Postcard from Ravenna, Italy: ‘We three kings of Orient are?’

Detailed wish lists for newborns are commonplace online, but aromatic resins must have fallen out of popularity. Maybe because frankincense and myrrh are not stocked by retailers such as Babies ‘R’ Us. Most parents of today would welcome gold though.

These are the gifts presented in the manger by the three kings from the east who followed the star. The Mister’s mother, Virginia Hornor Spencer (1924-2000), would unroll handsome gold banners featuring the kings each year for the holidays, launching the annual trivia quiz to recall the names of the wise men.

The photo above eliminates the challenge by labeling them: Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspar. In this mosaic in Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, the kings are followed by a parade of 22 virgins.

This church was constructed for Theodoric the Great (493-526), who, in addition to his own baptistery, wanted a private Arian chapel near his palace. He is credited with commissioning the top row of prophets lining the walls. Some of his Arian Christian mosaics were altered after the Byzantine branch of the Catholic Church recaptured Ravenna from what they considered barbaric heretics. The parades of the virgins and martyrs were added by the more mainstream Catholics.

Saint Apollinaris was an early bishop of Ravenna who supposedly suffered through a torture and release program practiced by Roman emperors against the early Christians. He endured beatings, hackings by knives, forced walks over hot coals, time in the dungeon and numerous expulsions from Ravenna before his final capture resulted in wounds from which he did not recover.

Around the year 900, the martyr’s relics were moved to this church, which was renamed in his honor with the “Nuovo” tag to distinguish it from the first church to house his remains as it was near the sea and prone to raids by pirates. Most of Saint Apollinaris’ parts are divided between the two Apollinare churches of Ravenna.

The cylindrical bell tower was added in the 9th or 10th century, and the marble porch was tacked onto the basilica in the 16th century. The altar and its dome were altered much later.

Postcard from Ravenna, Italy: A pair of baptisteries

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.