The Florence Baptistery Enigma

One of the most important buildings in Florence, Italy, is its Baptistery. As the name suggests, this is where all Florentine Catholics were traditionally baptised, which was the case right up until the nineteenth century (when there were simple too many Florentines to make the process practical). The Baptistery is an octagonal building and is one of the oldest buildings in the city. It was constructed between 1059 and 1128 in the Florentine Romanesque style, at the very beginnings of the Italian Renaissance.

The Baptistry is famous for its three sets of artistically important bronze doors. These doors are special because they are decorated with intricate relief sculptures. In particular, the East doors of the building are decorated with a series of reliefs by Lorenzo Ghiberti. These are ten in number and they illustrate scenes from the Old Testament. Their quality of craftsmanship is so high that Michelangelo once referred to them as ‘the Gates of Paradise’.


One of the panels (left-hand-side, second from top) illustrates the life of Noah, in particular the period after the Great Flood when Noah returns to dry land with the help of God. Genesis 6 (King James version) describes this period. It begins with:

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be a hundred and twenty years. There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

After that intriguing passage (sons of God? Sons of god begetting giants?) God decides to destroy humanity with a flood.

In Genesis 6:14, God says to Noah:

Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. 15 And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits. A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it.

The Flood comes and wipes out everyone except for Noah and the contents of his Ark. He survives the flood and eventually exits his Ark. He makes a sacrifice to God on the ground outside and God tells him that Earth is now his domain. After this encounter, Noah builds a vineyard and gets drunk. Genesis 9:20 states:

And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: and he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.

That is also a very odd passage. Lorenzo Ghiberti depicts these quixotic events in the third sculpted relief on the Gates of Paradise. Here is the relief:


The panel is faithful to the events of Genesis 9 except with one very strange difference. As you can clearly see, instead of Noah’s Ark being a boat (which is the official view), Noah’s Ark is an enormous pyramid.

This cannot be the result of a mistake. The pyramid has been sculpted beautifully and Lorenzo Ghiberti has depicted Noah and his family clearly emerging from a door near its base. The building does have three stories, as described in Genesis, but it's definitely a pyramid. Apart from the flat-out weirdness of it, it can't even fit with the text of Genesis, since God instructs Noah to build an Ark that is 'three hundred cubits long, the breadth of it fifty cubits' and a pyramid has a square base. Something very odd is going on.

Neither can this astonishing image be passed off as the strange ramblings of an eccentric. Lorenzo Ghiberti was given the commission in 1425 by the elite of Florence and the Vatican. If Ghiberti had personally decided to substitute a pyramid for a boat, he would have almost certainly been censured, sacked and possibly accused of heresy. Sculpting a pyramid could only have been something that he was either instructed to do or one that he sculpted with the full and confident knowledge that it would receive official approval. Either way, the Vatican must have been happy with Noah's Ark being a pyramid, which is incredible.

It’s worth noting that at that time, 1425 AD, the Bible was still a book only available in Latin (or in a few cases, Greek). Martin Luther’s efforts to translate the Bible into a language that non-ecclesiastical people could read was yet to come, the Reformation being still a century away. Effectively, therefore, the Bible was in priestly code as only people who could read Latin and have access to a copy could read its contents. Since the vast majority of people who could read Latin were Catholic priests, and copies of the Bible were almost exclusively owned by priests, the Church at that time had complete control over anyone reading the Bible. They could literally have told their members to say something opposite to what was in the Book and no one outside the Church would have noticed.

Somehow, the Catholic elite were of the opinion, at that time, that Noah's Ark was a pyramid. This is not something that is officially stated. It could be that for a while, the Vatican and the Northern Italian Elite believed that Noah survived the Great Flood in a pyramid, and then later pontiffs and cardinals concluded that he survived in a boat, but if that was true then surely that episode would be part of the history of the Catholic Church? As far as I can tell, it isn’t. If it was, it would have a huge effect. Many Christians believe that the Bible is completely true and always has been and so the idea that Noah’s Ark was once regarded by the highest levels of the Catholic Church as a pyramid would come as a seismic shock.

It is interesting to note that there is actually evidence that Noah’s Ark was a pyramid. This evidence comes from two source areas. Firstly, from Mesopotamian records, which many scholars believe are the source material for much of the stories in Genesis. Secondly, evidence also comes from early gospels, written the first century AD, gospels that the Roman Catholic Church banned as heresy and tried to destroy.

For example, the Apocryphon of John (or Secret Testament of John) is a gospel that was banned by the Roman Catholic Church and disappeared for two millennia, before a copy was found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi texts after the Second World War. A passage in it states:

It is not as Moses said, 'They hid themselves in an ark' (Gn 7: 7), but they hid themselves in a place, not only Noah, but also many other people from the immovable race. They went into a place and hid themselves in a luminous cloud. And he (Noah) recognised his authority, and she who belongs to the light was with him, having shone on them because he (the chief archon) had brought darkness upon the whole earth.

The Sumerian Flood Story of Utnapishtim, part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, also talks about a god helping a wise human survive a catastrophic Flood. Utnapishtim is told by the god Enki to build a ‘boat’. Enki states:

The boat which you are to build, its dimensions must measure equal to each other; its length must correspond to its width. Roof it over like the Apsu.

Enki then goes on to describe other features which closely fit God's instructions to Noah. Note that Enki's dimensions make for a very odd design of boat. Enki wants Utnapishtim to build a square boat. By strange coincidence, one key property of a pyramid is that its length does equal its width. Was Enki really asking Utnapishtim to build a boat, or was it a 'vessel'? A vessel can be a boat but it also means something more abstract, something which holds contents. Did Enki instruct Utnapishtim to construct a square-base 'vessel' to survive the Great Flood?

It would seem that the above texts do support the idea that the historical character of Noah (or Atrahasis or Utnapishtim), on instructions from a god, did not construct a sea-going vessel but a much more exotic type of vessel to survive a Great Flood, which is a fascinating possibility.

But it doesn't change the fact that the Catholic Church has always officially maintained that Noah's Ark was a boat. How on Earth could a heretical text like the Apocryphon of John, one that no one was supposedly able to read between 300 AD and 1955 AD, be a better fit for a scene on the Catholic Florentine Baptistery door than the official Bible itself? What did those Church Elders in the Renaissance really think happened in their own past?

In the near future, I'll try to complete a book that expands on the subject of Noah and the Great Flood and tries to establish what really happened all that time ago. The book will use scientific research but also historical documents interpreted in a new and revealing light. It should be fun!