Places for Baptism: Ancient and New
March 14, 2008
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A Place for Baptism
Our second online exhibit shows some historical and contemporary examples of baptismal fonts. This extremely rich and diverse field warrants much more than the small exhibit that has been assembled here. The goal of the exhibit is to provide enough imagery to illustrate essential insights into the complex and dynamic world of the celebration of the sacrament of baptism.
A Brief History
According to the baptismal accounts in the Acts of the Apostles, the celebration of the sacrament of baptism started rather unassumingly: wherever there was water, baptism could occur. The first architectural evidence of a more complex theology and more intricate ceremonial dates to the beginning of the third century as the river was replaced with a place for baptism inside a building, while the primary operative symbol of the sacrament, free-flowing water, was enclosed in baptismal tubs and structures.
During the fourth century, large baptismal fonts mostly filled with flowing water were housed in separate baptisteries. Although these baptisteries were elaborate, both in decoration and symbolism, the central symbol remained water. Starting in the seventh century, the visual prominence of water as the primary symbol diminished, while the baptismal font shrank dramatically. When even “dipping” of infants was replaced with affusion – a process completed by the sixteenth century – the amount of water found in the font became minimal. By then, most churches had acquired a so-called pedestal font that had very little room for water. This font was housed in a separate baptismal chapel or baptismal corner, which was to have a gate, while the font, too, was to be covered and locked. Although these covers were occasion for magnificent artistry, in the end they left the baptismal water conspicuously invisible.
Some Contemporary Practical and Symbolic Requirements
In light of the Second Vatican Council, and especially due to the rediscovery of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the theology of the sacrament of baptism, its ritual celebration, and its architectural and artistic context were duly investigated. As a result, the biblical and patristic sacramental theology and symbolism were re-appropriated. The medieval emphasis on baptism as remedy against eternal damnation was nuanced with such rich theology of baptism as incorporation into the Body of Christ; burial into the life and death of Christ; sharing in the resurrection of Christ; rebirth; cleansing of sins; and reception of the Holy Spirit.
Today, the place for baptism is subject to two expectations: one which is purely practical, the other which is highly symbolic. From a practical point of view, the place for baptism needs to be designed, both for the full, active and conscious celebration of adult and infant baptism alike. In addition, a place for baptism needs to allow more frequent ritual interaction with the baptismal waters during the celebration of the other sacraments and sacramentals. Finally, the place for baptism needs to encourage the assembly to have direct and physical contact with the baptismal waters.
The symbolic function requires that the place for baptism symbolize the essential theological effects of the sacrament as the place and time for the baptismal bath, which cleanses us from anything that separates us from perfect union with Christ; as the place and time of baptismal burial, which joins us in the death and thus the resurrection of Christ; and as the place and time of baptismal birth, when through baptism we are born into the Body of Christ, the Church.
These practical and symbolic requirements impact the two architectural components of the place for baptism: the font and the space around the font. The primary purpose of the font is practical, as it is to be large enough to allow for immersion, at least of children, but preferably also of adults. The symbolic nature of the font is derived from the water it holds. The shape, material and decoration of the font has the potential either to support or to mute the symbol it contains. Based on historical precedence, the contemporary array of possibilities is terms of shape, material and decoration is vast. The space around the font allows the Body of Christ to have direct access to the celebration of the sacrament of baptism. It needs to be spacious enough and hospitable to all who need to be there. In addition, it is the place where the other initiatory symbols, such as the paschal candle and the oils, are kept.
The practical and symbolic requirements of baptism also impact the location of the place for baptism in relation to the place for the celebration of the Eucharist. Practically, the font needs to be located in such a way that it allows for the full celebration of the sacrament of baptism by the entire Body of Christ. Symbolically, the location of the place for baptism needs to suggest the theological effect of baptism, especially the birth into the Body of Christ, as well as the relationship with the other sacraments.
The Place for Baptism Today
Although there are endless solutions for an architectural translation of the requirements in terms of baptismal theology, praxis and architecture, there are some trends in today’s church design in terms of location, shape, and symbols used for the place for baptism that mostly are rooted in earlier architectural traditions.
Overall, there is a movement toward the construction of larger fonts to allow for a fuller celebration of the sacrament of baptism. The font is often two-tiered. This design is mostly functional, since it allows for adult baptism in the lower basin and infant baptism in the upper basin. The bowl used for infants sometimes incorporates the original baptismal font of a church. Other fonts are either single-tiered or triple-tiered.
Although all fonts are carefully designed in terms of material, shape and decoration, sometimes the font’s symbolism purely flows from its function. Sometimes elaborate symbolic patterns are used to enhance the symbolic meaning of the vessel of water.
Although today’s fonts tend to be placed in an architecturally defined area, it is important that the font is visually and acoustically accessible to the entire assembly. In most cases, the place for baptism is located at the threshold of the church, either just inside the worship space or in the narthex or gathering space. This, of course is a symbolization of the sacrament of baptism as entrance into the Church. Other locations are the center of the church, symbolizing the Body of Christ giving birth to the new Christians; the sanctuary, or just to the side, emphasizing the relationship between baptism and Eucharist. The practical advantage of these locations over the one by the threshold is their easy visual and acoustical access.
Theoretically, the place for baptism in all our churches results from the dynamic relationship between baptismal theology, praxis and architecture; however, in practice the final outcome is most often the result of negotiations between the people involved and between the people and the building. Such negotiations are different in the case of a renovation of an existing building and the construction of a new building. When adapting an existing space to the liturgical norms and sensitivities of the local community, the building itself provides both opportunities and limitations. Sometimes a building will suggest, almost demand, a particular location for the font. And indeed, from an architectural point of view, this may be the very best location; however, that does not mean that this is the best location, either from a theological or liturgical point of view. Even when one has the luxury of starting with a tabula rasa, outside circumstances often necessitate negotiations and compromise.
In the end, there is beauty in the fact that there exists no blanket solution to the quest for the perfect place for baptism. Although there are very clear guidelines, each local community will have to adapt them to their own building and their own sensitivities. After all, the place for baptism needs to accommodate and reflect the practical and symbolic exigencies of the Roman Catholic baptismal theology as it is practiced in different local communities.
Johan van Parys is the Director of Liturgy and the Sacred Arts at the Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis, Minnesota and the Artistic Director of EnVisionChurch.