Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Ceiling mosaics of the baptistery

John the Baptist is the patron saint of Florence and his day of celebration is coming up very soon, on the 24th June, a public holiday for the Florentines. You can recognise St John the Baptist in visual imagery as he is depicted as an ascetic, typically wearing a camel skin and holding a staff. He is often holding a scroll (reference to he being the last prophet) with the words ecce agnes dei often written, the words he pronounced upon seeing seeing Christ ‘behold the lamb of God’. He was the son of Zacchiarias and Elizabeth, the older cousin of Mary, making Christ and John second cousins and it is traditionally held that there are six months between them in age, John being slightly older.
The baptistery of Florence is situated over the remains of a wealthy Roman house during the time of the Latin city Florentia in Antiquity. This family paid extra taxes for fresh water to be brought to their home from the nearby aquaduct in order to have a private bath structure. The baptistery was later built on top of the ruins of their dwelling, conveniently using the already existing channels of fresh water, the fundamental element in sacred rites symbolising the washing away of original sin, and water being the traditional symbol of the giving of life. The mosaics from the floors of the Roman house are still visible through a grate on the floor of the baptistery.
John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci
The early Christian structure was replaced with the current magnificent Romanesque style building in the eleventh century when Pope Nicholas II, a Florentine, supported the funding. The Romanesque style, characterised by the round headed arch and a compact sold structure, is given a particular individualistic trait in Tuscany with the geometric patterns and decorative format of the green and white local marble. Moorish inspired, this decorative use came through the great maritime republic of Pisa which had the means of seeing many Islamic buildings. Symbolically, it is octagonal in structure as in Christian numerology it refers to the eighth eternal day after the seven earthly days and the figure eight, when placed on its side, becomes the symbol for infinity.
Visitors to Florence often skip a visit inside the building - wrong! It is wonderful: the mosaics on the ceiling, begun in the early 1200’s, are stunning. The intricate detail given to the stories from the old testament from creation through to the story of Christ are delightful and the Last Judgement representation is up to its usual imaginative medieval genius.
Not the biggest baptistery in Italy - size was a serious display of importance - as Pisa beats it, I believe, but certainly it is worthy of the epithet  'the most beautiful'. Considered thus for centuries, Dante refers to it as 'il mio bel San Giovanni', and we can't argue with him. It is still used for baptisms, on the last Sunday of every month as long as you are Florentine!
The octagonal Baptistery of San Giovanni
Happy Saint Day John! 


  1. Freya, this is much more interesting than the guidebooks. I have passed the baptistery hundreds of times without giving it much thought...maybe now that I'm living in Florence I should take a closer look.

    Your posts are much appreciated: keep it up!

  2. Freya,
    Trace was just reading this blog and asked if I ever went in the Baptistery...

    I told her YES AND IT WAS AMAZING! I remember when my sister and I were there, we passed it many many times and it was too crowded. Then one afternoon the line was short and my sister and I went it. As soon as I walked in I remember thinking "oh my god, what if I had missed this place?!?"

    The thing that captured me is the very obvious melding of different cultures and religions all over the ceiling.