This image from San Apollinare Nuovo, the 6th c. basillica in Ravenna, Italy has been the foundation of wide spread folk speculation in Mormonism. It appears to be a veil with a hand sticking out in a welcoming gesture to follow the hand inside. Furthermore, the robes of some of the figures coming out of this place (seen below) are white and have familiar markings (though in different places than LDS might expect). LDS members have promoted this image as evidence for early Christian practices of sacred rites similar to the endowment in the LDS temple. This image recently came up in conversation so I decided to look into it a bit more.
When I visited this site many years ago, I asked an attendant working there what the meaning of the hands poking out from behind the curtain could be. He told me that there had once been figures standing in the doorways that had been erased. If you just want to short story, I am completely convinced that this is the correct explanation. I will explain why below if you want the nitty gritty details.
San Apollinare Nuovo is now dedicated to Saint Apollinaris, the first missionary to have brought Christianity to Ravenna and Classe, the port city to Ravenna. There is another church dedicated to this Saint in Classe, and San Apollinare Nuovo was not originally decidated to him, but was later rededicated in the 8th c.
This church was originally built in 504 CE by the Ostrogoth emperor Theodoric as his palace chapel. The palace is no longer extant, but is actually the building represented in the mosaic where the hands are sticking out. If you read the writing at the top of the building, it is not a religious building at all, but clearly says PALATIVM, or “palace.”
This image appears on the right side of the nave. The two sides of the nave feature two processions. On the left, virgins, or perhaps female martyrs, led by the three magi, process from the city of Classe, near Ravenna, to the infant Christ on Mary’s lap.
On the right, male martyrs process from the Palace of Theodoric, to an adult, resurrected Christ sitting on his throne. In its iconography, it combines both the city and the Palace as centers of Theodoric’s kingdom and links them in a direct line to the church, Mary, and Christ.
The popularized interpretation of this scene as evidence of temple practices faces a number of problems. First, the hands themselves are often fragmented and only appear on the columns themselves. Even finger tips are cut off. Full arms extending behind the curtains do not exist. The best explanation remains that the images inside the columns were erased and the curtains put up in their place. The figures inside the columns were likely standing in the orans position of prayer with arms extended.
Second, the supposed temple imagery does not make any sense in the overall context of the scene. This building is clearly a palace, and would not have any religious function, especially not the performance of sacred rites. The two sides of the church present parallel processions (last I checked, not part of the temple), one from a palace and one from the city. Why would only males be leaving this place of sacred rites and females leave from the city? Furthermore, the figures are processing away from the veil, not toward it.
If the views of experts who have worked closely with these mosaics is that the images inside the columns of the palace are a later edition, why and when were the figures inside the Palace erased? Well, the Ostrogothic emperor Theodoric happens to have been a heretic of the Arian variety. The Gothic forces controlled much of Italy until the Byzantine emperor Justinian began to try to reunite the old Roman empire under his authority, taking Ravenna in 540.
After Justinian’s generals retook control of the areas held by Arian Gothic tribes, they kept the churches and converted them back to orthodoxy. Justinian rededicated this church in 561 to Saint Martin of Tours, a renowned opponent of Arianism. Specific memories of both Arianism and Gothic rulers were erased. It is extremely likely that Theodoric, his generals, and perhaps his family appeared in the palace. The churches built under Justinian feature himself and the Empress Theodora prominantly.
After the Byzantines took control of Ravenna, 36 years after Theodoric had built his major church,the image of the former heretical emperor Theodoric might have been just too much. All that remains of Theodoric and his court piously standing in his palace are the fragments of some limbs that the mosaic craftsmen, for whatever reason (perhaps finding a consistently matching color?), decided to just replace the outline inside the columns alone. So, unfortunately, this is not a convincing piece of evidence for ancient Christians practicing temple ceremonies.