Ravenna’s Orthodox Baptistery was built by bishop Ursus just to the north of Ravenna’s cathedral, the Duomo, which was also Ursus’ work. However, it was bishop Neon (ca. 450-473) who rebuilt and redecorated the Baptistery, and the structure is now often named the ‘Neonian Baptistery’ after him. The decorations inside are dazzling and they have survived almost intact. The walls and ceiling are adorned with mosaics, marble, stucco work and paint.
Dimensions of the Baptistery
Like the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Orthodox Baptistery is quite small. The building has an octagonal shape and was built of reused Roman bricks, like so many other buildings in Ravenna from the same period. The sides of the octagon measure little over 5 metres on the outside, and are even shorter on the inside. From the entrance to the back wall is about 12 metres. Clearly the baptistery cannot accommodate large crowds. When we visited the building in June 2016, we were fortunate that a group of some twenty Polish tourists and their guide were just leaving when we were about to enter. We had the Baptistery all to ourselves and had plenty of time to admire the interior, especially the ceiling, which is about 11 metres above the current ground level (like all buildings in Ravenna, the baptistery is slowly sinking into the ground and the ground level was therefore raised on multiple occasions in the past; the original ground level is some 3 metres below today’s ground level).
Let us start at the bottom, with the baptismal font in the middle. Although much in the Baptistery is still original, the baptismal font is not. It was replaced by a new one in the later Middle Ages or – according to the (old) Ravenna Turismo website – in the sixteenth century. The font is octagonal on the outside and on the inside, and made of marble and porphyry slabs and columns, held together by metal clasps. A pulpit with a cross is part of the font. Above the cross is the image of a dove, which is of course the symbol for the Holy Spirit.
At the ground level, we find arches on all eight sides supported by eight columns. The arches are decorated with mosaics of acanthus scrolls, while inside the scrolls we see eight medallions above the columns with a male figure inside. The figures are wearing tunics and the two depicted here – see the image below – are carrying a book and a scroll. The men’s faces are not identical; some have beards, while others have no facial hair at all. Unlike the apostles of the ceiling mosaics (see below), the figures are not labelled, so we do not know who they are. They are simply called ‘prophets’ in the literature and were presumably not intended to represent specific persons.
What is interesting, is that the Baptistery has four small apsides, all of which have texts related to the practice of baptism. In the picture above, we see the Latin text from Psalm 31 :1-2:
BEATI QVORVM REMISSAE SVNT INIQVITATES
ET QVORUM TECTA SVNT PECCATA
BEATVS VIR CVI NON INPVTAVIT DOMINVS PECCATVM
(free translation: Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered, blessed is the man to whom God has not imputed sin)
There are three more texts, one of which is also from the Book of Psalms. The other two are paraphrases of passages in the Gospels according to Matthew and John. The text based on John refers to Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. The washing of feet by the bishop was purportedly part of the baptismal ritual as it was performed in the 400s.
The window zone
We move up one level and arrive at the window zone. Between the large windows, we find stucco reliefs of male figures. Again, they are interpreted as prophets. Because there are sixteen of them, it is fair to assume they are the “sixteen prophets” from the Old Testament, that is: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. The figures are carrying books and scrolls, either opened or closed. All of them are clean-shaven. Originally they would have been painted in bright colours, except for their tunics, which were probably as white as they are now. Above the prophets in the image on the right, we see a large shell, and above that are images of animals.
The windows are topped by arches which make up the base of the dome. Here we arrive at the most interesting part: three circular zones of mosaics.
The outer zone, which is still part of the base, has mosaics of the four Gospels, interspersed with images of four empty thrones with a garment and a cross (hetoimasia). The empty thrones likely refer to Christ’s parousia, his Second Coming. The Four Gospels, on the other hand, are easily identified because there are texts like EVANGELIVM SECVN MARCUM on the pages of the four books.
Then we get to the middle zone, which is where the dome begins. It has mosaics portraying the twelve apostles, who are all labelled and can thus also be identified easily. In the image below, we see – from left to right – Thomas, Paul, Peter and his brother Andrew. Their garments are either white and gold (white tunic, gold mantle) or gold and white. The apostles are carrying crowns and they all have different faces. Peter and Paul look familiar as ever: Peter has short grey hair and a cropped grey beard, while Paul has a high forehead and is balding. The apostle of the Jews and the self-declared apostle of the Gentiles (Romans 11:13) are each leading five apostles in a procession that starts above the central medallion and end just below it.
The central medallion is obviously the most important and the most spectacular part of all the decorations of the Baptistery. The mosaic in the medallion depicts the baptism of Christ as described in the Gospels according to Mark and Matthew:
Mark 1:9-11 (KJV)
9 And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.
10 And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
11 And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
Matthew 3:13-17 (KJV)
13 Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.
14 But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?
15 And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.
16 And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him:
17 And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
The elements from the two Gospels are all there. On the left, we see John the Baptist in clothes made of camel hair. He has a halo and is holding a large jewelled staff with a cross. John is in the process of baptising Christ in the river Jordan. A young, bearded and haloed Christ is immersed in the river up to his waist, with the dove of the Holy Spirit above him. On the right is a personification of the river Jordan, labelled as such. We have seen personifications of the island of Crete and of King Minos’ labyrinth in the famous Paphos mosaics on Cyprus (second or third century), and these personifications were very common in Greco-Roman art. Although of pagan origin, such personifications were often copied by early Christians and thus a personified river Jordan is not out of place in a fifth century Christian baptistery. In this case, the bearded Jordan is holding a green mantle to clothe Christ after his baptism. Christ is, of course, naked, and the mosaicist chose to include even the ‘tiny details’.
Although the medallion is splendid, it must be said that it was also heavily restored in the nineteenth century. This is quite evident, as the part with the heads of Christ and John has a different colour. The man responsible for the restoration was Felice Kibel (1814-1872), a Roman artist who was active in Ravenna from the 1850s until his death. His restoration methods probably would not have met today’s standards. John’s jewelled cross may actually have been a shepherd’s staff (it is in the Arian Baptistery elsewhere in Ravenna), and it is quite possible that Christ was beardless in the original mosaic (again, he is in the Arian Baptistery). John’s hand has also been restored and it is plausible that he had his hand on Christ’s head in the fifth century mosaic (once again, he has in the Arian Baptistery…). That would make the bowl that we see now a product of Kibel’s fantasy.
Of course it is easy to criticise Kibel for his lack of respect for the original work, but I think it is fair to say that at least he did a decent job, technically speaking. The central medallion is now complete again and in excellent condition. The medallion and the other decorations inside the Baptistery all work together with their dazzling colours to create a splendid atmosphere. A visit to Ravenna is truly not complete without a visit to the Orthodox Baptistery.
– Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis, Ravenna in Late Antiquity, p. 88-100;
– Ravenna Turismo website.
Update 11 August 2022: text and images have been updated.