Wednesday, August 04, 2021

The Orthodox Baptistery of Ravenna

Until the early 5th century, the cathedral of Ravenna was at the nearby port city of Classe, where we saw the basilica of St Apollinaris last month. At the very end of the 4th century, St Ursus (399-426), the predecessor of St Peter Chrysologus, began building a new cathedral in Ravenna itself, some remains of which are incorporated into the current cathedral. He also began a new baptistery, which is generally known as the “orthodox” baptistery, since it was used by those who professed the orthodox Nicene faith, as opposed to that of the Arians. It is also known the Neonian Baptistery from St Neon (451-68), St Peter’s successor, who completed it by replacing the original flat roof with a cupola, richly decorated with mosaics. In common with many early baptisteries, the structure is octagonal, the eight sides representing the eight persons who were saved on Noah’s ark, a symbol of the Church, and the cycle of creation and new creation, with Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, being the first and the eighth day. Like many buildings in Ravenna, it has subsided considerably since its original construction, and is now over 6 feet below its original level. The small apses were added in the tenth century, but the rest of the walls are original. (Photos by Nicola de’ Grandi.)
The baptismal font is relatively new, from the 16th century, but the raised platform from which the priest performed the baptisms is original, from the 5th century.
The mosaic cupola
In the tondo at the center, the Baptism of Christ; the brighter area in the upper part of it, including the faces of both Christ and John the Baptist, and the dove of the Holy Spirit, are restorations of the 18th century. The figure behind the Lord, labelled as the personification of the River Jordan, is original. In the blu eband around them are the Twelve Apostles, each of whom is dressed as a Roman senator, and holding a crown.

The outer band of the mosaics alternates between crosses placed on elaborately decorated thrones (one at each cardinal point), a motif known as an etimasia, and the books of the four Gospels between them. To each side of the thrones is an enclosed garden, and to each side of the Gospel books, a less ornate throne in an apse.
Like many ancient Christians monuments, the baptistery has undergone more than one restoration. By the early 20th century, the original mosaic decorations above the windows were in very rough condition, and all removed, replaced by these frescoe which show no more than an outline of their motif. To either side of the windows were panels in painted stucco of the four major and twelve minor prophets, which were mistakenly thought to be later additions, and also removed in the early 20th century. When it was realized that this was in fact a mistake, they were replaced with copies.
In the small apses are inscriptions referring to the Sacrament of Baptism; here, the beginning of Psalm 31, “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord hath not imputed sin.”
“Where Jesus put of His garments, and put water in a basin, and washed the feet of His disciples.” In many parts of northern Italy, a washing of the feet was done as part of the rites of baptism, in imitation of the events of the Last Supper narrated at the beginning of John 13. As we noted in an article last April, St Ambrose refers to this custom at the end of the fourth century, and the relevant Gospel is read on the Saturday of Easter week in the Ambrosian Rite.
Psalm 22, “He hath set me in a place of pasture. He hath brought me up, on the water of refreshment.”
Fragments of the same very high quality marble entarsias, made of these same materials (porphyry green serpentine), and in similar patterns, are also seen in the baptistery of St John in the Lateran in Rome, which is contemporary to this one.
Various unidentified are persons depicted in the arches at the corners.

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