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“Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

January 13th, 2013, Promulgated by Bernie

To celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord and the end of the Christmas Season let’s take a look at two 5th century mosaics from Ravenna, Italy, which present the Baptism in a slightly different way.

(Please be sure to click on the pictures to see clearer images)

Left: Orthodox Baptistery; Right: Arian Baptistery

Left: Orthodox Baptistery; Right: Arian Baptistery
Holly Hayes/Art History Images

I find these mosaics intriguing for a couple of reasons but mostly because one of the differences they have between them may be the result of the fact that one served the Arian Christian community of Ravenna and the other served the orthodox1 Christian community.

Arianism had been declared a heresy at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and again by the First Council of Constantinople in 381 but it proved stubborn and survived long after its condemnation, especially among barbarian Christians such as the Ostrogoths. (Arianism is a belief that Christ had a divine nature but had been created by the Father and was, therefore, “inferior” to the Father, not co-eternal with the Father and not of the same substance as the Father. The orthodox view holds that Christ is divine as the Father is divine and “con-substantial” or “of the same substance” as the Father. He is co-eternal with the Father.)

Left: Arian Baptistery; Right: Orthodox BaptisteryL: Georges Jansoone; R: Mattiah

Left: Arian Baptistery; Right: Orthodox Baptistery
Pictures: (L) Georges Jansoone; (R) Mattiap

Both mosaics are situated in the domes/cupolas of baptisteries constructed as octagonal buildings. Baptisteries in the early centuries of Christianity were usually octagonal structures and attached to or built next to the cathedral church of a city or town.2 Seven of the eight sides of a baptistery symbolized the seven days of creation and the eighth side symbolized the eighth day, the day of resurrection to eternal life.

The Arian structure was constructed ca. 500-25 at the behest of Ostrogothic King Theodoric who ruled the area at the time. There was already an orthodox baptistery in Ravenna that had been erected ca. 458 . King Theodoric was an Arian (heretical) Christian and decided to let the Goths (Arians) and the Romans (“orthodox”) of Ravenna live together, but separately, and so there were separate neighborhoods and separate religious buildings in Ravenna. Thus, there were two cathedrals and two baptisteries in Ravenna in the 5th century –these two.

The mosaics of the Baptism of the Lord in the two baptisteries appear nearly the same. (The Arian mosaic is a little simpler and the decorations on the walls of Arian building have been destroyed or lost.) The scene depicted at the apex of both domes depicts Christ baptized by John in the river Jordan.3 This center scene in each mosaic is surrounded by a procession of the twelve apostles led by Saints Peter and Paul.

But in comparing the two center scenes of the Baptism we notice a  difference. In the Arian mosaic Jesus appears as a clean shaven youth, but in the orthodox depiction he is older and sporting a beard. Is there a significant reason for the difference?

Left: Orthodox Baptistery; Right: Arian BaptisteryHolly Hayes/Art History Images

Left: Orthodox Baptistery; Right: Arian Baptistery
Holly Hayes/Art History Images

Perhaps not, for many years the two ‘types’ of Jesus existed in Christian art side by side. The youthful, clean shaven Christ was actually the first to appear in Christian art. The older, bearded Jesus began to appear only in the last part of the 4th century when, in an attempt to win over pagans, Christian artists began to depict Christ as divine as the pagan gods were divine, using pagan iconography that pagan citizens would recognize. The divinity of Jupiter (Zeus) and other supreme ‘father’ gods was usually indicated in pagan art by mature gods, appearing wise with full heads of hair and full beards.

Some art historians, however, argue that the difference between the two images of Christ in the Ravenna mosaics was actually the result of the Christological challenge posed by Arianism. As the Arians believed Christ to be created by the Father and not co-eternal with the Father, he was depicted as young –or “inferior”—in the Arian baptistery mosaic. The Arian structure, remember, was built after the orthodox one and so, perhaps, the Christ in its dome was meant as a challenge to the Christology evident in the orthodox baptistery across town.

Whether that was the case or not the possible difference in meaning might prompt us, on this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, to consider the words from heaven, “This is my beloved Son…”,4 spoken as Jesus came up out of the water after being baptized by John. As we have seen, the meaning of those words was not universally agreed upon in the early centuries5 and it took considerable debate and thought -and time- to iron out the truth of the matter.

It’s more of an academic exercise than a spiritual one to research the crisis and the positions of the various factions involved in the controversy but if you’re up to it –and as one way of celebrating the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord— why not look into the Arian heresy and the debate that swirled around it.

If quizzed closely, I wonder if we might be surprised to discover that many Christians today are actually Arian Christians.

Related post: HERE

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1 Relative to heresy,  the term ‘orthodox’ is/was commonly employed to designate the official and correct teaching or Church. The period of time referred to in this post is hundreds of years before the Great Schism which split Christianity into separate Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

2 Baptisms were usually only conducted at cathedral churches.

3 In both scenes of the Baptism, in addition to Jesus and John the Baptist, there is a personification of the Jordan River as an old man rising from the water, holding a reed in one hand and offering a garment to Christ in the other.

4 Matthew 3:17, Douay-Rheims Bible

5 Indeed, the question originated with Jesus: “Who do men say the Son of Man is?”

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One Response to ““Who do people say the Son of Man is?””

  1. avatar DanielKane says:

    A great, nuanced deep and reflective of A LOT OF WORK. Beard/no beard – wow. Thanks. It really brings to light that the faithful have been trading elbows in the pews for a while. It makes me ponder about the some archeologist 1500 years from now digging up Rochester and finding Our Lady of Victory and Spiritus Christi and how they would characterize our differences.


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