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Early Christian Baptisteries Working

Early Christian Baptisteries Working

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Published by billcaraher
A draft of a short summary description of Early Christian baptisteries in the Mediterranean.
A draft of a short summary description of Early Christian baptisteries in the Mediterranean.

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Published by: billcaraher on Apr 14, 2010
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 WORKING DRAFT – DO NOT CITE WITHOUT AUTHORS PERMISSION
1
Early Christian Baptisteries: A Short DiscussionWilliam Caraher © 2010
 Introduction
In an Early Christian context (3
rd
-7
th
c. A.D.), baptisteries represent an important body of architecture that despite their singular function, defy summary description. A recentsurvey of baptismal architecture from the Early Christian period has identified over 1000 buildings and this survey is likely to be incomplete.
1
The buildings included in thiscatalogue and dated to the Early Christian period represent both the development anddiversity of the ritual and architecture of baptism within the Early Church. The Christianrite itself dates to the earliest Christian scriptures and accounts of pre-baptismal practicesand a proper baptismal liturgy pre-date the earliest known Christian architecture. Theearliest rites of baptism described in second and third-century texts did not demand aspecific location or building for baptistery despite the development of a rich ritualtradition.
2
In fact, baptism could occur in rivers or other bodies of water.
3
At the sametime, however, specific spaces for baptism appeared in some of the earliest known buildings modified for Christian purposes. By the 4
th
century, free-standing baptisteries provided a distinct architectural and symbolic context for initiation into the EarlyChristian community across the entire Mediterranean basin. The emergence of elaborately decorated and monumental baptisteries broadcast the authority of the churchhierarchy over initiation into the Christian community and reinforced the wealth of thechurch as an institution.
General Description
By the 4
th
century, the early and close link between the various rituals of baptism andthe clergy, ensured that baptisteries were almost always associated with the liturgicalspace of the church either as a free-standing structures, attached buildings or, lessfrequently, within the church proper in a space set apart for the performance of the rite. Inmany cases, complex decorative programs in prestigious materials set baptisteries apartfrom other spaces of Christian ritual. The specific combination of architecture, features,and decoration of baptisteries showed considerable variation both within and acrossregions. The considerable differences in the architecture and ritual apparatus even among baptisteries from the same region suggest that the differences between these buildings probably did not reflect variations in the baptismal ritual alone, but rather revealed baptisteries as buildings capable of bearing a wide range of theological, symbolic, andeven political meanings.The variation present in the architecture and decoration of baptisteries alsorepresents the greatest challenge to understanding the function and meaning of theseritually significant places. Few texts clearly relate to a known building and fewer still provide clear evidence as to how these buildings function. The difficulties linking textsto baptisteries and baptismal rituals are compounded by the lack of clear chronology onmany of the buildings so it is difficult to ascertain whether baptisteries developed throughtime or as the result of specific historical influences. The absence of ancient descriptionsof the architectural or decorative requirements for baptism makes it challenging tounderstand why architectural variation existed and whether it was a requirement of ritual,aesthetics, theology or otherwise. Finally, the interaction between the elaborate
 
 WORKING DRAFT – DO NOT CITE WITHOUT AUTHORS PERMISSION
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decoration and ritual, theological, and sacred life of the community varied over time andwith audience. This serves as a important reminder of the diverse and multivalentcharacter of Early Christian iconology in general as well as how little we know aboutthese important buildings.The dearth of site specific textual evidence has led scholars to appeal to general patterns in the relationship between ritual and buildings in efforts to understand the physical and symbolic significance of the architecture and decoration of Early Christian baptisteries. Typically these treatments rely upon a generalized description of ritual.Baptism typically followed a period of instruction in the Christian faith, which varied inlength and intensity. On the day of the baptism, catechumens, or pre-baptismal converts,would process to the baptistery in particular, typically white, baptismal garb. At the baptistery, the bishop or an appointed member of the senior clergy would administer therite. First, the presiding clergyman would perform an exorcism on the baptismalcandidate and in some cases anointed the convert with oil before baptism itself took  place. This purged any active evil from the uninitiated and prepared them to be cleansedfrom all of their pervious sins during the baptism itself. By the 4
th
century, the bishop baptized the naked candidate in a purpose-built font, and this ritual marked the moment atwhich the candidate became a member of the Christian community. Since most preservedfonts were not large enough for full immersion, the bishop or presiding priest likely useaffusion, the pouring of blessed water over the head, or aspersion, the sprinkling of water,over the naked candidate. The presence of steps down into most baptismal fonts requiredthe baptismal candidate to step down into the font either to facilitate the application of water by the bishop or to symbolize the decent and rebirth as a Christian. After the baptism, the fully initiated member of the community would proceed to the church itself to experience the full liturgy for the first time as a member of the Christian community.Set days for baptism varied across the Mediterranean, but there was a clear preference for Easter Saturday which allowed the redemption of the sinful through baptism to echo theredemption of the world through Jesus’ resurrection.This basic outline of liturgical practice accounts for many of the most commonfeatures that appear in baptisteries. In almost all baptisteries the font represented the mainfocus of the ritual as well as the architecture and decoration. The close contact between baptisteries and the liturgical space of a church allowed the baptized easy access to spaceof Christian liturgy. In more elaborate baptisteries, chambers communicating directlywith the room where the font was located are regularly identified as the spaces for exorcism or anointing. Larger spaces in particular grandiose structures are often read as places for the instruction of catechumens.While requirements of the ritual had a clear influence on the internal arrangement of the building, it would be wrong to see baptisteries as a kind of functional architecture. Infact, the elaborate design of most Early Christian baptisteries almost certainly hadsymbolic significance that added meaning to the ritual of baptism. Throughout theMediterranean, the dominant architectural form in most baptisteries was the centrally planned room which contained the font. The rooms could be square, hexagonal,octagonal or even circular and covered with a dome. Some scholars have argued that thedome represented the dome of heaven or the centrally planned shape echoed earlier tombs. In the latter case, the ritual of baptism physically mimicked rebirth as thecatechumen enters the tomb in order to exit reborn and free from sin. The parallel with
 
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the Christian Passion narrative is clear. Parallels between tomb architecture and baptisteries may also evoke martyrs shrines which were important monuments of EarlyChristian devotion and perhaps appealing places for baptism. Square or rectangular  baptisteries, numerically the most common form, sometimes featured apsidal exedrae toevoke the shape of contemporary church buildings. In general, baptisteries represented particularly elaborate forms of architecture in the Early Christian world and stood out inchurch and episcopal complexes where they served as physical anchors to the pre- baptismal processions, symbolically suitable environments for the rites, and persistentreminders of membership in the Christian community.
4
The architecture also providedsuitable platform for complex and dynamic decorative programs with further bolsteredthe status of the church and its leaders.The centerpiece of baptismal ritual and architecture was the font. Fonts variedsignificantly with the most common shape being round, but different forms were notuncommon. Like most aspects of baptismal architecture, the shape of fonts undoubtedlycarried significant symbolic weight. Cruciform fonts, for example, could representfunctional design as the catechumens walked through the font on one axis and the presiding clergy stood to either side of them on the other. The cruciform font could alsohave obvious theological significance: physical immersion in the cross led to spiritualrebirth. Likewise, octagonal fonts replicated the octagonal form of baptistery buildingsand may have reinforced and echoed the mystical significance of the number eight.
5
 The font also represented the main focus of the decorative themes present in the buildings which naturally revolved around the central open space of the building. Whilethere are several detailed studies of single buildings, much of the scholarship has focusedon unlocking the symbolic significance of the mosaic decorations and attempting to findsome common themes in the decoration in building spread across the Mediterranean.Biblical scenes are common. Old Testament scenes often involve episodes of redemptionand involve water such as Jonah and the whale, Noah, Moses striking the rock, and andimagery evoking Psalm 62 and Pslam 23. New Testament scenes, include Jesus’ baptismin the Jordan or images of Jesus as the good shepherd leading his flock to the church.Also common are decorations in a more symbolic vein. Water features prominentlyin the decoration of baptisteries with the Jordan River, fountains, and vessels, particularlyoverrunning canthari being particularly common. Animals also feature regularlyespecially doves and deer which appear respectively in the baptism story of Jesus andPsalm 62 in association with water. Animals, fish, birds, and vegetation like vines, trees,and flowers may evoke Christian paradise or Biblical Eden. Some scholars have seen parallels between baptismal iconography and the iconography used in a funerary contextand this would reinforce a link between baptismal rebirth and physical death. Finally,some mosaics may include apotropaic symbols, like so-called Solomon’s knots, eye-shaped symbols, and even crosses which guarded the place and participants from evil at avulnerable moment of passage.In some cases, inscriptions complement iconography and ritual in baptisteries.Sometimes these texts are little more than brief quotes from the Psalms, the Gospels or references to paradise. Some larger texts are preserved such as the lengthy inscription inverse form Lateran baptistery dated to the 5
th
century which uses water imagery to draw parallel between the incarnation and the baptismal rite. These texts seemed to have

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