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Article Info:
published: 3/17/04
updated: 8/14/14


Early Baptisteries

Dura Europa Baptistery
House church, c. 232-256 AD.

In the Christian religion, a baptistry is a building, or a portion of a church, used for administering baptism. The history and institution of baptisteries is naturally connected with the development of the baptismal form.

Immersion, which was customary in the ancient Church, required a basin of the requisite depth, and the custom of solemn seasons for baptism made necessary a considerable space for the reception of the numerous neophytes.

The atrium and impluvium of the antique dwelling, in which divine service was held for nearly two centuries, appeared first of all as fit for it and were used in the beginning for the performance of the rite (cf. Schultze, p. 51). The neophyte, after having received baptism, was led from the atrium to the congregation assembled in the adjoining space.

But when the atrium became merely the vestibule of the basilica, being an open court besides, buildings were erected as early as the fourth century exclusively for the administration of baptism (Gk. baptisteria, photisteria, Lat. fontes, fortes baptisterii). As a rule these buildings were near the choir (as in St. Sophia in Constantinople, and the baptisterium of the Lateran basilica,), or toward the west (orthodox baptisterium at Ravenna), or on the west-front (Grado, Parenzo). Sometimes a location in the immediate neighborhood of the church was not considered necessary or could not be obtained from local reasons (Arian baptisterium at Ravenna). An open or covered gallery often connected the two buildings (Torcello, Aquileia, and elsewhere).

Form and Structure

Baptistery in Ravenna, Italy
Baptisteries are almost exclusively buildings with central arrangement of circular or polygonal plan; the rectangular form is rare. The walls were supplied with recesses, or a lower passage-way surrounded an elevated centred structure supported by columns and roofed with a dome.

The development of the baptismal rite from the fourth century and practical considerations in general necessitated the addition of other rooms, as a vestibule (Gk. proaulios oikos, estuteros oikos, Lat. atrium; Lateran Nocera), a dressing-room, and more especially, a school-room (Gk. katechoumenon). In such rooms episcopal meetings were occasionally held. An apse or complete choir was also sometimes supplied.

In the center of the baptistery was the basin (Gk. kolymbethra, Lat. piscina, fons), polygonal or circular, seldom cruciform, and artifically supplied with water (cf. J. von Schlosser, Schriftquellen zur Kunstgeschichte der Karolingerzeit, Vienna, 1892, no. 232). Low, ornamented barriers surrounded it, with openings for going down and coming up. Three steps-symbolically referring to the holy Trinity, in the name of which the baptism was performed-led down and up (gradus descensionis, and ascensionis). Curtains covered the basin and seats stood along the walls.

The arts were employed chiefly in the mosaic decorations of the dome, but reliefs in stucco, marble ornamentation, and artistic pavements were also used. As subjects for pictorial representation the baptism of Jesus Christ and the hart panting after the water brooks (Ps. xlii, 1), representing the longing after baptism, commended themselves (cf. Schultze, pp. 205 sqq., 228 sqq., 240-241). Inscriptions were "not lacking, telling of the purpose of the building and the blessingof the baptismal grave" (Holtzinger, pp. 219220; Schlosser, u.s., no. 910).

Baptisteries Superseded by Baptismal Fonts

Most of the extant baptisteries of early Christian time (which were freely dedicated to John the Baptist) are in Italy (cf. O. Mothes, Die Baukunst des Mittelalters in Italien, i, Jena, 1882, 125 sqq.). In the East some samples have recently been discovered and more may be looked for. In general the number was limited, since the right of baptism was connected with the episcopal churches (ecclesiae baptismales), and was only gradually granted to the parochial churches.

Baptismal Font
Salzburg Cathedral, Austria
(Mozart was baptized here)

The discontinuance of the baptism of adults was not in itself a reason for the abolition of baptisteries; only the inner arrangement, as the form of the basin, was influenced thereby. However, for practical reasons, the tendency grew stronger to substitute for the detached building an addition, or rather a separate room in the church itself; during the Middle Ages the detached buildings became exceptional. In these baptismal chapels the font or basin took the place of the piscina. In the old plan of St. Gall belonging to the ninth century, the christening-font is already in the interior of the church (F. Keller, Bauriss des Klosters von St. Gallen, Zurich, 1884, plan and p. 18).

Immersion, which was still customary during the Middle Ages, required a large basin (cf. the instructive illustrations from the ninth century in J. Strzygowski, Iconographic der Taute Christi, Munich, 1885, plate viii, 4-7). The material was generally stone, but sometimes bronze or brass. The round or polygonal form may perhaps be looked upon as a survival of the antique piscina. As the latter

Modern Catholic Baptismal Font
Southbridge, Mass.
was adorned by art, so also ornamentations and figurative representations are found on the outside of the baptismal fonts, such as the apostles executing the baptismal command of Christ and the baptism of Jesus. Sometimes the four rivers of Eden personified or lions served as supports; in Liege there were oxen, an imitation of the molten sea in the court of the priests of Solomon's temple. In the Gothic period the broad, massive form of the older time becomes more slender, and the architectural ornamentations occupy a larger space.

Connected with the Roman Catholic rite of consecrating the baptismal water is the use of a covering, which in its artistic shaping is in harmony with the whole, and often develops into a high superstructure. In the Middle Ages enactments were passed by the Church concerning the material and other matters (Rituals romanum, de sacramento baptismatis, 30; cf. V. Thalhofer, Handbuch der katholischen Liturgik, i, Freiburg, 1883, 816 sqq.). When immersion ceased to be practised in the Roman Church the baptismal fonts became smaller. The Protestant Church knows of no consecration of the baptismal water. In order to connect as closely as possible the two sacraments which were recognized, the baptismal font was at first placed near the altar,-a custom which in modern times has rightly been increasingly disregarded. As to baptism and baptisteries in the catacombs, nothing can be positively asserted, and all probability is against it. The water reservoirs which are spo radically found there, have no connection with baptism.

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This article is reprinted from Victor Schultze, "Baptistery," from the New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Volume I (1952). The text is in the public domain.

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