Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Images in the Chancel! (Part 3)

August 13th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie
Continued from Part 1, Part 2
(Click on pictures to see larger, clearer images)

"Basilica of Sant'Apollinare", Classe (Ravenna), Italy; early 6th c.

The genius of the traditional basilica architectural setting for the Mass in the Western or Catholic tradition is its ability to draw us forward to the chancel and altar. Like a magnet, the architectural lines and forms of the Roman basilica compel us to move up the nave toward the apse at the other end of the hall where the perspective lines of the columns, arches, coffers and mosaic patterns of the floor seem to vanish into infinity; no “journeying”, no detours, no wandering, no uncertainty. All life, it seems, is drawn to that point. It is irresistible. Unquestionably, the whole arrangement suggests an attraction, a movement toward something that promises a reward when you get there.

At the point where the perspective lines converge stands the altar of redemptive sacrifice and table of the celestial banquet, which begins here on earth. Both entail the promise of eternal happiness given us in Christ Jesus.

Often the promise is symbolized with a large image or grouping of images behind and/or over the altar.

This is the case in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe (Ravenna), Italy. The church (early 6th c.) is of the Roman basilica type I described above. The visual pull is straight to the apse end of the space where a sparkling mosaic suggests the promise of eternal happiness. The apse mosaic presents us with a spiritual vision of two merged events meant to encourage us on to our goal of eternal life with Christ. (“Eye has not seen…”)

"The Transfiguration", apse mosaic, Basilica of Sant'Apollinare*

A large bejeweled cross inscribed on a circular blue field populated with gold stars catches our attention first. A closer look reveals a bust of Christ at the crossing of the arms of the cross. It has a Latin inscription at its base reading SALVS MVNDI, “Salvation of the World” and a Greek inscription at the top: IX?YC, meaning “fish” in Greek and an anagram of the names of Christ: Jesus Christ Son of God Savior.” The cross here is a symbol of Jesus Christ. Above the cross we see a golden sky representing a sunrise. In the sky are flanking figures of Moses and Elijah seemingly conversing with the cross. Below, a luscious green garden is filled with a variety of trees, plants, rocks, and birds. In the center of the garden is an image of Sant’Apollinare, once Bishop of Classe, to whom the church is dedicated and whose remains lie beneath the altar. The flock of Bishop Apollinare is represented by the 12 lambs processing toward him. Also in the garden, looking at the cross in wonderment, are 3 lambs representing the apostles Peter, James and John.

There’s more to look at around the apse walls and the surrounding arch but let’s leave it at this.

What is represented, of course, is the Transfiguration of our Lord (Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36). This view –experience– granted to the 3 apostles (given the horror of the passion that was to come) reassured them of Christ’s eternal glorification. The cross is presented as constructed of precious jewels. This glorified cross of Christ’s passion and death is a symbol of the Transfigured Christ, Himself.1 The scene represents the promise of glorification that is given to those who, at Mass, join their sacrifices to that of Jesus Christ. Those who partake of the sacred Body and Blood of the Eucharist, confected on the altar below the apse mosaic, become what they eat and are promised the same glorification suggested in the mosaic.

"Saint Apollinaris", detail from apse mosaic, Basilica of Sant'Apollinare

Christ’s promised salvation is available to us in His Church where we are nourished and fed through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. The bishop is the symbol of unity of that Church. “Wherever the Bishop appears, there let the multitude of the people be; just as where Christ Jesus is, there is the catholic church.”2 In the mosaic, the Church of Classe follows its bishop, Saint Apollinare, into the garden (paradise) of eternal happiness with Christ.  The saintly bishop, now in paradise, raises his arms in prayer to Christ in behalf of his flock just as the priest, acting in persona Christi, raises his arms in prayer to the Father during the Mass.

Holding out the Christian promise of salvation and eternal happiness is especially appropriate in today’s world in which mankind’s belief in its own power to create happiness without reference to God has failed miserably. The Sant’Apollinare mosaic, created centuries ago and under different societal and cultural circumstances, still offers us hope today. I am not suggesting we copy this mosaic but rather that we look to creating images for our sanctuaries that hold out the same Christian hope, that illustrate the same promise.

The history of the imagery of the Transfiguration, in our Catholic and Orthodox traditions, is just one place where we could turn to for inspiration as we prepare to once again populate our chancel areas with figurative imagery.


1 Jeweled crosses are believed to have been in imitation of a large bejeweled cross Emperor Constantine the Great had erected atop the hill of Golgotha in Jerusalem in the 4th century.

2St. Ignatius of Antioch, c. 111 AD, Letter to the Smyrneans 8


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One Response to “Images in the Chancel! (Part 3)”

  1. benanderson says:

    wow – how beautiful. keep up the good work, Bernie

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