Ravenna: Comparing the Ostrogothic Arian Baptistery and the Roman Orthodox Baptistery

Now I will tell you about the Ostrogothic Arian Baptistery and for comparison of the christening scene recall the Roman Orthodox (Neonian) Baptistery. To conclude, we will visit the Mausoleum of Theoderic to say good-bye to him and his Ostrogoths.

Let us recap: In March 2018 we spent five days in Ravenna to see the town with its eight sites of UNESCO World Heritage:

  • two from the Western Roman Empire (402-476): the Mausoleum Galla Placidia and the Orthodox or Neonian Baptistery.
  • four from the Ostrogothic Rule (493-540): Theoderic’s Mausoleum, the Arian Baptistery, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (remodeled during Byzantine times) and the Archbishop’s Chapel.
  • two from the Byzantine Rule (540-751): San Vitale and Sant’Apollinare in Classe (both started during Ostrogoth times, but inaugurated in Byzantine times).

(In the fourth ostrogothic World Heritage which is the Archbishop’s Chapel with Christ as a warrior it is not allowed to take pictures).


Let us return to the Orthodox (Neonian) Baptistery and compare the christening scene with the Arian baptistery

Remember the christening scene in the Orthodox Baptistery from my previous blog? Saint John holds a bowl to baptize Christ and the pigeon flies above – to me it seems to bless the water in the bowl. Historians assume that this christening scene has been altered later and that the scene in the Arian Baptistery reflects the original mosaic with Saint Joan holding his hand on Christ’s head and the Holy Spirit really flowing from the pigeon on to the head of Christ (see farther down).

By the way you can clearly discern the apostles Petrus with his grey hair (bottom left) and Paulus with his bald head (left from Petrus).


The Arian Baptistery – smaller and more intimate – again  just aaahhh

The Arian baptistery is smaller than the Orthodox Baptistery. The short absidioles at the bottom of the facade indicate that the building used to be much higher.

Inside I utter another “aaahhh”. The room is full of modest solemnity with the christening scene and the procession of the apostles in the cupola. The apostles move towards the throne of Christ, and Petrus (with his grey hair) as well as Paulus (with his bald head) are on both sides of the throne.

As mentioned abovem this christening scene is different from the one in the Orthodox Baptistery. In the Ariane Baptistery, Saint John holds his hand on Christ’s head and the pigeon pours Holy Spirit on to Christ’s head. Furthermore, Saint John, dressed in his fur coat, holds a walking stick instead of a cross. The god of the river Jordan is of the same size as the main figures and he has crabs on his head. The two scenes are very similar, but different, and the setup of the Arian Baptistery is deemed to be original. I love how gently Saint John looks at Christ.

The Arian Baptistery was built  around the year 500 by the Ostrogothic Arianic Christian community. The Ostrogothic king, Theoderic the Great, belonged to the Arianic community. Arians believe that Christ is the son of God, “but that he is distinct from the Father and therefore subordibate to him”, wikipedia explains, as opposed to the Orthodox-Catholics (still one church at that time) that believe in Trinity –  God, the Holy Spirit and Christ are one God in three divine persons. The Orthodox-Catholics declared the Arianic concept to be heretic and they persecuted them.

The Arianic community in Ravenna was small. This might explain, why their baptistery is smaller. Historians say that their mosaic had been completed in two stages. They conclude this from the fact that under the throne, the grey-headed apostle Petrus and the bald headed apostle Paulus as well as under the third apostle next to Paulus the lawn is of much darker green color than under all the other apostles. Only around the throne, there are flowers. And in addition the palm trees look different. The historians assume that, when the throne, Petrus, Paulus and the third apostle had been accomplished, the Arians run out of money – and only later they were able to complete the procession of the apostles.

I love the unostentatios solemnity of this small baptistery. Being baptized here must have been a great experience.


Good-bye Theoderic

I think that Theoderic was a very modern person. He is said to have been tolerant and cosmopolitic – I sense, as if he had lived through the times of Enlightment. In his mausoleum, we say good-bye to him.

The mauseoleum is one of the eight monuments of Ravenna in the World Heritage List. It consists of carefully cut Istrian stone blocks and excels by its 10.76m monolithic dome weighing 230 tons (Source: Rizzardi). On the second floor stands the porphyry sarcophagus of – as historians think – Theoderic.

When the Byzantines took over in 540, they removed his body, because they were against Arianism. Why? A belief that allows for a tolerant and cosmopolitic attitude is wonderful – and I would love to see more of that right today.

Clementina Rizzardi: “Ravenna, Eight Monuments World Heritage”, Municipality of Ravenna
Carola Jäggi: Ravenna, “Kunst und Kultur einer spätantiken Residenzstadt”, Schnell+Steiner, Regensburg 2016
Jutta Dresken-Weiland: “Die frühchristlichen Mosaike von Ravenna”, Schnell+Steiner, Regensburg 2016.

One thought on “Ravenna: Comparing the Ostrogothic Arian Baptistery and the Roman Orthodox Baptistery

  1. […] scene reminds me of the mosaic in the Arian Baptistery at Ravenna. Also here, Jesus stands in the river Jordan. The river is personified by an old man (to the left […]

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