Ravenna, Orthodox Baptistery

Also known as Neonian Baptistery
Era 5AD
Location Piazza Arcivescovado, 2, 48121 Ravenna RA, Italy

Bishop Neon (c450-473) built a baptistery to replace an earlier structure by the cathedral of the city. The baptistery is a free-standing octagonal building, like the baptisteries in other major cities such as Milan and Aquileia, not to mention Albenga, perhaps echoing the Lateran Baptistery. It’s known as the Neonian Baptistery (after the bishop) and as the Orthodox Baptistery, to distinguish it from the slightly later Arian Baptistery. Orthodox indicates its patron and users followed standard orthodox doctrines.

Neon filled his baptistery with mosaic scenes. The baptism of Christ - an appropriate if obvious choice of scene for this building – is located in the centre of the dome. It is a bit odd looking but has been heavily restored. Below, on a green base and against a blue background, the twelve apostles, separated by golden plants and led by Peter and Paul, march around, drapes of cloth above their heads. The lowest register has a repeating design in which four empty thrones flanked by a garden design straight out of Roman wall painting alternate with four niches containing a book on a lectern (the Gospels). In the lunettes of the arches, gold vinescrolls froth out from vases, entangling crosses, peacocks and griffins. The theme of baptism is prominent, but the imagery is also evocative of salvation and paradise (the empty thrones, the plants). Below, completing the elaborate and costly effect, are stucco prophets and then, elaborate hardstone decoration.

Neon also completed the church known as the Petriana and hence was probably responsible for its mosaics. He himself was buried below a mosaic of Sts Peter and Paul (though where is unknown). In this sort of work, bishops were almost certainly stepping up to keep their city supplied with the necessary ecclesiastical buildings, at whatever cost, to maintain its status after the emperors had returned to Rome. Much building in Ravenna in the fifth century, including church building, was constructed from bricks, marbles, architectural sculpture and even tesserae recycled from earlier Roman structures in the city. This was both a very practical measure, and an easy re-appropriation of the glorious Roman past and Roman traditions.

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