Water from the Rock: The Use of Marble in Ravenna's Baptisteries
Carly Jane Steinborn
Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA
Focusing on the fifth-century decoration within the Orthodox Baptistery of Ravenna, this paper investigates the use of marble within a baptismal context and explores the ways in which marble's visual and material associations functioned as a symbol of liturgical 'rebirth' and transformation. The Baptistery's extensive ornamentation includes opus sectile panels, stucco reliefs, and mosaics. In this paper, I argue that the crystallized, frozen water implied by the marble in the lowest zone acts as a material and symbolic contrast to the richly flowing depiction of water in the uppermost zone. I posit that the arrangement of these materials acts as a visual manifestation of Psalm 113:8, in which God "turned the rock into pools of water, and the stony hill into fountains of waters." Thus, as one's gaze scans the walls, the "rock" embodied in the marble converts into "pools of water" in the mosaic at the dome's apex. I demonstrate that these biblical metaphors are explicitly referred to in liturgical sources and contemporary descriptions of baptisteries. Although never before discussed, above each marble panel is a single jewel rendered in mosaic which functions as a "keystone" to each opus sectile section. Significantly, Early Christian theologians compared the purity received at baptism to "a gleaming crystal" and to marble, and I suggest that the spiritual transformation enacted through baptismal water parallels the physical transformation of water into marble. Finally, I discuss how the play between light, color, and reflection was closely tied to the performative dynamic of the rite, with marble acting as a chief component. By considering the deliberate juxtaposition between the different materials, this paper argues that the images and materials visualize a "conversion" from the formless water of the marble to the malleable clay (gypsum) of the stucco to finally the hardened, crystallized tesserae of the mosaics.