I’ve just returned from another trip to London and, yes, a London-related post is forthcoming. But before I get to that, here’s one more post about Naples…
Looking for illustrations for my last post, I was browsing through several files of photos I took in Naples a few years ago, and among them I stumbled upon this…
… the ceiling mosaic of San Giovanni in Fonte, the Paleochristian baptistery of Naples cathedral. Oddly enough, I’d completely forgotten about taking photos of that mosaic and indeed about the mosaic itself. Now some of you may wonder how anyone could possibly forget about something as beautiful and as cool as that, and my only excuse is that I got to see such an incredible amount of artworks during my stay in Naples that I simply could not fit all of them in my memory.* But apparently, while I was actually there, I was sufficiently impressed by the mosaics to do a sort of full photographic documentation of them.** Looking at them now, I realize just how amazing they really are so I figured they deserved to be posted here. Besides, this provides me with a welcome opportunity to broaden the blog’s scope a bit lest its focus get stuck too much on the late Middle Ages…
The downside to this is that I’m far from being an expert on Paleochristian art, so “look, pretty pictures” is basically all I can tell you about these mosaics. Well, here’s what a quick internet search has brought up… According to many online resources, Naples’ first cathedral Santa Restituta and the adjacent baptistery were built under Constantine the Great which makes San Giovanni in Fonte the oldest (surviving) baptistery in Western Christendom. As one website puts it:
“The construction of S. Restituta and baptistery goes back to the time of the emperor Constantine the Great (280-337 AD); this is attested to by a passage from the life of Pope Silvester I in the Liber Pontificalis Ecclesiae Romanae: “[…]eodem tempore fecit Costantinus Augustus basilicam in civitatem Neapolim” (…at that time, Costantinus Augustus had a basilica built in the city of Naples).”
Now, I’m aware that this is the third post in a row where I say “someone’s wrong on the internet” and I hate myself for doing it, but have you just read that quote from the Liber Pontificalis? Now go and read it again. And again. And now if you can tell me where it makes explicit mention of a baptistery you shall have the king’s daughter and half the kingdom, deal?
From what I managed to find out online, it was only the unknown author of the 13th/14th century Chronicle of Santa Maria del Principio who first suggested that the quote from the Liber Pontificalis refered not only to the cathedral but also to the baptistery. Of course, no scholar in his/her right mind would consider an anonymous late medieval chronicler a reliable source for the history of the Constantine era but, as often happens, it seems to be good enough for local patriots and tourism managers eager to increase the place’s importance and attractiveness.
Anyway, the hard facts provided by archaeological evidence are that the baptistery was built as a square structure in the late 4th century (which is still pretty damn early) and that some modifications to the architecture were made in the 5th century. The exact date of the ceiling’s mosaic decoration is somewhat disputed, with some scholars claiming it for the late 4th century. There is a consensus, though, that it was only added in the 5th century, presumably in the first half of that century.
As I said, I don’t really know too much about Paleochristian art, but the mosaics’ iconography strikes me as slightly odd – that is, odd when compared to those famous examples of Paleochristian baptistery decoration, the Neonian Baptistery and the Arian Baptistery in Ravenna. Though significantly different in some theologically relevant details, both of the Ravenna baptisteries have the Baptism of Christ at the centre of the ceiling mosaic and the Twelve Apostles surrounding it. But while the Baptism of Christ seem to be the perfect iconographic choice for the decoration of a baptistery, it is conspicuously absent in Naples. Of course, the mosaics in San Giovanni in Fonte are badly damaged and the Baptism scene may have been included in the area that is now missing, but even then it would only have been one scene among many rather than the ceiling’s centrepiece. Instead, the mosaic in Naples has the Christological monogram at its centre, surrounded by scenes from the Life of Christ, i.e. the Traditio legis (Christ “handing down the law” to St. Peter), the Miraculous Catch of Fish, the Wedding at Cana and Christ’s Encounter with the Samaritan Woman at the Well. All of this is surrounded by a vast display of Christological symbolism, including depictions of the Good Shepherd or the Stag Drinking from the Fountain.
What’s most interesting, perhaps, from an iconographic viewpoint is the inclusion of the Evangelists’ Symbols in the squinches carrying the ceiling. The symbolic representation of the Evangelists as the “four living creatures” from the vision of Ezekiel is, of course, incredibly widespread during the Middle Ages. Back in the 5th century, however, this kind of iconography was still really new, and the mosaics in San Giovanni in Fonte are among the earliest surviving examples.
Man, that was one elaborate way of saying “look, pretty pictures”…
* Also, many of the other artworks I saw in Naples were just so much more relevant to my own research interests than even the most fascinating set of Paleochristian mosaics could ever be – despite the losses described in my last post, there’s still are a large number of 14th century wall-paintings preserved in the city’s many churches.
** Unfortunately, this was before I invested in a proper zoom lens, so the emphasis is more on “a sort of” than on “full photographic documentation”.