Baptisteries

Over the Easter weekend, I worked a bit a long simmering project on the Early Christian baptisteries of Greece. Since it seems likely that, initially, baptisms occurred primarily during the Easter vigil, it felt appropriate.

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The project includes a brief overview of the archaeological and architectural evidence and then a short catalogue of known buildings. At present, we don’t have much to say that would be unfamiliar to folks who have spent some time on these building. At the same time, there are few things that I hadn’t noticed before. My dissertation did not deal with baptisteries specifically as part of my study of Early Christian churches more generally, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, some of the most interesting buildings come from the Dodecanese which were both outside my dissertation’s specific purview and outside the Diocese of Illyricum Orientale. As part of the Diocese of Asia and the Prefecture of the East (at least until the early 6th century), it also seems likely to have enjoyed different liturgical traditions than regions in the Western facing Diocese of Illyricum Orientale.

Here are my random thoughts:

1. Baptisteries of Kos and Rhodes. There are at least eight known Early Christian baptisteries on Kos. This is an impressive total even for this relatively large island. It’s a bit hard to understand why a single place would require so many baptisteries if they all functioned more or less simultaneously and if the tradition was for the bishop to conduct baptisms only once per year. It may be, of course, that multiple bishops—representing multiple variants of Christianity—functioned on the island. It is also possible that not all the churches and baptisteries functioned simultaneously. Rhodes likewise has seven baptisteries which once again suggests either diverse communities or a rite administered by someone other than the bishop.

Considering that both of these islands are near the edge of an ecclesiastical diocese, this would bring them in contact with rites and practices common to both the Aegean (and the West) and the diverse Christianities present in Asia Minor.   

2. Locating the Baptistery. Athanassios Mailis observed in his short article on the baptisteries on Crete that baptisteries in the Dodecanese tended to appear more frequently on the eastern side of the churches. In mainland Greece, however, baptisteries tended to appear as annexes attached to the narthex or atrium. If I had understood this more clearly when I was writing my dissertation, I might have been able to connect this location of the baptisteries themselves to the movement of catechumens during the baptismal rite (or even during the weekly liturgy). If we assume that the narthex and atrium served as buffers between the “profane” space of the outside world and the sacred space of the church’s processional axis as well as staging areas for the various liturgical processions, then the presence of baptisteries adjacent to these liminal zones would reflect the liminal status of participants in the baptismal rites. More over, it might allow for a post-baptismal procession from the baptistery into the church.

The location the baptistery in the eastern part of the church associates the baptistery spatially with the bema and suggests a rite that may do less to emphasize the liminal status of the participants and more to emphasize the liturgical or even sacramental character of baptism and the baptismal font. While it’s hard to necessarily make any particular claims on the basis of the location of the baptistery, it is suggestive that the two regions understood the place of the rite in different ways both ritually and, perhaps, practically.

3. Multiple Fonts. I had always found the two fonts present at the Lechaion baptistery outside of Corinth pretty interesting. It was impossible to know whether the second, smaller font, represented a change in ritual or perhaps a supplement to the more monumental font in the center of the baptistery proper. 

I was struck when I came to realize that on Kos a number of churches have a similar arrangement with a smaller secondary font associated with the larger main font. This suggests to me change in liturgical ritual, perhaps associated with the development of infant baptism. By this logic, the larger central fonts likely reflected the requirements of adult baptism (and the functioning of an adult catechumenate). This, to me, indicates ongoing conversion of adults into the 6th century which is the latest possible date for many of these buildings and the emergence of infant baptism (which would represent second generation Christians) only sometime after this. We can allow, of course, for a certain amount of architectural conservatism in the design of baptisteries, but I still think that appearance of smaller secondary fonts is worthy of note.

~

It’s been a pleasure to return to material and ideas that I explored over 20 years ago as I was working on my dissertation. The time away has ensured that the buildings, rituals, places, and arguments are a bit more fresh to me but still oddly familiar. I’m excited to share more about this small project in the coming weeks of Eastertide!     

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