Scala/Art Resource, New York, NY

Old and new. The old pagan river god, left, watches the initiation of a new religion as John the Baptist baptizes Jesus. This river god, in contrast to the Eastern type of river god, follows late classical models: He observes from the side, holds a water plant as a scepter, wears two crab claws as a crown and possesses a jug, seen at left, from which the river flows. This mosaic on the dome of the Arian Baptistry at Ravenna also differs from the Neonian Baptistry mosaic in having the dove of the Holy Spirit, rather than John, spray Jesus with the lustral water. A procession of the apostles surrounds the mosaic’s inner scene.

Theodoric (c. 455–526), king of the Ostrogoths and of Italy, built the Arian Baptistry in circa 500. The name comes from Theodoric’s attempt to revive Arianism, a belief about the Trinity that had been declared heretical.