Ravenna is a city on the Adriatic coast of Italy with many beautiful churches and probably the most beautiful collection of Christian mosaics in the world. The tradition is that the city and surrounding area were first evangelised by Apollinaris, a disciple of Peter, who travelled there with some sailors from Antioch in Syria. Patrick Duffy tells the story.
Founder of the Church in Ravenna
The figure of Saint Apollinaris has for centuries dominated the history and religious life of the north Italian city of Ravenna, where there are two basilicas dedicated to him – one in what was the former port city of Classe, but now silted up and inland, Sant’Apollinare in Classe, and the other in the centre of the city, called Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. Both basilicas have world-famous mosaics dating from the sixth century.
From Antioch in Syria
The tradition about Saint Apollinaris is that he was from Antioch in Syria where he was a favoured disciple of the apostle Peter, who commissioned him to go with Syrian sailors and be bishop of the important Adriatic sea-port of Classe near Ravenna. From here, despite opposition and persecution, he evangelised the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. He was said then to have been exiled for three years to Corinth and Thrace, but returned to Ravenna before being martyred during the reign of the Emperor Vespasian in 74 AD.
Tribute of St Peter Chrysologus
Sermon 128 of St Peter Chrysologus, who was bishop of Ravenna from 433 to 450, pays tribute to Apollinaris in the following words: “Blessed Apollinaris, the first bishop, alone honoured the church in Ravenna with the glory of martyrdom suffered here. Following the mandate of his God, he lost his life in order to find it again for all eternity.
To die only once is very little for those who can gloriously conquer the enemy more often for their king. Loyalty and devotion, more than death, make the martyr. Just as falling on the battlefield for love of the king is proof of valour, so too is sustaining the battle at length and bringing it to a close proof of perfect virtue…. The confessor spilled his blood many times and with his wounds and the faith of his soul bore witness to his Lord…. He sustained and nourished the church throughout its fragile infancy and, as he wished, the martyr was kept alive…. He lives and just as the good shepherd stays with his flock, the spirit of he who came before us in body and in time will never leave us. He preceded us in life, but his bodily presence remains with us.
Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe
The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe (above) was constructed from money provided by a Greek banker Julianus Argentarius during the reign of the Emperor Justinian by the mandate of the Bishop Ursicinus (533-536) and was consecrated by Bishop Maximinian on 9th May 549.
Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo
The second basilica – Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo – was originally the palace church of the Ostrogoth King Theodoric, who was an Arian. It was later given a dedication to St Martin of Tours who was deemed an opponent of Arianism, but in 856 the relics of Sant’ Apollinaris were brought here because of perceived danger at Classis and it was called Sant’Apollinare Nuovo.
The story of Apollinaris’s coming with sailors from Antioch comes from the Passio Sancti Apollinaris written in the 7th century by Archbishop Maurus. It seems to date the saint earlier than he actually was and linked him to St Peter, perhaps in a bid to obtain greater autonomy for the Church of Ravenna from that of Rome.