The Mosaics of the Paleochristian Baptistery of San Giovanni in Fonte in Naples

Baptisteries are one the places in which we seem to have best retained paleochristian features and art. In the case of San Giovanni in Fonte, located in Naples, we have a baptistery dated to the fourth century,  attached to the basilica of Santa Restituta -- though at one time an autonomous building in its own right. In point of fact this particular baptistery is not only the oldest in Italy, it is the oldest extant baptistery in all of Europe. 

The builder of the baptistery is disputed with some sources suggesting the Emperor Constantine while others credit it St. Severus, bishop of Naples from A.D. 363-409 -- a friend and associate of St. Ambrose of Milan. 

The baptistery itself measures seven metres by seven (23 feet x 23) and is octagonal in shape. The baptismal pool itself it a shallow pool which would not have permitted full immersion. Instead the candidate and sacred minister would have stood in the pool and water would have been poured over their head -- similar in many regards to how baptisms today tend to be conducted. 

What is particularly noteworthy in the baptistery are the extant mosaics found on the ceiling which are probably from the fifth century -- with its characteristic use of blue glass from this period in Italy.  They are quite striking. At the pinnacle of the domed ceiling is the Chi Rho and the Greek Alpha and Omega which, of course, makes reference to Christ as the beginning and the end.  A hand emerging from the heavens, that of God the Father, is shown holding a laurel of victory. 

Surrounding this is a series of images, many of which are lost to us, however there is still quite a bit that remains which of of interest. 

In one scene we see Christ, standing atop a blue orb, handing St. Peter a scroll upon which is written "Dominus legem dat" (The Lord gives the Law). It is speculated that the figure on the other side, now lost to us, may have been that of St. Paul.

Also present are various biblical scenes which have water themes such as Christ and Samaritan woman at the well and also the miracle of Christ turning water into wine at the Wedding of Cana. 

Also present are scenes which are possibly depict Christ walking on water and the miracle of the draught of fish when Christ tells St. Peter and the disciples to cast their nets on the other side. 

Located around the four corners of the drum of the ceiling are symbolic representations of the Four Evangelists. The two best remaining are that of St. Mark (the lion) and St. Matthew (the angel). Located above the symbol of St. Mark can be seen a depiction of the Good Shepherd, while above that of St. Matthew we see the dear drinking from the stream mentioned in the Psalms.  Palm trees and birds also form a part of the ornamental scheme as they so often do in paleochristian art.

In addition to these figures are also found others holding laurels of victory in their hands and wearing Roman tunics.  Such figures were also common to Christian art of this period. 

Finally, here are a few further details taken from the mosaics:

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