Ravenna, Arian Baptistery

Era 6AD
Location 48121 Ravenna, Province of Ravenna, Italy

In the early sixth century, a major episcopal complex of cathedral, called the Anastasis (now the church of S Spirito), baptistery (known now as the Arian Baptistery, to distinguish it from the fifth-century Neonian or Orthodox Baptistery), and bishop’s palace for the Arian bishop of Ravenna were constructed in Ravenna.

The Arian Baptistery (c500-525), like the Neonian Baptistery of some twenty five years earlier, is an octagonal baptistery. Inside, the mosaics (which have been restored) comprise a central roundel depicting Christ baptised by St John, with a personification of the River Jordan seated next to him and a dove dive-bombing Christ from above. The twelve apostles process around the roundel in two lines, heading towards an empty throne. Similarities in imagery if not in style with the Neonian Baptistery are obvious, and much scholarly time has been spent on trying to see if the differences in the iconography might say anything about doctrinal differences between Arian and Orthodox Christians. This has not been terribly profitable, if only because doctrinally, the meanings and rituals of baptism were the same for both. Significantly, the mosaics were not altered when the baptistery was reconsecrated for use by the Orthodox, demonstrating that they saw no problems with the images.


Arianism (theological detour) Arianism was yet another theological dispute, Trinitarian rather than about the nature of Christ, though the two are inevitably related, and this time dating originally to the fourth century. Arius, a priest of Alexandria (d.336) proposed that Christ was a creation of God the Father, rather than his son born of Mary. So rather than a co-equal Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit, God the Father was the superior figure and the Holy Spirit was created by Christ and/or God. It was a very popular belief held by several emperors including Constantine the Great’s son, Constantius, increasingly accepted in Italy and the Balkans, especially by the ‘barbarians’, but condemned by the first Church Council of Constantinople in 381.. Theoderic: Ostrogoth and Arian. The fifth century saw the slow fragmentation of the Roman Empire in the West into a series of barbarian kingdoms maintaining greater or lesser aspects of Roman rule and cultural traditions. In the early sixth century, the most successful and powerful of these barbarian kings was Theoderic the Ostrogoth. He had spent a long time both as a child and a young man, as hostage and then favoured imperial official in Constantinople, even becoming consul under the late fifth-century emperor, Zeno. This exposure to the Eastern Roman Empire and his familiarity with the ways in which its emperors ruled seem to have influenced his own construction of authority. Theoderic returned to the Ostrogoths, becoming king in 488, and invaded Italy with Byzantine encouragement. Odoacer, who had deposed the last Western Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, and who called himself King of Italy, was defeated and killed in Ravenna by Theoderic in 493, leaving Theoderic as effectively leader of the remains of the Western Roman Empire, or what was actually the kingdom of the Ostrogoths. By the time of his death in 526, Theoderic was recognised as king in both Rome and Byzantium and his kingdom was a considerable one, taking in Italy, Sicily, the Western Balkans, and Spain, as well as having dynastic connections and influences across the different kingdoms in Europe - the Burgundians, Visigoths, Vandals and Franks. Under much of Theoderic’s rule, Italy prospered as he enforced peace and collected taxes.

Theoderic made Ravenna his main residence, and centred the administrative system of the kingdom, based on imperial bureaucracy, in the city. As a result, Ravenna became even more important, wealthy and populous, growing in size to perhaps 10,000, its greatest extent, and filled with a range of new buildings supplementing those of the previous century, from palaces and walls to aqueducts and granaries. Like many of the Christian barbarians who invaded Italy, he was an Arian Christian, and like the Orthodox Christian emperors in Rome and Constantinople, Theoderic built churches throughout his city. Symbolically, on its coins and in its mosaics, Ostrogothic Ravenna was compared to Rome and to Constantinople, until Theoderic’s dynasty came to an end in 540. It is clear that Theoderic’s building programme in Ravenna intended to promote a public image of the king as renovator, as the successor of the Roman emperors and as creator of a royal capital modelled on but also equal to Constantinople and Rome.

Theoderic’s mosaics in Ravenna underline these aspects of his rule and his romanitas. As previous emperors had in both the West and in Constantinople, he utilized mosaic in a secular context. In his palace in Ravenna was a mosaic showing the king paired with personifications of Rome and Ravenna. His mausoleum (in Ravenna) too may have contained mosaic, in the tradition of that imperial use of the medium.

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