Apostles are constantly presentin 5th and 6th century A.D. monuments in Ravenna. They are portrayed either full-length or half-length inside precious clipei. Identified, at times, by their name, they might either have a halo behind the head or a crown of glory in the hand. Some of them, like Peter and his brother Andrew, John and Paul, can be recognised by the particular iconographic features that characterised them already from the 3rd-4th centuries A.D. Peter is always portrayed with a beard and short white hair; Andrew is distinguished by a thick head of hair; John looks young and beardless. Iconography of the apostle Paul depicts him with the features of a philosopher: a face with hollow cheeks framed by a dark beard. He is always considered part of the group of twelve though he did not belong to the number of disciples that Jesus summoned unto himself. His presence among the apostles – associated with the figure of Peter from ancient times – reveals that Christian art is not a mere illustration of the biblical text but is, instead, more complex, based on the biblical interpretations of the Church’s tradition. Paul is never present in the lists of the group of twelve drawn up by thegospels (Mt.10,2-4).Hisnameappears in the Acts of the Apostles when the Risen Christ calls him to be his disciple (Ac. 9, 1-19); in the letters, he defines himself an apostle, called by the Lord: “Last of all he appeared to me too; it was as though I was born when no one expected it. I am the least of the apostles; in fact, since I persecuted the Church of God, I hardly deserve the name apostle; but by God’s grace that is what I am, and the grace that he gave me has not been fruitless” ( 1 Co 15, 8-11).
In the baptisteries in Ravenna that date back to the 5th century, namely the Orthodox and Arian baptisteries, the twelve apostles – headed by Peter and Paul – are in a circle around the central clipeus of the dome, where the baptism of Jesus is depicted. In the Arian baptistery they move towards the Hetoimasia, the prepared throne on which the cross is enthroned; in the Neonian baptistery they solemnly make their way eastwards, towards the Christ, the sun of salvation.
The archiepiscopal chapel dedicated to the apostle Andrew cherishes the faces of the apostles in the intrados of arches that are in line with the apse: they form a crown around Christ, who is portrayed young and beardless, dressed in purple with the head adorned by a halo with a tri-radiant cross. In the arch that is closest to the apse there are Peter, Andrew, Philip, Paul, James and John; the arch at the entrance presents Thomas, Matthew, Bartholomew, James, Thaddeus, Simon the Zealot. The saints of the church, depicted in the remaining intradoses, are associated to them.
In the basilica of St. Vitale the apostles are portrayed in the triumphal arch, with the image of Christ Pantocrator in the centre, holding the precious book of the gospel: he is the Word of the Father. Peter and Paul, placed in a prominent position compared to the other disciples, are portrayed beside the Lord. Associated with them are Saints Gervasius and Protasius who are acknowledged by the hagiographical tradition as the children of St. Vitale and St. Valerie.
In the Basilica of St. Apollinare Nuovo the apostles are portrayed in some of the magnificent Christological scenes in the upper level. In the images on the left centred on the miracles and parables of Jesus we first recognise Peter and Andrew in the ‘Miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes’ (Mt 14, 13-21). The two brothers also appear in the ‘Calling of the first disciples’ (Lk 5, 1-11): Andrew is rowing intently, while Peter is holding the net filled with fish. Their presence is more highlighted in the scenes on the right, centred on the theme of the passion and resurrection of the Lord. In the last supper they are portrayed seated around a triclinium table during the dramatic dialogue between Jesus and his apostles: “One of you is about to betray me”. The scene is dominated by the eyes, which are all fixed on Jesus and Judas (Mk 14, 17-21). The ‘Prayer in the garden of Gethsemane’ portrays Jesus with arms uplifted and palms turned to the heavens, in the classical pose of the orant, totally relying on the will of God:
the apostles, eleven due to the absence of Judas, are at the feet of Christ (Mk 14, 32-42). In the scene of the arrest, Judas is portrayed in the centre of the image with Jesus. There are groups of soldiers and apostles on the sides and, among these, Peter can be recognised with a sword in his hand (Mk 14, 43-49). Peter is the protagonist in two scenes, namely the ‘Announcement of the betrayal’ (Mk 14, 26-31) and the ‘Dialogue between the apostle and the servant’ who recogniseshimasafollowerofJesus(Mk.14,66-72). This is followed by a rare image of Judas returning the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders saying: “I have sinned; I have betrayed innocent blood” (Mt 27, 3-10). The apostles are also present in the last scene in the cenacle where Jesus appears once again to his apostles eight days after Easter. Thomas, who had not believed the words of the disciples who announced the resurrection of Jesus, is also among them now: the Christ shows the wounds suffered on the cross, and Thomas kneels down before him, acknowledging him as God and Lord. (Jn 20, 24-29)
The apse of the Basilica of St. Apollinare in Classe presents a symbolic illustration of the evangelical episode of the transfiguration (Mt 17, 1-9). The transfigured Christ is represented by the magnificent gem studded cross with the face of Christ in the centre. Peter, James and John, whom the Gospel refers to as the privileged witnesses of the glory of the Lord, are symbolically portrayed as three lambs: Peter on the right of the cross, the brothers James and John on the left. The front surface of the arch of the apse presents the apostles symbolised as twelve sheep, six per side, stepping out of the heavenly Jerusalem.
In the Galla Placidia Mausoleum they are depicted exalting the glorious cross that appears at the centre of the star-studded vault. Peter and Paul, placed in line with the axis of the Basilica of Santa Croce – the mausoleum was once connected to this building – are the guides of the group of apostles.
Besides the basilicas, the apostles are portrayed on the sarcophagi both in the number of twelve, and in the scenes of the traditio legis and of the maiestas domini in which Peter and Paul are beside the Christ. The princes of the apostles are also portrayed in the Chest of Quirico and Giulitta, a magnificent reliquary of the 5th century A.D. that is treasured in the Archiepiscopal Museum of Ravenna. Finally, we must mention the Ivory Throne of Maximian, an extraordinary artistic work of the 6th century where we can notice the twelve in the images of the miracles of the Lord. Matthew and John who, besides being the disciples of the Lord, are evangelists, must also be mentioned among the apostles: they are portrayed in human form or symbolised as an angel – Matthew – and an eagle – John – in all images containing the four gospels.
Diocesan Consultant for Cultural Heritage