The Baptistry of Neon in Ravenna

Dating from the late 4th to early 5th century, the Baptistry of Neon is claimed to be one of the oldest monuments in Ravenna. One again from the outside this small octagonal structure, built in the familiar red brick common to all of the Ravenna churches, is underwhelming. But inside the variety and richness of the mosaics is stunning.

The centre piece is the dome, very similar to that of the Arian Baptistry, which depicts Christ’s baptism in the Jordan.

On this occasion the figure of Christ is closer to the standard iconographic portrayal, with long hair, beard and moustache. To Christ’s left stands the pagan symbol of the River Jordan, an old man holding a cloth for Christ to dry himself on and a reed. Around this central scene is a procession of Apostles carrying martyrs’ crowns:

On the next level down are a series of almost tromp l’oeil structures featuring altars:

There is an incredibly rich variety of vegetal motifs throughout the mosaics:

I was fascinated to see the use of marble revetments, similar to those found in San Vitale:

In the squinches are simple depictions of saints on richly gilded backgrounds:

At ground level are a series of alcoves with richly decorated arches:

At the level of the windows are another series of depictions of saints and prophets, executed in a limited range of styles in marble relief:

The floor of the Baptistry is occupied by a large but simple marble font:

Visiting Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna

Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo was built by Theodoric in the early 6th century as a church for his nearby palace. Originally dedicated to St Martin of Tours, it changed its names several times, before being dedicated to St Apollinaris when his remains were moved here from Classe in the 9th century.

Apart from its bell tower it is externally an ugly church. But inside it is quite a different story, the clerestory windows and high Greek marble columns give it a sense of spaciousness and airiness. Unfortunately, when we visited it was the day for dusting the mosaics, making it a challenge at times to avoid the men at work.

The mosaics are high up on the walls on either side of the nave and consist of three levels. The first level depicts female martyrs on the left of the nave and male martyrs on the the right. The clerestory level depicts saints and Apostles, and the top layer illustrates scenes from the life of Christ.

The female martyrs on the left hand side are shown leaving Classe (Ravenna’s port on the Adriatic), depicted as a fortified imperial city.

Each holding a martyr’s crown and separated from each other by a date palm, the martyrs form a long procession heading in the direction of the altar. Curiously, their faces look look almost identical:

The processions culminates with the Three Magi carrying their gifts: their figures, bending in hommage, a dramatic contrast to the static procession of martyrs:

The Magi are clearly differentiated in their features and their clothing, as well as by their gifts. I have read somewhere that this may be the first time they are named in Christian art. One curious aspect is the bright Phrygian bonnets they are wearing. Drawings over 300 years ago show them wearing crowns and it is thought that for some reason these were replaced when the mosaics were renovated in the 19th century.

The focus of the procession is the enthroned Mother of God with an infant Christ, flanked on either side by two Archangels. Her hand is raised in blessing.

Paralleling this scene on the opposite wall is an enthroned Christ, also flanked on either side by two Archangels:

The procession of male martyrs making its way towards Christ is headed by St Martin, highlighted by his purple robe:

Interestingly, the male martyrs are much more clearly differentiated in their facial features and not just in terms of whether they are bearded or clean shaven:

The starting point for this procession is not Classe, but what was originally Theodoric’s Palace. Originally the mosaic probably showed Theodoric’s court, but some time after the Byzantine capture of the city in 540 this was covered over:

Bizarrely you can still see various hands and arms that were part of the original mosaic reaching round the columns :

Here are some examples of the mosaics on the 2nd and 3rd levels:

<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">Finally, on the west wall an excellent depiction of Justinian:Finally, on the west wall an excellent depiction of Justinian:

The Arian Baptistry in Ravenna

The Arian Baptistry is a small building in a courtyard near the Church of the Holy Spirit in Ravenna. It was built in the early 6th century by Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths who made Ravenna his capital after conquering much of Italy.

At one time the the whole of the interior must have been decorated with mosaics and frescoes. Many tons of tesserae were found underneath the baptistry after damage to the building during the last war. Today though the only part of the interior that is decorated is the dome and it is truly magnificent.

The central roundel of the dome mosaic depicts a beardless Christ standing naked in the River Jordan. On the right, standing on a rock is John the Baptist, holding a shepherd’s crook in his left hand and touching Christ’s head in blessing with his right hand. Over Christ’s head is a dove releasing a spray of water or pouring out the Holy Spirit on him.

Seated on the left of Christ is an old man, holding a reed (?) in his right hand, personifying the River Jordan. Next to him is an upturned water vessel and a pair of red crab claws pop out rather incongruously from behind the top of his head. He is a very pagan looking figure in an otherwise Christian iconographic setting.

Surrounding the roundel of Christ’s baptism is a procession of the Apostles, six moving clockwise and six anticlockwise. Both sets of Apostles are processing towards the throne of God, not occupied by a figure, but draped with a white garment (possibly a symbol of Christ’s suffering). On the throne lies a purple cushion surmounted by a cross also hung with a purple cloth.

All but two of the Apostles carry a crown of martyrdom in their cloth-covered hands, a sign of reverence.It is also a reference to the Byzantine court when servants used cloths to cover their hands as a sign of respect to the Emperors when presenting them with things.

The Apostles are separated by date palms, each slightly different from each other in design.

At the head of the two processions are St Paul on the left (not one of the original Apostles, but considered by the Church to be an equal of the Apostles) holding not a crown but two scrolls representing his epistles. On the right stands St Peter holding the keys of the Kingdom.

As I looked at the dome, I wondered how this mosaic expressed an Arian view of Christianity. Before the elaboration of the theology of the Trinity, Arius a 3rd -4th century priest in Alexandria developed the idea that Christ had been created by the Father and was therefore not co-eternal with him. Although it was condemned as heresy by the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, Arianism had a strong hold over the church and it was this sect of the church into which Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths was baptised.

I still cannot see how this belief is translated into the iconography.

To illustrate the lengths to which I go to get the right shots for this blog, I had to lay down on the floor of the baptistry to try and get the dome into my camera’s frame. This caused much amusement to some Italian visitors who passed me their cameras to take photos for them while I was down there. Jumping up unaided, I made a little bow of appreciation when they cheered me spontaneously.

Archbishop’s Chapel in Ravenna

Mosaic of Christ in the Chapel of the Archbishop’s Palace in Ravenna

The small chapel in the Archbuishop’s Palace, built in the early 6th century, is dedicated to St Andrew and has some exquisite mosaics. The picture above is an unusual depiction of Christ, beardless, and dressed as a Roman soldier. In his left hand he holds an open Gospel showing the words ‘ I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’; in his right, a martyr’s cross balanced across his right shoulder. Standing in a mountainous area, he is subduing a lion (pride) and a snake (the devil / evil). It is unusual because it is so unlike the standard depictions of Christ in iconography. The vault of the narthex is richly decorated with a mosaic of birds and lilies.

The simple, marble altar table in the apse has a wonderful golden cross over it on a rich blue background studded with gold stars:

Roundels feature the apostles and some female saints:

It also features the Evangelists:

The floor has some beautiful marble decorations which may well date from a later era:

The adjoining museum has many stone stele and inscriptions excavated in the city, but one of its most stunning exhibits is the throne of Maximianus. He is the person standing next to Justinian in the imperial mosaic in St Vitale who was bishop at the time of the building and consecration of the church. The thrione is covered in ivory panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament and from the life and Passion of Christ:

The magic of mist in the woods

Last Sunday was the first really misty day we’ve had round here this year. Feeling the need to get out of Coronavirus confinement we decided to go for a walk to get some fresh air and enjoy the woodlands. I took my camera with me in hope rather than expectation of getting anything particularly interesting, though sometimes you can never tell what the conditions will be like. I remember going up to Beacon Wood on the Mendips on a misty autumn afternoon five years ago, only to find that the sun suddenly broke through and created some wonderful effects with the mist that I captured here.

At first it didn’t look promising. The mist was thick and the trees were the regimented stands of Forestry Commision conifers. As we walked on though, my eye started to get used to the conditions and I found scenes that pulled me in. Often these days, I have to feel some kind of pull from the landscape, something that attracts my attention subconsciously, something that says ‘There’s something here worth paying attention to’. When that happens I then have to work out more consciously what that ‘something’ is. It’s by no means infallible and it’s not a guarantee that it will be worth photographing, but for me it is a different way of connecting with the landscape through my photography.

The effect of the mist is quite strange. It conceals unnecessary detail and renders everything slightly mysterious and eery, like something in a fairy tale set in northern European woods. The atmospheric conditions, perhaps the concentration of water droplets in the mist, saturate the colours a bit more and blur the edges of everything. There is a sense of something just beyond the veil of the mist, nearby but ungraspable, a bit primeval and fantastical, perhaps not altogether welcoming

In some scenes, it feels like a stage set for Siegfried or Parsifal waiting for the hero to emerge from the forests and fulfil his destiny.

In places, almost a bit Impressionistic:

Late on in the walk I discovered these cobwebs: the first a dense web holding water droplets in a complex network of filaments; the second a double web hung with fine pearls.