Thursday, August 05, 2021

The Arian Baptistery of Ravenna, and the Mausoleum of Theoderic

Following up on yesterday’s post about the Orthodox Baptistery of Ravenna, today we look at its Arian counterpart, and the mausoleum of the Gothic king who built the latter, Theoderic. As leader of the Ostrogoths, it was he who established their rule over most of Italy in the later 5th century, under the nominal suzerainty of Byzantium. For much of his reign, he kept his capital at Ravenna, where he engaged in a number of important building projects, including a cathedral and a baptistery for the use of his Gothic subjects, the vast majority of whom were Arians. (For the most part, orthodox Christians were allowed to live peaceably under his reign.) Fourteen years after his death in 526, Ravenna was retaken by the Byzantines under the Emperor Justinian, whose policy was to take over Arian buildings and convert them to Catholic worship. Under the archbishop of Ravenna St Agnellus (556-69), the Arian baptistery was converted into an oratory dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In the wake of numerous other interventions in the following centuries, what remains today is essentially a fragment of the original, the central part, which preserves a large mosaic in its central cupola very similar to that of the Orthodox Baptistery. As with the other ancient buildings of Ravenna, the subsiding of the ground has brought the structure more than 7 feet beneath its original level. (Photos by Nicola de’ Grandi.)
The cupola mosaic consists of a central tondo of the Baptism of Christ, surrounded by an outer ring in which the Twelve Apostles process towards a royal throne with an empty Cross on it, the latter being a motif known as an etimasia.
As in the Orthodox Baptistery, Christ and St John the Baptist are accompanied by the dove of the Holy Spirit, and a third male figure, the personification of the River Jordan. Various attempts have been made to explain specific aspects of the image as expressions of the beliefs of the Arians; all of these run aground on the more basic fact that the Catholics who took over the building in 540 clearly did not perceive them as such, and left them alone.
The etimasia, which celebrates the majesty of Christ as revealed through His victory over death on the Cross. Note how the line of the Cross’ upright points directly through the Holy Spirit to the figure of Christ in the scene of the Baptism, indicating that the Son of God was revealed to us by the Father as our Redeemer. The Apostles closest to the throne are Ss Peter and Paul; the others are not labelled, and have no distinctive attributes.
Bare remains of the marble decorations that would originally have covered all of the brick walls.
The mausoleum of Theodoric was constructed sometime before his death in 526, outside the walls of Ravenna, in accordance with the ancient Roman custom by which burials were not permitted within a city. In the mid-9th century, a chronicler named Andreas Agnellus noted that it had been converted into a church with the name “Sancta Maria ad Farum – St Mary near the Lighthouse” of the nearby port, but it is now a museum, and retains almost no decoration.
Unlike the majority of contemporary mausolea, which are made out of brick, Theodoric’s is made from large blocks of limestone, quarried in Istria on the other side of the Adriatic sea, in what is now Croatia. The external arrangement of both stories is a decagon; on the inside, the lower story is cruciform, and the upper circular. The roof is single massive piece, also of Istrian limestone, over 35 feet wide, over 10 feet high, and weighing an astonishing 230 tons.
The remains of Theoderic’s sarcophagus, made out of an Egyptian stone called porphyry, from the Greek work for purple, much prized by the Romans, since it was the color of royalty. It is very heavy, and therefore difficult and expensive to transport; it is also extremely hard, and difficult (not, obviously, impossible) to break. Medieval artists knew how to break it into pieces, and often used it for floor tiles, but it was not until the early 16th century that artists rediscovered how to carve it, which requires first tempering it with acid.
Some remains of medieval decorations.

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