There is only one place where to start the visit of Ravenna, and that place is the Battistero degli Ariani (Arian Baptistery).
Hidden in a small square, the baptistery outside recalls to other monuments of Ravenna. The brick facade it's like a treasure apparently simple both inside and outside. The surprise comes walking down the steps that lead to the entrance and looking up: the treasure of the Arian Baptistery is above us, brilliant and majestic.
The baptistery is believed to have been built by Theodoric in the fifth Century as a baptistery for the Arian cathedral located to its side, now Protestant church called basilic of the Holy Spirit.
The history of the baptistery is very articulate: after its construction and decoration with rich stucco and mosaics, the baptistery undergoes many changes including its religious use: from the sixth to the ninth Century it is dedicated to Virgin Mary and the Orthodox worship, in the eleventh Century it returns to Catholicism and it is protected by Benedictine monks. From the seventeenth Century it undergoes structural changes including the removal of many architectural elements and the raising of the soil. In 1914 it becomes property of the Italian State, which tries to bring the small baptistery to its original aspect. In 1996 the baptistery is included in the UNESCO world heritage monuments list.
Several elements make the baptistery so special. First of all its location: it is a semi-underground small building hidden between modern buildings. Moreover it is one of the few remaining exemplars of Arian heresy in Ravenna. [The Arians believed that Jesus became Christ and son of God only after baptism], and for this reason the representation in the cupola of the baptistery is so special and mysterious.
At the center of the medallion there is a beardless Jesus - while we know that the baptism was celebrated around 30 - and with sex organs in sight. John the Baptist is not represented with the same sanctity that it is usually observed in other representations, as well as there isn't any recall to divinity. The old man to the left is the personification of Jordan River - as you can guess from crab claws on his head and the reed that he brings in his hand. The dove of peace is actually the only reference to the descent of the Holy Spirit and the divine in this particular representation.
The empty throne at the summit of the procession led by the apostles Peter and Paul is another example of the absence of God. The Trinity is represented through a precious jeweled cross that lays on the seat that will be occupied on the day of Apocalypse. All the apostles depicted - that we can't clearly recognize - are dressed in a white tunic and divided by palm trees, symbol of sacrifice for the Christian testimony they have taken charge of.
Looking at this mosaic you will certainly notice the presence of two main background colours: green and gold. In the early Christian symbolism - which recurs in many mosaics in Ravenna - colours are very important. Gold is the colour of the divine, the color of the rising sun that illuminates the earth, represented by the green, they join harmoniously creating a unique encounter between the human and the divine. Flowers near the empty throne of Christ recall to the joy of closeness between God and man.
The baptistery shows also through its shape the idea of rebirth from the original sin which is indeed researched in baptism. The largest apse of the baptistery is hence facing east, the cardinal point of sunrise. In that place it was probably placed a small altar -as we see in another important baptistery of Ravenna, the Battistero Neoniano (Baptistery of Neon). But something even deeper is recalled by the octagonal plan: in Christian symbolism eight stands for the resurrection of Christ, since seven days is considered the duration of earthly life and the eighth the day of eternal life.
How much can still be hidden behind such an apparently simple building ? All you can do is to discover it in person.