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Early Christian Baptisteries: A Short Discussion

William Caraher © 2010

In an Early Christian context (3rd-7th c. A.D.), baptisteries represent an important body of
architecture that despite their singular function, defy summary description. A recent
survey 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 this
catalogue and dated to the Early Christian period represent both the development and
diversity of the ritual and architecture of baptism within the Early Church. The Christian
rite itself dates to the earliest Christian scriptures and accounts of pre-baptismal practices
and a proper baptismal liturgy pre-date the earliest known Christian architecture. The
earliest rites of baptism described in second and third-century texts did not demand a
specific location or building for baptistery despite the development of a rich ritual
tradition.2 In fact, baptism could occur in rivers or other bodies of water.3 At the same
time, however, specific spaces for baptism appeared in some of the earliest known
buildings modified for Christian purposes. By the 4th century, free-standing baptisteries
provided a distinct architectural and symbolic context for initiation into the Early
Christian community across the entire Mediterranean basin. The emergence of
elaborately decorated and monumental baptisteries broadcast the authority of the church
hierarchy over initiation into the Christian community and reinforced the wealth of the
church as an institution.

General Description
By the 4th century, the early and close link between the various rituals of baptism and
the clergy, ensured that baptisteries were almost always associated with the liturgical
space of the church either as a free-standing structures, attached buildings or, less
frequently, within the church proper in a space set apart for the performance of the rite. In
many cases, complex decorative programs in prestigious materials set baptisteries apart
from other spaces of Christian ritual. The specific combination of architecture, features,
and decoration of baptisteries showed considerable variation both within and across
regions. 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, and
even political meanings.
The variation present in the architecture and decoration of baptisteries also
represents the greatest challenge to understanding the function and meaning of these
ritually 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 texts
to baptisteries and baptismal rituals are compounded by the lack of clear chronology on
many of the buildings so it is difficult to ascertain whether baptisteries developed through
time or as the result of specific historical influences. The absence of ancient descriptions
of the architectural or decorative requirements for baptism makes it challenging to
understand why architectural variation existed and whether it was a requirement of ritual,
aesthetics, theology or otherwise. Finally, the interaction between the elaborate


decoration and ritual, theological, and sacred life of the community varied over time and
with audience. This serves as a important reminder of the diverse and multivalent
character of Early Christian iconology in general as well as how little we know about
these 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 in
length 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 the
rite. First, the presiding clergyman would perform an exorcism on the baptismal
candidate 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 cleansed
from all of their pervious sins during the baptism itself. By the 4th century, the bishop
baptized the naked candidate in a purpose-built font, and this ritual marked the moment at
which the candidate became a member of the Christian community. Since most preserved
fonts were not large enough for full immersion, the bishop or presiding priest likely use
affusion, 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 required
the 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 the
redemption of the world through Jesus’ resurrection.
This basic outline of liturgical practice accounts for many of the most common
features that appear in baptisteries. In almost all baptisteries the font represented the main
focus 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 space
of Christian liturgy. In more elaborate baptisteries, chambers communicating directly
with 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. In
fact, the elaborate design of most Early Christian baptisteries almost certainly had
symbolic significance that added meaning to the ritual of baptism. Throughout the
Mediterranean, 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 the
dome 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 the
catechumen enters the tomb in order to exit reborn and free from sin. The parallel with


the Christian Passion narrative is clear. Parallels between tomb architecture and
baptisteries may also evoke martyrs shrines which were important monuments of Early
Christian devotion and perhaps appealing places for baptism. Square or rectangular
baptisteries, numerically the most common form, sometimes featured apsidal exedrae to
evoke the shape of contemporary church buildings. In general, baptisteries represented
particularly elaborate forms of architecture in the Early Christian world and stood out in
church and episcopal complexes where they served as physical anchors to the pre-
baptismal processions, symbolically suitable environments for the rites, and persistent
reminders of membership in the Christian community.4 The architecture also provided
suitable platform for complex and dynamic decorative programs with further bolstered
the status of the church and its leaders.
The centerpiece of baptismal ritual and architecture was the font. Fonts varied
significantly with the most common shape being round, but different forms were not
uncommon. Like most aspects of baptismal architecture, the shape of fonts undoubtedly
carried significant symbolic weight. Cruciform fonts, for example, could represent
functional 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 also
have obvious theological significance: physical immersion in the cross led to spiritual
rebirth. Likewise, octagonal fonts replicated the octagonal form of baptistery buildings
and 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. While
there are several detailed studies of single buildings, much of the scholarship has focused
on unlocking the symbolic significance of the mosaic decorations and attempting to find
some common themes in the decoration in building spread across the Mediterranean.
Biblical scenes are common. Old Testament scenes often involve episodes of redemption
and involve water such as Jonah and the whale, Noah, Moses striking the rock, and and
imagery evoking Psalm 62 and Pslam 23. New Testament scenes, include Jesus’ baptism
in 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 prominently
in the decoration of baptisteries with the Jordan River, fountains, and vessels, particularly
overrunning canthari being particularly common. Animals also feature regularly
especially doves and deer which appear respectively in the baptism story of Jesus and
Psalm 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 context
and 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 a
vulnerable 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 in
verse form Lateran baptistery dated to the 5th century which uses water imagery to draw
parallel between the incarnation and the baptismal rite. These texts seemed to have


served not only to make the purpose of the building clear, but also to explicate aspects of
the baptismal rite or invoke the same array of allegorical images presented in decoration.

Case Studies
The earliest-known Christian baptistery derives from the Christian Building at Dura
Europos.6 The Christian building was a modified house from a Roman border town in
the Syrian desert which was abandoned after a siege is 256 A.D. The modification of the
house suggests that it functioned as a place of assembly for the 3rd century Christian
community. The southern wing of the peristyle house was expanded to accommodate a
congregation of over 50 people and the northern wing of the building preserved a small,
but elaborate baptistery. This space communicated with a room along the western side of
the peristyle thought to be reserved for catechumens, or candidates for Christian
initiation, who would be able to listen to the services in the assembly room but not be
physically present. Frescoes decorated the walls of the baptistery, and, while there are
imperfectly preserved, they likely represent Biblical scenes associated with the
resurrection and salvation. A rectangular font under an aedicula or canopy dominates the
western part of the room. In this arrangement, the catechumen would have stepped down
into a font that was not deep enough to allow for full immersion. The ritual, decoration,
and furnishings seem to evoke the descent and resurrection from the tomb which would
become a common theme for baptismal imagery later in Christian history.
The northern Italian city of Ravenna preserves two monumental baptisteries: the
Arian baptistery and the Orthodox or Neonian baptistery. C. Kostof has treated the latter
church in a monograph length study.7 The baptistery dates to the early 5th century with a
later, mid-5th century renovation. Like so many Italian baptisteries, the building is a free-
standing octagon. The interior of the building is well-appointed with a circular or
octagonal font set into the floor. The octagonal elevation of the baptistery rests atop a
square base with arcuated apsidal niches at the corners and rectangular niches on the
sides. These arches support a series of heavily decorated and heavily restored zones
depicting prophets or teachers in plaster, mosaics evoking traditional Christian and
Biblical themes including Jonah, Daniel in the Lion’s den, and Christ giving the law. The
dome depicts in mosaic the Gospel books, the 12 apostles in procession, and in the
central medallion, Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist. The decoration of this space
evokes both the historical and the symbolic aspects of baptism through the interplay
between New and Old Testament imagery – like the baptism of Christ and the onlooking
prophets and teachers– and more symbolic imagery such as vegetal patterns and animals
alluding to Christian paradise.
These elaborately decorated baptisteries stand among a rather small group of well-
preserved buildings, but the majority of baptisteries in the Mediterranean stand as little
more than ruins. We can only speculate on the elevation and decoration of the elaborate
5th/6th century Lechaion baptistery which stands to less than 2 m in height on the coast of
the Gulf of Corinth near Corinth, Greece.8 The baptistery stands to the north of a massive
three-aisled basilica and consists of a pair of centrally planned buildings joined on their
western sides by a north-south oriented rectangular building with apses on its short ends.
The baptistery proper is an octagonal space with a central font and an eastern apse. To
the north of this building stands the remains of another centrally planned structure, with a
square core and apsidal projections one each side. The apsidal hall suggests a space for


educating catechumens and the northern of the two centrally planned structures may
represent a space for the pre-baptismal preparations or anointing. The baptistery itself
evokes martyria and tombs in Italy and North Africa, and this may allude to the function
of the church and baptistery as a martyr shrine. If the building is dedicated to St.
Leonidas and his companions who were drowned for their faith nearby, then this might
explain the significance of this site as a place of baptism.

The vast array of images and the large number of baptisteries across the
Mediterranean revealed the dynamic character of baptismal space. The monumental
character of the baptisteries likely made clear the importance of this rite of passage to
membership in the Christian community, served to attract new converts to their group,
and likely reinforced the growing prestige of the church. The centralized plan of many
baptisteries evoked funerary architecture and stood out as a distinct form of architecture
in the Early Christian Mediterranean. Moreover, the centralized plan focused attention
on central font and the singular, individualized encounter experienced at the moment of
conversion. The interplay between ritual, architecture, and decoration while never
precise or unambiguous nevertheless reveals the rich symbolic world surrounding Early
Christian practices and membership in the Christian community.

S. Ristow, Frühchristliche Baptisterien (Münster Westfalen: Aschendorffesche

Verlagsbuchh., 1998).
M. E. Johnson, The rites of Christian initiation (Liturgical Press, 2007), ##-##
Didache, 7.1-3.
A. J. Wharton, Refiguring the Post Classical City: Dura Europos, Jerash, Jerusalem,

and Ravenna (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 105-131

S. Kostof, The Orthodox Baptistery of Ravenna (New Haven: Yale University Press,

1965), 50.
Carl Kraeling, The Excavations at Dura-Europos: The Christian building. Vol. 8 Pt. 2

(New Have: Dura-Europos Publications, 1967).

S. Kostof, The Orthodox Baptistery of Ravenna (New Haven: Yale University Press,



I. E. Volonakes, Τα Παλαιοχριστιανικά Βαπτιστήρια τἢς Ελλάδος. (Athens:

Archaiologikē hetaireia 1976), 65-66.