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.

Postcard from Ravenna, Italy: A sleeping beauty awakened

Honorius (384-423) was only ten years old when his father died. Sad fact on its own, but his father was Theodosius the Great (347-395), Emperor of the Roman Empire. With big shoes to fill, he needed to grow up quickly. The rule of the empire was divided, with his older brother reigning over the eastern half and Honorius presiding over the western half.

Pesky barbarians kept trying to wrest control of his empire, and Honorius decided to move his capital to Ravenna in 402. The new capital was viewed as easy to defend, surrounded by fortifications built by earlier emperors and marshland. While the capital could be defended, its location left much of the rest of Italy vulnerable.

In 408, the Roman Senate bought their way out of danger by paying the Visigoths 4,000 pounds of gold to leave Italy alone. But having run through that the Goths returned to sack Rome itself in 410. Britain and much of the rest of the Roman Empire were left without Roman protection. And, although Rome was regained in 414, Honorius is remembered for the defeats suffered and the unraveling of the empire during his reign.

Perhaps tired of being cold, the Goths returned with a vengeance under the leadership of the King of the Ostrogoths, Theodoric the Great (454-526). Theodoric made Ravenna the base for his new Arian kingdom, welcoming more than 200,000 of his followers to settle in Italy. While this was bad for much of Italy, Ravenna flourished under the attention.

Two decades after Theodoric’s death, Justinian I (483-565), the Byzantine Emperor, was able to wrest control of Ravenna and much of Italy from the Ostrogoths. Ravenna continued to benefit from royal attention.

After the 8th century, Ravenna was no longer a star. This lack of attention and imperialistic investment turned her into somewhat of a sleeping beauty, extremely beneficial for preserving the city’s early Christian monuments. Eight of its 5th and 6th century buildings are recognized on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as demonstrating “great artistic skill, including a wonderful blend of Graeco-Roman tradition, Christian iconography and oriental and Western styles.”

The mosaics inside these monuments are Ravenna’s main attractions, but we are going to ease into those. This first postcard from Ravenna is simply a random combination of photos of the city to whet your appetite.

Threw in a little bit of food from lunch to make you hungrier for Ravenna. We stumbled across a nice restaurant with street-side seating, La Gardela. As ridiculous as this sounds, the zucchini fries alone were worth the train ride from Bologna.

Okay, it’s not fair to totally hold out on the mosaics. Peek if you must at this UNESCO preview.