica, the Justinian successors extensively altered the artwork inside the church. They were aware of the importance of visual imagery.
    For me, the highlights of this discussion about the lower band of mosaics are:
    Ճ Orthodoxy changed the story. This building shows the method of apostasy in its artwork.
    Ճ There are familiar elements of the story that remain, namely:
    · White robes, many marked with a right-angled gammadia symbol
    · Brothers on the right and Sisters on the left, each carrying crowns, possibly designating that they be thought of as kings and queens, proceeding in an orderly fashion from their side of the basilica to heavenly beings surrounded by sentinel angels
    · The Sisters being led by three men whose original identity was unknown, who were re-designated as the Magi
    · The Sisters wearing veils, tunics, and aprons
    · A Palatium, or Palace of the King – that has curtains hung between columns with a hand extending out from behind the curtains at four of the columns
    · Originally, the individuals participating in this event were members of the Emperor’s family, and on the men’s side stood in front of the curtains of the Palatium
    Ճ The artistry is stunning.
    That said, I really don’t disagree with you. I don’t think it depicts the “temple” as WE know it. It just has some familiarity to it.
    **Most of the preceding, I cobbled together from many sources for my own benefit (i.e.; it is not footnoted – clearly pirated).**

  7. Mondo,
    Thanks for this extensive report! It sounds like you had a great experience studying these works! I appreciate all the added details. I appreciate the close analysis of the changes. I would dispute a few details, however.

    I think that the characterization of Arianism is seriously flawed here. Arians accepted fully Jesus’ divinity, birth, baptism, etc. They used the exact same canon. The only difference was that they believed that the Son was the only begotten, not unbegotten like the Father. That is, they believed that the Son was not equal to the Father, but that he was still a divine figure, not merely a human or a teacher. (Mormon doctrine is actually Arian in some respects). If I understand your conclusions, however, you are suggesting that the lower band was in fact constructed by Theodoric, but that St. Martin and other elements (like the changes in the palace) were changed under Byzantine rule. I have no problem with that conclusion.

    “From the mosaics in the upper band, a curtain is suspended between the pillars of the temple and also in the Palatium of the lower band. There seems to be an obvious correlation between the Palatium of King Theodoric and the Temple of Jerusalem.”

    This is not obvious to me at all, and I would find it quite surprising. Of course, the curtain in the Jerusalem temple is the veil, which was well known from the Gospel accounts (I can’t seem to find an image of the scene you are talking about right now, though I can look more later this week). I am not aware of any early Christian depiction of the Jewish temple as a part of their own stories, and there are quite a lot of reasons why they would have never done so, including the fact that the destruction of the temple was considered part of God’s chastisement of the Jews. Further, the Church of the Holy Seplechure had completely displaced the sacredness of the temple mount in Jerusalem, which according to 4th-5th c. reports was just farm land. Finally, I see no reason whatsoever to think that a building clearly marked “Palace” would invoke the temple in any way.

    I didn’t really spend much time on the robes, but I find them unremarkable. In the faith promoting versions of these stories, they always seem to leave out that there are all kinds of symbols on the robes which don’t fit the temple narrative at all, like C’s, L’s, T’s, crosses, etc.
    The dress of the women is completely standard dress for Roman women, who appeared veiled in public all the time. This is completely unremarkable matronly dress.

    There was no “originally in front of the curtains.” The curtains were added later over top of the figures who were there originally.

  8. Ben, I had a Humanities class at Ricks College in 1991 and the textbook had a picture something like that with a hand parting a curtain in some kind of early Christian mosaic (I think it was the same picture but I couldn’t be sure ). One day the Professor drew attention to it in class and suggested/ implied a connection to temple worship. He taught several classes, so I’m sure lots of people heard about it every year.

  9. TT — Even if the faith-promoting legend about it is easily debunked, the murals are still fascinating and mysterious! Like other commenters here, I’d never heard of this church before your post, but I think it’s cool.

    Did you take the photos yourself? And, if so, can I have permission to repost the top picture (with the visible hand)?

  10. chanson,
    These are not my images. My own photos are far inferior in quality. I just pilfered these from google searches, though I realized too late that I should attribute them. My guess is that most are pilfered from the official guide anyway, though.

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