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Photo of Ravenna Arian Baptistery

Visit Ravenna Arian Baptistery

The Arian Baptistery in Ravenna is one of several important byzantine monuments in this town in north-east Italy, now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Together these make Ravenna a very interesting destinaton to pass a day or two, even if the town itself lacks interest.

Discover the Arian Baptistry in Ravenna

Italy This Way comment: although it is small, and rather out of the way in the town, and a visit will only take you ten minutes, the Arian Baptistery is an excellent place to start your visit to the byzantine monuments of Varenna, to see the extraordinary mosaics in the dome of the structure.

The Arian Baptistery is very ancient, built by Theodoric the Great (456-526 AD), King of the Ostrogoths, in the 5th century, and although the use of the building changed for an extended period from the Catholic church to the Orthodox church, it remains essentially unchanged over the last 15 years. The baptistery formed part of the Arian cathedral of Ravenna (now controlled by monks who do not permit public access).

The building interior was inspired by the baptistery next to the duomo that you can also visit in Ravenna and was built before the Arian baptistery.

Outside of Arian baptistery in Ravenna

When you arrive in the small square next to the Arian baptistery you would hardly notice the building, as it is a small and modest structure built of red bricks, surrounded by 20th century buildings. It is also less imposing than it would otherwise be because the ground level now is about two metres higher than at the time that it was built: this is why you now go down a flight of stairs to enter.

As was common in ancient baptisteries, the structure is octagonal, with seven of the eight sides representing the seven days of creation and the last representing eternal life. There are small apses on four sides of the building.

The interior is only one room, with a dome covered with mosaics, so you see the entire spectacle as soon as you enter. At the centre of the mosaics there is a depiction of Jesus being baptised by Saint John the Baptist, based on the Arian belief that Jesus only became identifiable as the Son of God after his baptism.

If you are more familiar with more recent representations of Christ, this 5th century image will be a surprise - for several centuries Christ was usually represented as a young and beardless man and it was only much later that paintings of Christ started to show Him as older and with a beard. He is also naked in this mosaic which is very unusual.

 
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The older man in the picture, to the left of Christ and with a crown of crab claws, represents the river Jordan, and there is also a white dove of peace above the head of Christ.

The circle around this central picture depicts the 12 apostles, around a throne which holds a large cross covered in jewels. Saint Peter and Saint Paul each lead five apostles in the group. Saint Peter holds the keys, Saint Paul holds the scroll, and the other apostles each hold a crown.

The centre of the dome is on a gold background, representing Heaven, and the outer circle is green, representing the Earth

If you think the baptistery is impressive today, you should realise that the bare stone walls below the dome were originally covered with frescoes (of which no trace remains) so it would originally have been a very remarkable site.

Detail of dome in the arian baptistery

Attractions nearby

There are several other important byzantine monuments to see in Ravenna as well as the tomb of Dante and an important museum: see the Ravenna guide for details.

You can find more local travel ideas in the Emilia-Romagna guide.

See also: 

Photos of Ravenna Arian Baptistery

Click any picture to start the gallery

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Map of Ravenna Arian Baptistery and places to visit

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Ravenna Arian Baptistery places to visit

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