A Tale of Two Bishops: An Introduction Via Ravenna

Only minutes from the sandy beaches of the Adriatic, Ravenna is a tourist city for those “in the know.” Its local cuisine and small shops are a delight for those looking to escape the long lines of crowded Venice, Florence, and Rome. Ravenna is famous for its classical music, hosting numerous events by the world’s most accomplished musicians. However, Ravenna’s main attraction is its ancient churches. Constructed between the 5th and 6th centuries, a turbulent time marked by Roman, Ostrogothic and finally Byzantine rule, the churches of Ravenna are a true East meets West architectural experience hosting one of the world’s greatest collections of mosaics. Ravenna contains eight attractions of historical prominence (dates below from Wikipedia; comments from ICOMOS evaluation):

San Vitale (548)
  1. Neonian Baptistery (c. 430) – Constructed by bishops Ursus and Neone; the oldest and most complete surviving example of early Christian Baptistery.
  2. Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (c. 430) – Earliest and best preserved of all mosaics.
  3. Arian Baptistry (c. 500)
  4. Archiepiscopal Chapel (c. 500) – The oldest surviving oratory; contains a unique set of anti-Arian iconography.
  5. Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (c. 500)
  6. Mausoleum of Theodoric (520) – The only barbarian (Ostrogothic) mausoleum of this period; no significant borrowing from Roman or Byzantine styles
  7. Basilica of San Vitale (548)
  8. Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe (549)

The beauty of the Ravennian churches is the result of a local doctrinal rivalry. Founded by the Syrian missionary St. Apollinare in the first century, the Christian community lived under Western Roman rule for roughly four hundred years. In 402, the capital of the Western Roman Empire was transferred to Ravenna from Milan, drawing the attention of the Ostrogoths, who eventually captured it in 476. While the rule of the Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great introduced Arian Christianity, Theodoric himself was generally tolerant of the existing Orthodox Catholic Church in Ravenna. Rather than taking over the existing church, he set about creating alternative church structures. Similarly, when Ravenna was conquered by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, a third set of church structures was erected.

The Churches of Downtown Ravenna

Thus, we can divide the eight historic structures of Ravenna into three ideological movements. In the ancient Orthodox Catholic Church of Ravenna we find an episcopal church complex, constructed across the 5th century, including the Basilica Ursiana (demolished in 1734), the Neonian Baptistery and the oratory (now the Archepiscopal Chapel). A second church, containing the church of the Holy Cross (c. 425) and an adjoining oratory, later converted to the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (although she was never actually buried there), was constructed as an imperial chapel. During the Arian Gothic period, we see the construction of a parallel church and baptistery: Christ the Redeemer (now Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo) and the Arian baptistry, respectively. Finally, during the Byzantine Orthodox Catholic period we see the construction of the two greatest wonders of Ravenna: the Basilicas of San Vitale (the new imperial church adjoining Sante Croce) and Sant’Apollinare in Classe (the new Byzantine imperial port).

While false teachings and schisms date back to the New Testament itself, the existence of separate, established church infrastructures is somewhat of a rarity. The more common occurrence was that a church in a given city would pass back and forth between whichever Christian group obtained political advantage at the time. Bauer, in Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, postulates that separate infrastructures existed as early as the immediate post-apostolic age in Edessa. But unfortunately the actual evidence of separate, established church complexes has mostly been lost to time.

Neonian Baptistery (c. 430)

Part of the enigma of Ravenna is that both the history of these separate establishments and the actual buildings themselves have been remarkably well preserved. This is nowhere seen more than the dueling baptisteries. Traditional Italian church architecture permits no more than one baptistery in a city, placed outside the main church, usually the bishop’s church. This design is an expression of the “one body… one faith, one baptism” theology expressed by St. Paul in Ephesians 4:4-6. Further, the priority of a fixed baptistery is a fairly low priority for a young or struggling church, given the longstanding tradition of baptism in rivers and other bodies of water. Given these two facts, the presence of two baptisteries in a single city is a very unusual occurrence.

Arian Baptistery (c. 500)

As noted above the Neonian Baptistery was constructed first, under the episcopal oversight of St. Ursus and, later, Neone. The mosaics which adorn the dome depict a bearded Christ descending into baptism at the hand of St. John the Baptist, flanked by the twelve apostles led by Ss. Peter and Paul. The later Arian Baptistery adopts almost the exact same artistic schema with two notable exceptions. First, Christ is displayed as a young, beardless man, likely emphasizing the Arian “inferiority” of Jesus compared to the Neonian Christ. Second, between Peter and Paul sits an empty throne. This too is likely an Arian figuring, that Christ is not in heaven until his later enthronement after the resurrection.

The twin baptisteries of Ravenna thus present for us a complete picture of two mirrored churches, each with their own bishops, clergy, cathedrals, and baptisms. The view of the ancient world Ravenna provides us is not only unique in its survival from antiquity, but in its prophetic imaging of the modern Christian world. In many places we think nothing of a different church on every street corner, each with their own clergy, infrastructure and rites. In fact, if we journey beyond Ravenna to the cities of ancient Mediterranean Africa, we will discover that the question of how the churches should relate to each other is not such a new question. Does grace exist outside the Church? Can those who reject the Orthodox Catholic Church be saved? Must the Orthodox Catholic Church accept the sacraments of those in schism? All of these questions, asked today, have been asked and answered before.

The context of our contemporary day is the rise of ecumenism. Branch theory has become quite popular among Protestants, Anglicans and even some within Roman Catholic and Orthodox Catholic circles. Both those who adopt and reject branch theory each claim the legacy of an ancient saint. Those who hold to branch theory, or other similar theories, often appeal to the doctrine of St. Augustine, a 4th century bishop in Hippo (present-day Annaba, Algeria) who argued that baptisms outside the Church may be valid. Conversely, those who reject branch theory often claim the legacy of St. Cyprian, a 3rd century bishop and martyr in Carthage (modern Tunis, Tunisia) who argued that baptism cannot exist outside the Church.

In many studies of these two saints, they are often depicted to be opposed to one another or at least representing two different ecclesiologies. And yet, in Fr. Florovsky’s famous article “The Limits of the Church” we find this puzzling quote: “In his reasoning about the unity of the Church, about the unity of love as a necessary and decisive condition for the saving power of the sacraments, Augustine really only repeats Cyprian in new words.”

It is my opinion that Florovsky is correct: seeing Cyprian and Augustine as opposed or representing different ecclesiologies is problematic. Therefore, in a series of posts following this one I will endeavor to provide a more thorough explanation of both Cyprian and Augustine, paying careful attention to the thesis that Augustine represents a more sophisticated version of Cyprian’s ecclesiology. Specifically, I will argue that Augustine and his opponents (the Donatists) each represent an articulation of Cyprian, of which Augustine’s is more natural to Cyprian and more fitting with Orthodox philosophical theology, creeds and praxis. Further, I will demonstrate that Augustine’s articulation of Cyprian has been implicitly canonized by the Orthodox Church. Finally, I will show that it is a grave misreading to use Augustine in support of branch theory.

To begin this journey we must travel even further back in time to ancient Rome, before the legalization of Christianity. My next post in the series will discuss St. Cyprian and the Novationists.


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