Albenga, Baptistery

Era 5AD - 6AD
Location Vico Scotto, 24, 17031 Albenga SV, Italy

The small octagonal Baptistery at Albenga in Liguria (north-west Italy has a mosaic. In the centre of the vault of the apse arch, is a jewelled Chi-Rho cross radiating light and placed on a blue background, with twelve doves around it, and rows of stars below; in a lunette, sheep stand either side of another jewelled cross with an Alpha and an Omega hanging from it. The inscription on the front of the arch gives the names of those saints whose relics were present in the church: Stephen; John the Evangelist; Laurence; Navoris; Protasus; Felicis and Gervasus. What the images used at Albenga ‘meant’ is also ambiguous. The two jewelled crosses perhaps represented Christ. One has a Chi-Rho, the first letters of his name in Greek (ΧΡ), the other an A and Ω dangling from it, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and a reference to the lines in the Book of Revelation (22.13) about the Second Coming of Christ: ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End’. The twelve birds through their number reminded the viewer of the twelve apostles. The sheep and the stars too can be given Christian interpretations: the righteous sheep separated from the goats (Matthew 25, 32); the stars representing the saved, shining like stars (Philippians 2, 15; Daniel 12, 3), so making a reference to salvation through Christ and to his Coming at the Last Judgement to sort the just from the unjust. Both are likewise important themes related to baptism, which welcomed believers into the church, putting them on the side of the saved sheep by washing them clean of their sins. Even the architectural form of this building was potentially meaningful: St. Ambrose had interpreted the eight sides of a baptistery or church as matching the eight days of creation, rest and resurrection.

Nothing is known of the patrons of the baptistery and its mosaics. The date of the mosaic is unknown: it has been put almost anywhere in the fifth and early sixth centuries, thanks to its similarities with other fifth-century mosaics. However, the amphorae used in the construction of the roof suggest that this dates to the last quarter of the fifth century, and what is true for the roof may also be the case for the mosaics.

An octagonal baptistery, often freestanding, with or without mosaics was not in itself an unusual phenomenon. Baptisteries were fundamental buildings for welcoming believers into the Christian fold. At least thirty are known of from Italian contexts.


Albenga was a prosperous and important Roman port, sited on the Via Julia Augusta, one of the major land routes to Southern France and Spain, and inhabited throughout Late Antiquity. There seems to have been a continuous military presence in the city throughout the period, and this may have made a difference to its survival and success in the turbulent fifth-century history of the Roman Empire.