The Baptism of Pontianus

Circa 1180
Crypt of the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, Aquileia, Italy

This panel is part of a series illustrating an 8th-century vita of St. Hermagoras. In the story, Pontianus is the jailer of the prison to which St. Hermagoras has been consigned after refusing to recant. On the saint's arrival sweet odors waft in and the prison is filled with a great light. This so impresses Pontianus that he asks to be baptized.

My notes from the basilica's labels have St. Hermagoras baptizing the jailer, but in the vita it is not Hermagoras who baptizes but a priest and deacon whom the saint has summoned to the prison. This fresco clearly follows that narrative. On the right, the man who pours the water over Pontianus is certainly a priest. If he were an archbishop like Hermagoras he would wear the pallium. A band of cloth worn over an archbishop's chasuble during solemn liturgies. In the crypt's images of St. Hermagoras, it is tied into a shape somewhat like a "Y". If he were a deacon, the ends of his stole would not be showing below the hem of his outer vestment.

The man in white on the left side of the image is probably the deacon. His outer vestment has the wide sleeves of the "dalmatic" worn by deacons at Mass, although dalmatics usually have vertical bands from shoulder to hem and on the sleeves (as we see in the crypt's portrait of Hermagoras and Fortunatus). Another indication that he is a deacon is the gospel book in his left hand. At Mass it is the deacon who reads the day's gospel selection to the congregation.

It is not clear why this deacon is placed ahead of the priest. The artist may be thinking of Hermagoras's archdeacon Fortunatus, who will soon be martyred along with him and who is a co-patron of the basilica.

According to Tavano (197), opinions range widely as to when in the 12th century the crypt frescos should be dated, but most agree on a date around 1180.

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Read more about images of Saints Hermagoras and Fortunatus.

Source: Photographed at the site by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.