Detail of Mosaic with Kantharos, Grapevine, and Traditio Legis

4th century
Baptistery of San Giovanni in Fonte, Naples, Italy

On the left is a Traditio Legis composed like the one on a sarcophagus in Classe: Peter (and presumably Paul) reverently approach Christ, with Peter carrying a cross – although in this case the cross is a staurogram, symbol of Christ as crucified. The words on the scroll Christ is giving Peter are DOMINUS LEGEM DAT, "God gives the Law."

In the central margin a peacock perches on the lip of a tall-necked kantharos from which there grows a vine bearing abundant grapes and other fruits that feed a variety of birds. Just above, a pair of peacocks approaches another kantharos with a smaller vine and several different fruits. The same motif is repeated below the left and right "fabric" hangings. The vine represents Christ and the birds represent the faithful.

On the right are two panels whose water-themed subjects put the water of Baptism in its theological context. The upper one involves a ship with oars, probably the one from which Jonah was ejected, "dying" like Christ only to be "resurrected" after three days. ("For as Jonas was in the whale's belly three days and three nights: so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights," Matthew 12:40). The lower panel has Jesus addressing someone in the water to the right. The reference could be any of several gospel passages, but considering the baptismal context perhaps the most likely is the call of Peter and Andrew (Matthew 4:18-22, et passim).

In the lower left a stag drinks at a stream. A matching stream is just visible on the left, surely with another stag. These stags symbolize Christians in general and catechumens non-Christians who are preparing for Baptism in particular. The stags, peacocks, vines and kantharoi are all common symbols in baptisteries in Greece and the Adriatic region, from whence, according to literature provided at the site, the mosaicist originated.

View this image in full resolution.
Read more about the stag, peacock and kantharos symbols.

Photo © by Jan Piebe Tjepkema