A Few Observations on Early Christian Baptisteries

November 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

I spent a little time over the last few days reading the most recent volume of the Journal of Early Christian Studies which was a volume length consideration of Everett Ferguson’s massive, recent book Baptism in the Early Church (2009). Robin Jensen (Grand Forks native, I must add) contributed a lengthy article titled: “Material and Documentary Evidence for the Practice of Early Christian Baptism“. 

There is no way to do justice to Jensen’s elegant summary of the main literary and material evidence for baptism (and it is complemented by Ferguson’s reply later in the volume).

1. Diversity. In general, Jensen argues for the diversity of baptismal practice. Her argument rests on the architecture of the fonts, the rituals described in the texts, and the depictions in art which  show not only variation in the symbolic understanding of baptismal rituals, but also the rituals themselves. The most obvious variations come in whether the baptismal candidate is immersed or simply sprinkled with water. As Ferguson’s reply reflects, the variation in practices continues to spur debate. My inclination is to agree with Jensen and to see liturgical practice are largely non-uniform across the Early Christian Mediterranean and that this variation is captured in regional architectural differences as well as variation in the ancient texts. Ferguson admits in his response to preferring evidence from texts to material evidence, and Jensen, it would seem, preferred archaeology to texts. This approach makes sense for her argument for diversity in practice; archaeological and architectural remains have a far wider chronological and spatial distribution across the Mediterranean than our limited corpus of textual evidence. In fact, based on the diversity present in the design of fonts alone, it is almost inconceivable that the actual moment of baptism did not see at least the variation necessary to accommodate the practical reality of different font designs. (As an aside, I was disappointed that Jensen didn’t introduce some of her most controversial arguments here including her suggestion that re-baptism may have occurred at certain martyr shines.) 

2. Nature. One of the more interesting little arguments that Jensen makes in her treatment of archaeological and decorative evidence for baptism is that the baptismal fonts were sometimes adapted to evoke the original outdoor setting for the rite. In fact, she notes a device in Milan that “simulated rain falling into a pool.” (p. 380). The natural context for baptism surely evoked scenes from the New Testament where baptisms all took place outside or the pastoral settings in the Psalms that are regularly invoked in the inscriptions associated with baptisteries. Moreover, the use of mechanical means to conjure up outdoors settings brings together the use of vegetative imagery in mosaics around the font, the starry night in the domed roofs of baptistery buildings, and the need for cool, flowing water to evoke an idyllic Christian landscape of rebirth. (What she does not note, however, is that in some places in the Eastern Mediterranean (Kourion and Lechaion in Greece come immediately to mind), baptisteries were equipped with small furnaces to warm the water. It would be interesting to reflect on this variation in practice.)

3. Baths, Baptism, and Martyrs. One of the most intriguing observations offered by Jensen was the parallel between baptisteries and baths. The need for water made it the location of baptisteries near on atop the site of earlier baths not unusual. The parallel between bathing and washing clean the taint of sin is obvious as well. What is perhaps not so obvious is the link between martyrdom and bath buildings. There are a number of stories that recount the imprisonment of a saint in a bath with the most famous (to me) being the story of Ay. Demetrios of Thessaloniki. In fact, the great church of Ay. Demetrios stands atop a bath building where the saint was said to be imprisoned. One example does not make a very convincing argument, but it is intriguing to imagine the complex intersection of narratives that made vivid the intersection of bathing, baptism and martyrdom.

 

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