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Baptisteries and Baptismal Fonts


Baptisteries are the buildings, rooms, or otherwise defined spaces in which are located baptismal fonts. Baptismal fonts are pools or containers that hold the water for the celebration of the sacrament of Baptism.

Historical Developments In the earliest centuries of Christianity, Baptism was celebrated in natural bodies of water, such as rivers and lakes. In the second century ad, however, due to the persecution of Christians, Baptisms in North Africa, southern Europe, and some places in the East sometimes occurred in bathing rooms and courtyard fountains of private homes, and in the frigidaria (cold rooms) of small public baths. The oldest baptistery discovered was in dura-europos, in what is now Syria, found in an adapted house church from the mid-third century. The rectangular font resembled basins in both the Roman baths and Roman and Syrian tombs (sarcophagi) in Dura. The walls of the baptistery were covered with frescoes depicting biblical scenes informing the meaning of baptism in particular, and of Christianity in general.

Around the fourth century, especially after the persecutions were ended, special buildings were constructed or adapted for the purpose of holding baptismal pools. Adult Baptism was the norm in many places, and evidence suggests that baptisms generally occurred during the Easter vigilalthough there is also evidence of infant baptisms and of the sacrament being celebrated at times other than the Easter vigil.

In the earliest centuries, most baptisteries were located adjacent to cathedrals, since baptisms were administered by bishops. The baptisteries were separated from the cathedrals themselves, however, because the catechumens were baptized naked, and because the disciplina arcani during the third through fifth centuries required that major elements of the faith be kept secret for the nonbaptized. There is also evidence in some places that there may have been curtains surrounding the font itself.

The design and symbolism of many paleo-Christian baptisteries and fonts reflected the multivalent meanings of water that are reflected in baptismal theology prior to the fourth century when the paschal understanding (Rom.6.35) of the sacrament gained prominence. Birth imagery was predominant in the East, but there are also mentions of it in the West, probably based on John 3.5. In the late second century, irenaeus of Lyon referred to the baptismal font as a womb. In the early third century, ter tullian of Carthage wrote extensively of Baptism as birth. His imagery was echoed by ambrose of Milan as well as by a number of North Africans, including cypri an of Carthage and augustine. Some later theologians have suggested that the understanding of Baptism as birth gave rise to the round shape of the font, but this link remains to be established conclusively.

The earliest actual baptisteries in the West were in various locations not only juxtaposing the cathedrals, but also (later) parish churches. They were built in a variety of shapes and sometimes had more than one room; in some sites there is archaeological evidence that adjacent rooms were used for instruction and for conferring the sacrament of confirmation (chrismation). Niches in some of the baptisteries suggest the possibility of dressing areas for use before and after the water bath.

Ancient baptisteries and baptismal fonts had a variety of architectural antecedents in the Roman world. Some appear to have been influenced by baths; this seems to have been the case with the first Lateran baptistery in Rome. Others were influenced in design by burial places; such was the case with the fourth-century Ambrosian baptistery in Milan, modeled after an imperial mausoleum in the same city. It is not known whether using the plan of a mausoleum was to give architectural expression to the paschal understanding of Baptism, or whether the mausoleum's octagonal plan was simply a good structural design for a central space. Perhaps, both factors played a part in shaping the final design of the baptistery.

It does seem clear that Baptism's three major meaningsbirth (Jn 3.5), washing or purification (1 Cor 6.11,

Eph 5.26, 2 Pt 1.9), and death and resurrection (Rom6.35, Col 2.12)did influence the shapes of fonts, which in early centuries were generally pools in the ground at the center of the baptistery. These three meanings of birth, bath, and burial are not unrelated, however. The baptismal bath is in fact a drowning flood, and the new birth must be preceded by the death of the "old" person. Already in third-century Egypt, origen had reflected Romans 6 in writing of Baptism, referring to the font as a sepulcher, and this paschal understanding became the cantus firmus in the fourth-century mystagogical writings of cyril of jerusalem and ambrose of Milan. This led to the primary design of baptismal pools as cruciform or variations thereof (such as the quatrefoil, a rounded cruciform shape), or even rectangular (the shape of sarcophagi), although shapes varied from place to place and from East to West.

It was not only the meaning of Baptism that influenced the font shape; the mode of the sacramentitself influenced by and expressive of the meaningwas also highly influential in the designs and sizes of fonts. Submersion (sometimes called "total immersion" or "dipping") involves pushing the person's entire body under the water, and for this the water must be quite deep, as is suggested by some remains from the sixth and seventh centuries. In immersion, the adult candidate stands or kneels in the water (usually between ankle-and waist-deep) while water is poured over the head or the head is lowered partially into the water. Affusion involves pouring water over the candidate's head. It began to replace immersion and submersion in cold regions of northern Europe, as infant Baptism became more common beginning in the medieval period in Europe. Aspersion, the most minimal mode, merely involves sprinkling water over the head. The more minimal the mode, the smaller the font required, so in-ground pools were gradually replaced by mere above-ground containers, eventually placed on one or more stone pedestals, in the medieval period often quite ornately carved. This became especially true as infant Baptism, often by parish priests, became more common, and as confirmation was separated from the water Baptism.

Shapes of Baptismal Fonts. The early in-ground fonts were often of startlingly large proportions. The first (fourth-century) circular baptismal pool of the Lateran Baptistery in Rome was 8.5 meters in diameter and sunk about one meter into the floor.

The rectangle is the most ancient font shape, as evidenced by the baptismal pool in the mid-third century Dura Europos house church. The rectangle was the common shape of ancient sarcophagi and burial niches, and it remains the shape of coffins in the twenty-first century. Early examples of rectangular fonts include the San Ponziano Catacomb in Rome, and the first stages of the fonts in Aquileia, Italy, and Geneva, Switzerland. A related shape is the square, of which Maktar, Tunisia, is a well-preserved example.

The octagon was a very common early font shape. It was interpreted as representing the Eighth Day, the day of Christ's Resurrection, into which candidates enter in baptism. In Milan, the baptistery constructed when Ambrose was bishop in the late fourth century contained an in-ground octagonal pool measuring almost five meters across and about 0.80 meters deep. Many other notable early pools were also octagonal, including those in Lyon, Fréjus, Aix-en-Provence, and Riez, France, and Castelseprio, Varese, and Cividale, Italy.

Also common were hexagonal fonts, beginning in fifth-century Italy and then in North Africa, often understood to represent the Sixth Day, the day of the Crucifixion (Rom 6.35). Important hexagonal pools have been excavated in Aquileia, Grado, Lomello, and Rome (San Marcello), Italy, Cimiez, France, and Carthage (Damous el-Karita), Tunisia. Much attention has been given to hexagonal fonts in octagonal baptisteries, such as in Grado and Lomello, and in the second font in Aquilea, all in northern Italy. Whether this was literally to reflect Rom 6.35 remains an open question.

Cruciform and quatrefoil quadrilobe (a rounded-lobe variant of the cruciform shape) fonts are common in North Africa and in the East. These shapes have long been interpreted as representing the paschal understanding of Baptism. A stunning mosaic-faced quadrilobe font from Kélibia, Tunisia, has been restored at the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Among the many cruciform pools are those in Tunisia, including Thuburbo Majus and Bulla Regia.

The round shape seems to have originated in fourth-century Rome, but was more common in the East than the West. In North Africa, ruins of circular fonts have been found more in Algeria than in Tunisia. The earliest font in the Orthodox Baptistery in Ravenna, Italy, was internally round, sunk about three meters below the present floor; the present medieval octagonal font was built on the foundations of the original circular plan. Other circular pools included the sixth-century font at Mustis, Tunisia; and certain stages of fonts in Aosta and Aquileia, Italy. There has been no clear agreement on the meaning of the circular pool; it may simply have derived from circular basins in Roman baths. Some scholars have interpreted the round shape in reference to the womb.

Most fonts were deep enough to require steps down into them, although the steps also were thought to serve the symbolic function of descending into death with Christ and then rising with him into new life.

Medieval and Modern Developments. In the late medieval period, in-ground pools were largely replaced by above-ground containers, and eventually by fonts on pedestals, thus minimizing the significance and understanding of Baptism. Originally they were large enough for both adult and infant submersion (e.g. the eighth-century above-ground font in Cividale, Italy), but they became smaller and smaller until finally they could accommodate only aspersion. Detached baptisteries became rare. By the late twentieth century in the West, and long before in many places in Europe, fonts were often located at the entrance to the nave, symbolizing Baptism as entrance into the community of the Church.

Only in the late twentieth century were the larger inground pools again constructed in liturgical churches in the Westthey had been retained, usually in non-symbolic shapes, in Baptist and Anabaptist churchesas the ancient practice of the catechumenate and Christian initiation regained prominence in many churches across the ecumenical spectrum. Two documents were seminal in recovering a fuller understanding of Baptism: the Roman Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, emanating from Vatican II and leading to the recovery of the adult catechumenate (first in the Roman Catholic Church and subsequently, to a lesser extent, in Lutheran and Episcopalian churches in North America); and the World Council of Churches Commission of Faith and Order 1982 document, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. The resulting renewal of baptismal theology resulted in the retrieval of ancient font shapes and designs in the construction of new baptisteries and fonts.

Notable examples of new fonts large and deep enough to enable adult and infant submersion include the in-ground cruciform pools set within octagons at St. Pius V Church in Pasadena, Texas, St. Charles Borromeo Church and Guardian Angel Church in London, Chiesa della Polomo in Madrid, Chiesa S. Maria del Buon Cammino in Naples, the large round pool (28 feet in diameter) at St. Benedict the African Church in Chicago, and the above-ground octagonal pools in the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul in Indianapolis and St. Monica Church in Chicago.

Font covers (which developed in the thirteenth century) have become very rare because most people in the present time are not inclined to take water from the font for the purpose of witchcraft. Some new fonts, however, do have covers, such as the two new cruciform fonts in London; the purpose of these covers is not to protect the water, however, but to allow for a coffin to be set on the font for a funeral, making very clear the relationship between Baptism and death and resurrection.

Bibliography: f. bond, Fonts and Font Covers (London 1908 and 1985). f. cabrol, h. leclerc, and h. marrou, Dictionnaire d' archéologie chrétienne et de la liturgie (Paris 19241953). j. g. davies, The Architectural Setting of Baptism (London 1962). a. khatchatrian, Les baptistères paléochrétiens. Paris, 1962. a. khatchatrian, Origine et typologie des baptistères paléochrétiens (Mulhouse 1982). r. krautheimer, "Introduction to an 'Iconography of Medieval Architecture," in Studies in Early Christian, Medieval, and Renaissance Art (New York 1969). r. kuehn, A Place for Baptism (Chicago 1992). f. nordstrÖm, Mediaeval Baptismal Fonts: An Iconographical Study (Stockholm 1984). s. a. stauffer, On Baptismal Fonts: Ancient and Modern (Alcuin/GROW Liturgical Study 2930; Cambridge 1994), extensive bibliography; Re-Examining Baptismal Fonts: Baptismal Space for the Contemporary Church, video (Collegeville, MN 1991).

[s.a. stauffer]

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