The Procession of Virgins at Sant'Apollinare Nuovo: The Magi and the Virgin and Child

6th century
Church of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

The Procession of Virgins goes the length of the left wall of the nave, just above the columns, led by the the three Magi, who themselves follow the Star of Bethlehem as they bring their gifts to the Virgin and Child at the east end of the mosaic. Deliyannis notes that "many depictions of imperial court scenes include representations of foreign peoples paying tribute to the enthroned ruler." She also suggests that the three may represent the men who would lead a procession of virgins into the church.1

At the culmination of the procession, the Christ Child sits "enthroned" on the lap of his mother. Like the angels, he wears the traditional outfit of the late Roman period: an inner tunic with tight sleeves, an outer tunic with stripes leading from shoulder to hem, and a pallium draped under the right arm and over the left shoulder. His right hand is raised while his left, possibly holding a scroll, is covered by a fold in the pallium. This gesture derives ultimately from classical images of philosophers, and the whole throne scene is a revision of earlier iconography in which an adult Christ made similar gestures from a throne of his own.2 The gesture is doubled by Mary, a sign of her participation in Christ's mission. As a further mark of her importance she wears the red shoes and the purple garments of a woman of the imperial court.

The angels flanking the throne are an innovation of the 6th century; previously, saints had invariably been the figures flanking the throne.3

Garden Arabis (Arabis caucasica). Photo and information: Wikipedia.

The white flowers flanking the base of the throne are garden arabis (Arabis caucasica), which is native to southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean. They also flank the base of Christ's throne in the mosaic that faces this one across the nave, and they appear as decorative elements on each end of a paleo-Christian sarcophagus in Ravenna's suburb of Classe.

The parts of the Magi above their waists are not original but a 19th-century restoration.4

View a detail: The Magi.
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View the entire left wall.
Read more about images of the Magi.

Photographed at the church by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

1 Deliyannis, 169.

2 Shepherd, 93-95.

3 Ibid., 93.

4 Deliyannis, 166.