The Arian Baptistry | Art for Epiphany 1C

Luke 3:21-22 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The Arian Baptistry
The Arian Baptistry
Ravenna, Italy
erected by the Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great
5th & 6th century, (original building, now reconstructed)
Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Baptism of Christ, Mosaic, Late 5th cent., Arian Baptistery, Ravenna, Italy

During the first several centuries of Christianity, the nature of Christ had not been resolved. The Roman and Eastern Churches believed Christ was one with God and the Holy Spirit, and was part of a trinity. Arius, an influential church elder in Alexandria, did not agree. He believed Christ was the Son of God but not of equal status. Roman Emperor Constantine regarded Arius a heretic and anyone spreading his teachings was threatened with death. An Ecumenical Council was called in AD 325 to meet in Nicaea for the purpose of repudiating Arianism and formulating a definitive statement about the nature of Christ. Out of this Council came the Nicene Creed. Arius, however, had a following among the Ostrogoths and they were out of Constantine’s jurisdiction. They remained Arian Christians.

Among the Arians was Theodoric the Great; a powerful Ostrogoth king who conquered Italy in AD 493 and set up his capital in Ravenna. Unlike Constantine in earlier times, Theodoric was tolerant of his subjects’ beliefs. Orthodox Catholic Christians were allowed to live under their own laws and to build and worship in separate churches. In Ravenna, there was a fifth century orthodox basilica with a baptistery (referred to here as the Orthodox Baptistery) that Theodoric could have appropriated for the Arians. Instead, he chose to build a new cathedral and baptistery. The new baptistery – known as the Arian Baptistery – was similar in design to the one built fifty years earlier at the orthodox basilica.

The ceiling mosaic of both baptisteries contains a central medallion surrounded by twelve apostles; each apostle is holding a crown placed on a veil. Both medallions show John baptizing a nude Christ standing in hip-deep water with arms hanging at his side. In the Orthodox Baptistery, John is at the left and a river god is in the water at the right with a cloth to cover Christ after the baptism. In Theodoric’s Arian Baptistery, Christ is again the central figure but John has been placed instead on the right side and the river god is on the left. The river god now is only an observer, not a participant. Uppermost in the medallion is a dove spewing water from its beak onto Christ’s head.

The two mosaics differ noticeably in the physical image of Christ. In the Orthodox Baptistery, Christ is shown to be bearded and physically fit but in the Arian Baptistery, Christ’s features are androgynous. His soft body, narrow shoulders, and face with feminine characteristics contrasts with the bearded and muscular river god nearby. A question facing early image makers was how should Christ be portrayed? How could an image of Christ project his physicality as a man and at the same time depict him as a person of tenderness, sensitivity, and spirituality?


The Orthodox Baptistery also is called the Neon Baptistery. It was completed by Bishop Neon after mid fifth century.

River gods were minor Roman deities. They were said to stand watch over their domain and sometimes be of assistance.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

2 thoughts on “The Arian Baptistry | Art for Epiphany 1C”

    1. Good question. Apparently the terms are both correct and mean the same. The Oxford Dictionary of English: baptistery (also baptistry)
      noun ( pl. baptisteries or baptistries )
      the part of a church used for baptism.
      • historical a building next to a church, used for baptism.
      • (in a Baptist chapel) a sunken receptacle used for baptism by total immersion.

      If you enter “baptistry” as your search term you are directed to the entry “baptistery” cited above. In my studies “baptistry” was the term of choice (which seems to be a later acceptable term to “baptistery.”) Who knew. I enjoy learning new things. Thanks for asking the question.

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