What Can We Learn from Ancient Baptismal Fonts for Today's Designs?

March 04, 2008

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Some guiding notes to set the stage for this brief article:

»  “Today’s designs” include form and function: shape, size, location, water source, patterns of movement, etc.
»  “Ancient fonts” is but a sampling from fifth and sixth century Asia Minor (today’s Western Turkey and the Mediterranean Islands) – one of the most extensive treasuries of extant baptisteries with fonts.
»  “What can we learn?” While there is much more to be said, these three points stand out. There are still many more questions than answers, and even some of the questions await refinement.

“Baptisteries are everywhere!”

Baptisteries appear, as one expects, in the basilicas of episcopal sees, but also in churches at shrines to well-known martyrs and other patron saints, at monasteries, and even in churches at cemeteries (likely once linked also to memorial shrines or martyria). Furthermore, within ecclesial complexes, baptisteries are both outside the basilica as free standing structures and inside, occupying a space clearly designated and designed for its purpose. Whether outside or inside the church, baptisteries stand in the east end, as at Xanthus, Lycia – after Sodini,

floorplan Xanthus, Lycia






and in the west (e.g. Ephesus – site photo by author)

floorplan St. John at Ephesus





as well as in the north (Elaiussa Sebaste, Cilicia – after Schneider)

floorplan Elaiussa Sebaste, Cilicia









or south (Anemurium, Cilicia – after Russell).

floorplan Anemurium, Cilicia





Location of the baptistery in relation to the church, or of the font within the baptistery, appears to have no explicit theological meaning. In certain regions, of course, the location may have local significance, for example, as in relation to a tomb of a martyr. Another factor determining placement may have been the availability of water, as may be the case at Alahan, Isauria.

Alahan Isauria

Alahan Isauria

What do we learn from this for today’s designs? Theological symbolism, such as passing the baptismal font in the entry way or narthex as a reminder of entering the Church through one’s own baptism, or contemporary pastoral concerns, such as visibility by the congregation during baptisms may be meaningful to us. Such things do not appear to concern the communities whose extant ruins we observe from afar. Indeed, those baptisteries might caution us not necessarily to expect theological symbolism from the location of their fonts.

“Fonts reside in baptisteries!”

After personally visiting more than 75 archaeological sites with baptisteries and extant fonts, I cannot insist enough on this seeming truism. In other words, except for a handful of examples removed from their original locations, fonts are always in liturgy-specific spaces apart from the principal room for Eucharistic worship.

Furthermore, when it comes to size and location, baptisteries and their fonts appear to reflect local liturgical emphases and practice. Larger monumental, often free-standing baptisteries tend to house large fonts, and reveal clear patterns of liturgical movement within the larger church complex.
Large fonts, centrally placed or located along a lateral wall, with passages in and out, suggest elaborate processional celebrations, as we see in the episcopal basilica at Xanthus,

Font in Xanthus Lycia

Font Xanthus, Lycia





or in the shrine churches of Alahan

Church of Alahan

Baptismal font in Church of Alahan





and of St. John at Ephesus. St. John in Ephesus
St. John in Ephesus




In smaller baptisteries, sometimes little more than a small room within the larger church or ecclesial complex, fonts tend to be smaller, often nestled alone against an apse or side wall. These seem to reflect simpler rites. Examples include the episcopal basilicas at Anemurium (Baptistery located directly south of the apse)

Basilica at Anemurium

Basilica at Anemurium





and Elaiussa Sebaste (baptistery located directly North of the apse),

Elaiussa Sebaste

Elaiussa Sebaste





as well as the cupola church at the nearby Shrine of St. Thecla in Seleucia (Baptistery located northeast of the apse).

St. Thecla, SeleuciaSt. Thecla, Seleucia




Documenting the treasury of extant baptismal fonts before further loss due to the herding of large animals, vandalism, tourism, etc. is one of the principal contributions of the work of EnVisionChurch and the Baptisteries of the Early Christian World catalogue currently in preparation. Compare the font at St. Thecla photographed in 1999 and in 2007:

St. Thecla, Seleucia

St. Thecla, Seleucia 2007








Some fonts are large enough and deep enough to accommodate baptism by full immersion (or submersion): e.g., St. John at Ephesus.

St. John in Ephesus

St. John in Ephesus





Others, though deep enough, scarcely fit one person inside, as seen in the font at Alahan.

Font at Alahan

Font at Alahan





Still others, while relatively large, are shallow, suggesting baptism by infusion: e.g. the font at St. Thecla Shrine.

St. Thecla Shrine

Despite all the variations, however, one thing we learn for today is that the space in which a baptismal font is located and the size of the font are related and that both location and size play a role in shaping the celebration of Christian Initiation.

“Fonts come in all shapes and sizes!”

Most readers of these pages are familiar with octagonal and cruciform designs, and perhaps the oval or womb-like plans, each reflecting a specific symbolic reference to theologies of baptism. Some will also recognize the so-called tri-lobed fonts with their Trinitarian emphasis. Beyond these familiar shapes, one finds also quatri-lobed, square, round, U-shaped, as well as coffin-like fonts. Some of these fonts have steps on two, three, or four sides, apparently to lead into and out of a central piscina; some fonts have steps on one side only; others have no steps at all. Some examples of lesser familiar designs include:

Vizari, CreteVizari, Crete: round with steps into coffin-like font area;





Panormos, CretePanormos, Crete: U-shaped with steps;





St. Georges, Peyia, CyprusSt. George, Peyia, Cyprus: circle (?) with steps from the west only;





Istanbul, Archaeological MuseumTurkey, Istanbul Archaeological Museum: exterior – cruciform; interior - oval

What do we learn from this wide variety of ancient font designs? Authentic artistic creativity, rather than any attempt to emulate certain “ideal” forms with explicit symbolism, should be our guide to today’s designs. Indeed, with such historical diversity, it is hard to imagine any modern design for a functional baptismal font that does not have its precedent in antiquity anyway.

What is the biggest lesson I’ve learned from this research?

The faith of the Church gathered to celebrate the liturgies of Christian Initiation and the unfolding of the rites themselves are what gives symbolism to the font. Just as the sacraments embrace many layers of meaning simultaneously, so too, authentic spiritual creativity should be free to design contemporary baptisteries and fonts to capture those many layers of symbolism for today. Furthermore, it is not out of the question that purely practical concerns, such as terrain, materials at hand, accessibility to water, models familiar from secular use, and the like will contribute to our designs, just as they had done in late antique Christianity.

Rev. H. Richard Rutherford, CSC teaches at The University of Portland, Portland, Oregon.  He is the author of Death of a Christian (Studies in the Reformed Rites of the Church) (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990) ISBN 13:978-0814660409 and Honoring the Dead: Catholics and Cremation Today (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001) ISBN 13: 978-0814627143.

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