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.

Does god really need a billboard?

Someone seriously expects us to believe god loves billboards, particularly one lording over the river?

Time for an intercession?

According to one website, the patron saint of advertising, Saint Bernadine of Sienna:

…was accustomed to preach holding a board on which were the first three letters of the Savior’s name in its Greek form–‘IHS’–surrounded by rays, and he persuaded people to copy these plaques and erect them over their dwellings and public buildings.

Oh, Saint Bernadine, what did you unleash?

Maybe we need an intervention by Panchito instead?

Note: Read about the St. Catherine of Bologna-pleasing bridge railing by George Schroeder here.

Update on June 15, 2012: Seeking a poem by Yeats I cannot remember, I came across an assemblage of tree quotations at garden digest containing the most obvious one to have included with this post:

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.

Ogden Nash, Song of the Open Road, 1933

And then this by extension:

No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.

John Muir

Lest you think this was an attack on religion, war has broken out in San Antonio. Atheists have launched a counter-attack, mounting their own billboards along major arteries. Claiming nonbelievers are ostracized in San Antonio, the billboards invite them to “join the club.”

Two wrongs definitely do not make a right; they just make more wrong things.

Wish Lady Bird Johnson would fly up out of her grave and haunt them all.

Update on February 2, 2013: Oh, no. They are multiplying. Billboards “showing the way to God” are so abundant, they qualify for Clear Channel’s “volume discount,” according to the San Antonio Express-News.

“Upsize your life,” reads one.

Like fast-food burgers and fries, signs are among things that shouldn’t be upsized.