After having written previously on “The Early Church Tradition of Separate Seating,” many I had spoken to remained unconvinced that this was in fact an Early Church tradition that is not confined to a particular culture, but was normal among all of Christendom. Yet we have preserved for us physical evidence of this tradition, displayed in the Sant’Apollinare Nuovo church in an ancient city known as Ravenna.
Ravenna, in modern-day Italy, served as the seat of the Roman empire in the 5th century, and then of the Byzantine empire until the 8th Century. While many ancient Byzantine churches in Constantinople were mutilated and stripped of their ornate decorations after the city was taken over by the Ottomans in the 15th century, the city of Ravenna retains much of its ancient Byzantine religious art.
The now-named Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna has a unique feature that serves as evidence of the early tradition of separate seating. When you step into the church, you will find a row of mosaics to the left and right dating to around the 6th century which show a procession of 22 virgin women of the Byzantine period, and a similar procession on the opposite side of 26 male martyrs.
These mosaics serve as physical evidence in support of the early Church witness to separate seating being the normal practice, as I shared in my previous article on the subject, where I provided remarks evincing the same from St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Augustine, and St. John Chrysostom.
On a totally separate note, you will find something else quite interesting in the mosaics:
You will notice that the procession of women are led by three Magi (notice also the star in the corner of the above image), and the Magi depicted here are given the names Balthassar, Melchior, and Caspar. This is thought to be the earliest example of these three names being assigned to the Magi in Christian art. Note that the Bible is silent on the exact number of Magi that journeyed to see Christ shortly after His birth; the reason they are commonly perceived as having consisted of only three Magi is because of the number of gifts presented.
FURTHER READING / NOTES
Attributions for select images above. All other images were taken by me.