Not far from the railway station of Ravenna, in a little piazza paved with sampietrini, stands the ARIAN BAPTISTERY, one of the eight monuments composing the Unesco site in Ravenna.
A bit of history
It was presumably built by king Theodoric at the end of the fifth century a.D., when Arianism was the court’s official religion. Originally, it should have been a complementary building of the nearby Arian Cathedral.
At the end of the 6th century a.D., the baptistery was consecrated to the Orthodox worship, at Justinian’s will, and became an oratory dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Later, during the 13th century, the Benedictine monks took care of it and handed it over to the clergy.
At the end of the nineteenth century it became an integral part of the new Oratorio della Confraternita della Croce (17th century) and it was then sold to private owners, at risk of becoming a warehouse. Finally, in 1914, it became a State heritage site, restoring the architecture and the mosaics of the dome.
Nestled amidst the buildings of the historic centre, it is hard to picture the Arian Baptistery in its original splendour.
It should have looked like far more imposing, almost 3 metres higher (today the floor is underground, and a system of waterways controls and prevents new flooding). Of the original ambulatory (annular corridor) we can see just small sections, rebuilt only recently in order to recall its connection with the ancient Arian Cathedral, today Church of the Holy Spirit (Chiesa di Santo Spirito).
Almost nothing remains of the original stuccoes and decorations that embellished the walls. The only exception is the mosaic decoration of the dome depicting the baptism of Christ, as it was in the Neonian (or Orthodox) Baptistery.
Whilst it features the same iconographic design as the Neonian Baptistery, from which it took inspiration, the mosaic decoration of the Arian Baptistery testimonies the religion of Theodoric’s court, based on the figure of Christ both earthly and divine.
In the central clypeus, a young and naked Christ stands immersed in the water up to his hips. The external concentric band depicts the twelve apostles walking to a majestic gemmed throne crested by a cross; a purple coat hangs from the cross’ arms, symbol of the bodily nature and human suffering of Christ.
The mosaic of the baptism dates back to Theodoric’s age; the apostles, though, were almost completely restored in the middle of the sixth century.