Ravenna has a pair of octagonal brick baptisteries dating from the first 500 years or so of Christianity. The oldest of the two, the Neonian Orthodox Baptistery, is named for Bishop Neon who had the existing structure crowned with a masonry dome. The second baptistery was built by Theodoric the Great, the King of the Ostrogoths, because…?
Maybe Theodoric wanted one closer to his palace; although Ravenna certainly is walkable. Plus, Theodoric was an Arian Christian, as opposed to Orthodox or Roman Catholic. To those mainstream Catholics, Arian Christians were heretics. Not a theologian, I have little understanding of the distinctions. Obviously, the differences are major or there would not have been two baptisteries, and the Ostrogoths and those they battled probably would have gotten along better.
The followers of these religions all believed in Jesus, but differed concerning the balance of power. Arians made Jesus subservient to God, His Father, and there was no Trinity. Arians, therefore, were not haunted by the Holy Ghost as part of the religious triumvirate. That made things much simpler to explain to potential converts because the Holy Spirit is conceptually difficult to grasp, particularly since the image is not personified.
Theodoric’s mosaic artists probably were not Arian because the Holy Ghost, represented as a dove, is hovering above spurting water over the scene above to assist the John the Baptist, modestly clad in a leopard-skin cloak. This was fortunate because, when the Arians were kicked back out of Ravenna only a couple of decades later, the mosaics were not destroyed as heretical.
The duplication of baptisteries is particularly interesting because, according to an article by Annabel Jane Wharton, the ceremonial structures were rarely used:
In the early Church, the principal baptismal liturgy took place once a year, on Easter Sunday eve: the of the Resurrection was deemed the most appropriate moment in which to die and be reborn in Christ…. Enrollment of those to be baptized took place at the beginning of Lent…. In the weeks of Lent efforts were made to prepare initiates for their admittance into the full fellowship of the Church through an arduous routine of fasting, catechism, and daily exorcism.
Wharton wrote participants entered the baptisteries and faced west first to renounce the Devil, then east to embrace Christ. Garments probably were removed before the baptism, leaving the new believers as exposed as Jesus above, with his navel the geographical center of the artistic composition and the dome. Then the baptized donned white garments as a sign of their new-found purity.
Because I feel fairly confident few religious scholars would read very far into my posts, I have taken the liberty of jumbling the photographs from the two baptisteries together into one collage. When returning from trips and sorting through images, I sometimes feel as though someone took the whole proverbial slide tray, dumped them out and shuffled them to confuse me. I do believe all of these photos belong to one baptistery or the other.
While years of Saturday catechism classes at Star of the Sea left me with a rather hazy understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit, I am sure happy the nuns opted for a rap on the knuckles instead of requiring daily exorcism during Lent.
2 thoughts on “Postcard from Ravenna, Italy: A pair of baptisteries”
These last two Ravenna entries, with their stunning photos at San Vitale and the Baptistries brought back wonderful memories of those splendors. Our architecture program was there two days during my year in Italy, so there was time to see much, including the Mausolea of Galla Placidia and Theodoric (that monolithic stone roof is something else). I don’t think I was as tuned in to these exquisite mosaic details as you were. The difference may be that you had a good lens on your camera to get up close.
One other difference in your visit and mine is that I was there during the early winter and it was drizzly the whole time. Still can remember long walks in the evenings, basking in the Weltschmerz from my Hermann Hesse readings. ( I don’t think college kids today do that sort of thing. It’s not possible to nurture any kind of melancholy when you have your nose in Facebook much of the time.)
Roland – We’re just using a little Nikon Coolpix, but it has a pretty nice zippy zoom on it. If I zoom too close, it turns out pretty fuzzy; fortunately, the Mister’s hand is steadier. Happy you are enjoying the mosaics because I have a few more “postcards” coming from Ravenna soon….