Postcards from 5th century Naples

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…

Ceiling mosaic, 5th century, Baptistery San Giovanni in Fonte, Naples

… 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…

Christian Martyrs (?) sporting their togas to prove they have nothing to do with those *Middle Ages*, detail from ceiling mosaic, 5th century, Baptistery San Giovanni in Fonte, Naples

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?

Ceiling mosaic, 5th century, Baptistery San Giovanni in Fonte, Naples

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.

Traditio legis, detail from ceiling mosaic, 5th century, Baptistery San Giovanni in Fonte, Naples

Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Fountain & The Wedding at Cana, detail from ceiling mosaic, 5th century, Baptistery San Giovanni in Fonte, Naples

The Miraculous Catch of Fish & two more of those Roman-style Christian Martyrs, detail from ceiling mosaic, 5th century, Baptistery San Giovanni in Fonte, Naples

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.

Christological Monogram, detail from ceiling mosaic, 5th century, Baptistery San Giovanni in Fonte, Naples

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.

Stags drinking from the Fountain, detail from ceiling mosaic, 5th century, Baptistery San Giovanni in Fonte, Naples

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.

The Good Shepherd & the Lion of St. Mark, detail from ceiling mosaic, 5th century, Baptistery San Giovanni in Fonte, Naples

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”.

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2 Responses to Postcards from 5th century Naples

  1. But they *are* pretty pictures. So, what’s going on with this church, do you suppose? Was it perhaps not a baptistery at the time the decoration was done? Or is it one of those analytically dangerous cases where maybe someone did something new…? What else would the scheme fit?

    • Oh, there can be little if any doubt that San Giovanni in Fonte was purpose-built as a baptistery – I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. And in a certain way the iconography of the ceiling mosaic makes a lot of sense – considering that this was the place where people formally joined the Christian Church, the enormous Christological monogram and the scene of the Traditio Legis are quite fitting. As for the other surviving scenes, I believe it’s conspicuous that one way or another they all involve water so perhaps they were intended as symbolic allusions to the act of baptism or something like that (though I’m really just guessing here…).

      The thing is just that the baptisteries in Ravenna with their simple Baptism of Christ-mosaics are the canonical textbook examples for Paleochristian baptistery decoration. They have therefore pretty much come to define our notion of what the ceiling mosaic of a 5th century baptistery should look like, so that the more complex and less obvious iconography we find in Naples comes as a bit of a surprise. So I guess it’s really just a case of “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our textbooks”…

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