“You will tread upon the lion and cobra, The young lion and the serpent you will trample down.” recites Psalm 91, from which takes inspiration one of the most curious and fascinating representations of Christ: the “Christ treading on the beasts”. In Ravenna it is possible to see the two oldest examples of this depiction.
The oldest is inside the Neonian Baptistery, almost hidden by the beauty of the mosaics that decorate the monument. In the stuccoes on the left of the entrance we find a representation of Christ in full figure, dressed like a young beardless Roman legionary. He’s wearing a short tunic, a belt (called “cingulum”), a cloak, military shoes (called “calcei”). He is depicted holding with the right hand a cross and the left the open Gospel. The Christ, whose figure is put in profile, trample with his right foot the head of the serpent and with the left the lion.
Less antique, but certainly more famous, is the Christ represented above the exit of Saint Andrews’s Chapel. The representation is very similar to the previous one but there are important differences. Like the Baptistery’s representation the Christ is depicted beardless, grabs with his hand (in this case the right) a red processional cross placed on the shoulder, with the left hand, placed underneath the chlamys, he is holding up the open Gospel and with his feet he is trampling the heads of the lion and the serpent. In this depiction, however, the figure is represented frontally and described in a much more precise way: he bears a richly decorated nimbus, and he is wearing a purple tunic with gold trimmings, a muscular lorica, a purple and gold clam, typical Roman’s military shoes (called “campagi”). On the open Gospel it is possible to read “Ego sum Via Veritas et Vita”, that means: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”.
But why does the Christ trample a lion and a snake? And why is it represented in military clothes?
From Psalm 91, mentioned at the beginning, comes a key to interpretation. The psalm develops the theme of the divine protection accorded to the Just and offers the invitation to trust in the protection of the Lord: Faith in God is compared to an invincible armor that guarantees salvation from any adversity, such as to be able to walk on asps and vipers and trample lions and dragons. In patristic literature, as in the bestiaries created over time, lion and snake are ambivalent figures. In the case of the Psalm in question, they symbolize all those types of adversities that the Just One, under divine protection, will be able to face and defeat: Christ presents himself as the Just able to defeat lions and snakes or as the eradicator of every Bad.
The military characterization of the figure finds its main source in the Roman funerary iconography. It recalls a precise role in the legion, the “aquilifero”, who belongs to a centuria called “primipilo”. The “aquilifero” was the officer who had to carry and defend the legion’s banner in battle. He was the reference for the legionnaire, who should never lose sight of him in the field of battle, and so Christ must be the reference for every Christian, with the precious symbols of the Cross and of the Gospel symbols of Salvation.
But why put two very similar representations in such different places?
The choice was dictated by the highly symbolic nature of the two monuments: the first contained the font where the catechumens were baptized, the second was the private chapel of the bishop. In both cases the figure of Christ the warrior fulfilled a parenthetical function. In the baptistery the goal was to reveal to the neophytes what force lives in the Christian after baptism; in the Archbishop Chapel it was intended to confirm the bishop in his evangelical mission.