The Interplay of Ritual and Art: The Dome Mosaic in the Neonian Baptistery of Ravenna

by Michael H. Marchal, appearing in Volume 29

If the decoration of the Neonian Baptistery is read as a stage-setting carefully designed by its patron to complement the baptismal ritual during its enactment, its meaning reveals itself.1

Annabel Jane Wharton’s article quoted here assumed a double perspective: first on the building itself as a ritual space and second as an explication of its broader social context. I would like to develop the first of those perspectives in more detail because I believe that a greater appreciation of the theological beliefs that inspired the liturgical enactment will make clear the raison d’être for certain compositional elements. When those to be initiated entered Bishop Neon’s baptistery late on Easter night, they encountered both a ritual and a visual program that were meant to reinforce the meaning of the experience that they were about to undergo.2 In conclusion, I would like to reflect upon what this interplay of art and ritual might say to us today.

Exterior of the Neonian baptistery. Photo:


Plan of the Neonian baptistery, showing the entrance in the west and the former entry from the south. Photo:

The exterior of the structure is an octagon of unprepossessing reddish brick, with one upper window on each of the eight sides and, originally, two ground-level doors.3 The octagon is characteristic of Italian baptisteries of this period and is related to the concepts of regeneration and rebirth, since eight is a symbol of eschatological fulfillment: the “perfect” number seven plus one more. But it was on the interior of the building, where the actual rites of initiation unfolded, that both expense and creativity were lavished.

The accessibility of this interior during the course of the year is unknown. Although at this historical period in the West most adult Baptisms seem to have been conducted at Easter, some Baptisms did occur at other times, especially at Epiphany. Yet the civic pride of the Ravennates in their status as an imperial and later royal capital also makes plausible a more general access to the building, as a tourist attraction if nothing else. And so we can presume that Bishop Neon and his collaborators would pay attention not just to the overall impression that the interior would create but also to the smaller details of the scenes portrayed zone-by-zone up to the cupola that in his day rose approximately twenty meters overhead.

Yet entry into the baptistery to experience the sacramental rites was a once-in-a-lifetime event. The initiates entered in the dark of night, into a building lit by oil lamps and a bit crowded with well-dressed clergy. How much time they had to look at the decorations in the baptistery is not clear. For example, how long did they have to wait for their turn in the font and for the other rituals? Moreover, what they were experiencing below was intensely multisensory. What was going on in the space overhead was admittedly dynamic and entrancing, but I suspect that they probably had time to grasp only the major theme and not the smaller, though significant, details.

That theme seems to be a straightforward statement that what happened to Jesus at His Baptism is now happening to the initiates.4 I believe that in the dome especially, the details of the biblical event have been altered by adding details relevant to the ritual being enacted below, in order to reinforce that identification for the initiates.

A necessary word of caution: the center of the roundel was restored at some point,5 and so we cannot be certain how closely what we see now approximates what the initiates saw in the fifth century. Yet, given the care shown for this structure in use for sixteen centuries, the assumption of at least overall continuity in the portrayal is plausible.

To be specific, as the liturgy unfolded, the initiates entered from the south.6 They might then have turned first to the west in order to renounce sin and the devil and then turned east to accept Christ, the immediate prelude to entering the font for the actual water bath. The turn to the east would have meant that from that moment, if they looked overhead, they would be properly positioned to see the event depicted in the dome.7

The mosaic-covered dome of the Neonian baptistery. Photo: OP

Their immediate impression would have been of three figures in the middle of the overall composition forming a triangle: John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Spirit represented as a dove—with a smaller figure of the personified Jordan to the right side. Two of these characters are acting: the Baptist is pouring water over Jesus’s head from a bowl, and the Spirit, with wings outstretched, is descending. Jesus in the middle is the recipient of both activities.

Yet there are three differences from the Gospel accounts of the event.8

First, given the traditional Jewish concern for modesty as an expression of reverence for the body being somehow made in the divine image,9 it is highly unlikely that Jesus was publicly naked during His Baptism in the Jordan. Yet the figure of Jesus here is clearly unclothed, even with the modesty provided by the rippling waters. But the initiates were soon going to be naked in the waters of the font. This detail seems a clear adaptation of the biblical text to emphasize the unity between the experience of Jesus and that of the initiates.

Second, there is no indication in the roundel of one of the most significant components in the Gospel accounts, the voice of the Father hailing Jesus as beloved Son. The initiates were familiar with the story since they had probably for years been attending the first half of the Eucharist on Sundays and festivals—the portion which consisted of readings, singing, and preaching.10 Yet, when they looked up, that part of the story was missing.

In the ritual that they were about to experience, there would be no such voice. They would stand deep in the waters of the font, possibly with a deacon or deaconess behind them. The bishop would question them three times about their belief in each of the Persons of the Trinity, and then three times they were drenched with water.

The most striking difference from the Gospel accounts, though, is not in something omitted but in something present: the highly decorated and outsized staff that the Baptist is holding in his left hand. Although Christian iconography has consistently portrayed John as holding some sort of staff, the presence of this particular version of the staff is, I believe, the key to understanding the rest of the iconography in this portrayal.

Detail of the dome mosaic showing John the Baptist, Jesus, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and a smaller figure of the personified Jordan River. Photo:

As the initiates stood below looking up, they could not fail to notice the staff. In Zone 4 immediately below,11 the increasingly dynamic parade of apostles proffering crowns is moving on both sides in the same direction as the initiates’ gaze. That parade ends in an acanthus divider—a detail that has been the source of much puzzled discussion.12 What that divider does, though, is lift the eye up to the next zone and to the base of the staff that the Baptist is holding and that indeed bisects the dome.

The staff’s visual centrality is reinforced by the divergent contours of the riverbank and the river waters that (impossibly) converge at its base, creating two different perspectives within the curvature of the dome. Moreover, the two figures of Jesus and the Baptist jointly frame the staff and the cross that tops it.

Like the crosses displayed on the thrones lower down in Zone 3, the cross itself is not Greek but Latin, the shape typical of Ravennate art—most notably in the apse of Sant’Apollinare in Classe. And just like the apse cross, it is a crux gemmata.13

A staff surmounted by a cross of some kind had been a familiar public display for Romans for well over a century, since Constantine the Great had won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD 312 by having the labarum carried before his troops. Having the staff as well as the cross set with jewels is also found on the obverse of a gold solidus of the emperor Marcian14 (a contemporary of Bishop Neon), where winged Victory is carrying one very similar to the one portrayed in the dome.

Why would the Baptist be represented as carrying a staff of some kind? Perhaps because he is portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels as a desert preacher. That it should often be reminiscent of a shepherd’s crook is perhaps attributable to the account in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, where John the Baptist functions as Jesus’s forerunner by pointing Him out to His own disciples as the Lamb of God. That it should be shaped like a cross is perhaps attributable to Christians seeing John not just as the forerunner for Jesus’s career as an itinerant preacher with a band of disciples, but as the forerunner of Jesus’s Passion and death at the hands of unjust political authorities.

To put a bejeweled staff topped by a cross in the hand of John during Jesus’s Baptism, though, is clearly anachronistic and most strikingly reveals how the compositional elements in the dome mosaic are shaped not only by the biblical narratives but by an instructional program aimed primarily at the initiates below.

Although I agree with Wharton when she asserts that, through most of this series of initiation events, the bishop is to be identified with Christ,15 I suggest that the presence of this sort of staff in the hand of John is meant to make us identify the bishop’s role during the actual water bath not with Jesus but with the Baptist—thereby enabling the initiates to identify not the bishop but themselves more clearly with Jesus.

The oldest identifying regalia for a bishop was the cloth pallium draped over his outer garment, of which there are several examples in Ravennate art.16 Yet the crosier was also coming into use as another episcopal sign during this period.17 Although over time the standard shape for a crosier in the West was the shepherd’s crook, the very name for this object reveals the possibility of a cruciform shape. The Good Shepherd figure in the nearby Mausoleum of Galla Placidia carries just such a cruciform crook.

The Good Shepherd mosaic in the Mausoleum of Galla Placida with a cruciform shepherd’s crook. Photo: OP

A stronger argument for the identification of the figure of the Baptist with the bishop is the gesture of pouring from a bowl that is held in John’s right hand. His outsized right arm is immediately noticeable because it cuts across the strong meridian defined by the staff. The bowl also stands out from a distance both because its silver color contrasts with the gold background and because it is placed midway between the descending Spirit and the halo surrounding Jesus’s head.

We must be especially careful not to presume the universality of any Christian liturgical practice at this period. During Baptisms bishops could pour water from their hand. The use of a bowl, though, would allow the bishop himself to perform the core ritual action with a generous amount of water while still keeping his best clothes dry for the other parts of the service.

Another possibility—and the one possibly represented in the dome of the Arian Baptistery—was for the bishop to place his hand on the heads of the initiates and literally dunk them under the water. (The meaning of the Greek verb baptizein is “to dip.”) In some places, though, it was the deacon(ess) who performed the action. In the Lateran Baptistery the deacon(ess) instead could place the initiate under the water flowing from the mouth of one of the silver stags surrounding the pool. However the initiates were baptized, the action was still prompted by their favorable response each time to the bishop’s three questions.

But why would Bishop Neon and his collaborators have created in the center of the overall composition not some simple cruciform staff such as appears in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia but instead such a large crux gemmata with its decorated staff? I believe that their choice was made upon deliberate theological grounds.18

The archetypal images for the meaning of Baptism are complex in the Christian scriptures. Two dominant ones are those of Baptism as an experience of cleansing and forgiveness (1 Peter 3) and as a rebirth in the Spirit (John 3).

Yet another part of the tradition interpreted the descent into the water as reenacting the descent of the crucified Jesus into His grave, from which He would rise to new and glorious life (Romans 6). Both aspects of that experience for the initiates are contained in the crux gemmata: the cross equaling death, and the jewels evoking restored and glorious life. And so the presence of this kind of cross-topped staff in the hand of the Baptist functions as the link for a whole complex of images with which the initiates would have been familiar from their years of listening to the scriptures proclaimed in the Eucharist.19

Yet I believe that there is one additional instructional layer within the composition. The uplifted hand of the Baptist creates a second and smaller triangle at the apex of the first one. In this second triangle, three objects interconnect: the dove, the bowl, and the cross; and all of them, I believe, are used figuratively.

The dove is a symbol for the Spirit, the bowl is a metonymy for the water, and the cross is a metonymy not just for Jesus’s death but, more concretely, for His outpoured Blood. Behind this triangular interconnection lies 1 John 5:5–9, especially the assertion that “there are three witnesses: the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and all three of them agree.”20

The import of emphasizing the connection of the three witnesses becomes clear when we recall that the rites of Christian initiation taking shape in Northern Italy at this time consisted of three major moments: a water bath in which the Spirit gave cleansing, rebirth, and resurrection; a hand laying and/or anointing where the initiates were sealed in the Spirit; and the Eucharistic meal where the initiates sacramentally consumed Jesus’s Body and Blood for the first time.

On Easter night itself, it would have been difficult for the initiates to notice this set of compositional details in the baptistery, nor would they in fact have already participated in the sacred meal. Yet Easter Week in Milan (a dominant member of the liturgical orbit in which Ravenna lay), for example, was for the newly initiated a time of daily celebration and further reflective instruction. I find it easy to picture good Bishop Neon leading his white-robed new Christians on a tour of the baptistery and reflecting with them step-by-step on what had happened to them there—only now in the light of a bright spring day. Pointing up, he unfolds again for them how what was portrayed above had actually been reenacted below—only now they could notice all the details and understand more deeply the mystery.

A brief look at the portrayal of the same scene in the dome of the Arian Baptistery will reinforce my point that these portrayals are shaped not simply by the biblical narrative but by theological and instructional concerns. A word of caution, though: Catholics and Arians usually employed the same gestures and words in their rituals of initiation but gave them different interpretations.21

In Catholic belief the three Persons of the Trinity are equally divine and so the separate, threefold immersions emphasized their equality. In Arian belief the Father was utterly divine; Jesus was a “lesser” divinity, and likewise the Spirit. And so the triple immersions emphasized their separateness. Arians would have understood the event of Jesus’s Baptism as a sort of adoption in which the Spirit empowers the human Jesus to be the sort of divine Son.22

The dome of the Arian baptistery, Ravenna. Photo: arianbaptistery,

And so in the Arian portrayal, the only real dynamism is the Spirit’s activity in regard to Jesus. Not the staff but Jesus assumes the central position. In fact, His navel is at the apex of the dome. He is situated within a slightly skewed triangle composed of the Spirit, the Baptist, and a much larger personification of the Jordan—the only graphic portrayal of a set of relationships in the dome.

Although the figure of the Baptist is elevated on the riverbank, his role is diminished: he has become less an actor and more a static flanking figure whose body mirrors in its curvature the posture of the Jordan figure.23 His head lacks a halo, and his staff has been reduced to a walking stick that mirrors the reed held in the Jordan’s hand. Moreover, his hand simply rests upon the side of Jesus’s head.24

What is unique and striking in this portrayal, though, is the elongated isosceles triangle of what seems to be water (impossibly) pouring from the Spirit’s beak upon the haloed head of Jesus. Here is visually portrayed the statement in John, chapter 3, that each Christian would be “born (again) through water and the Spirit.” Just as in the Neonian Baptistery, the crucial detail of the portrayal is symbolic; here, though, the theme is different. What is being reinforced for the initiates below is that the water cascading over their heads was also the Spirit at work in their adoption as God’s sons and daughters.25

Compared to the Orthodox portrayal, this scene is remarkably simpler in its compositional elements and in its instructional message. Gone are any references to Baptism as a share in Jesus’s death and rising and to the unity of Spirit, water, and Blood. Gone as well is any significant parallelism between John the Baptist and the bishop. All that is left is the Arian emphasis upon Baptism as adoption.

The Arian bishop’s reflective tour during Easter Week must have been much shorter and less informative for his initiates.

What might these architectural and, at times, highly elaborate decorative endeavors of our ancestors some sixteen centuries ago say to us today?

First, Baptism was important, not just theoretically but practically. With imperial and royal patronage available, early bishops chose to invest not only in splendid churches that would have frequent and even daily use but also in baptisteries that were used much more infrequently. Bathhouse technology was a commonplace in the ancient world; using it to construct a building used infrequently was a bold expenditure—and spending even more on square meters of internal mosaic and other decorative work verged on the profligate.

Second, verbal instruction was only one mode of shaping newcomers into Christians. Sacramental rituals that were vivid and multisensory—and that were enacted in spaces equally vivid and multisensory—were a crucial component as well.

Third, these early bishops were even bold enough to take liberties with biblical details if they thought such a change would reinforce the core message for those under instruction. The goal was not historical accuracy in our terms but a unified experience of narrative, art, and ritual that would impress upon new Christians how they had been remade and reborn in Christ’s image.

Fourth, are we doing as good a job? The post-Vatican II liturgical reform in this country has led not to splendid baptisteries but to some magnificent fonts in the main worship space. Two of the most notable are those in the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles and in the renovated Cathedral of Saint James in Seattle. Both are prominent and so constructed that they allow for immersion Baptism for both adults and children. Moreover, the location of these fonts at the entrance to the nave is intended to symbolically underline Baptism as the definitive entrance into the Church both as a building and as a people. There was clearly a desire as well for maximum visibility for the whole congregation.

Yet other than symbolic shape and position, noble materials, and flowing water, neither is marked by any particular iconography that explains and reinforces the meaning of the central sacramental event. So far in this country, Catholic churches seem to have found a way to bring Baptism out of the corner chapel or alcove and into the main worship space, but the price has been an artistic and instructional impoverishment.

Our ancestors could segregate Baptism in a separate structure because their congregations had a large number of people who had been baptized after childhood. For many, if not most, members of a fifth-century congregation, what went on in Christian initiation would have been a matter of personal experience. In most places in contemporary America, that proportion would be a definite minority. It is therefore understandable why the service should be moved into the church building itself and should unfold in public. Yet we do not seem as yet to have found the way for art and ritual to interact more fruitfully in our day.