Watery Wednesday: Baptism and Baptisteries on Cyprus

Ok, so Watery Wednesday might be a stretch, but I’m slowly working my way through the massive list of Early Christian baptisteries on Cyprus (there are 7, but only 5 are preserved to any real extent and there are a couple that might be baptisteries, but don’t really have much in the way of evidence; it is a very short list).

While doing this I also can’t stop thinking about the opening scenes of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Ministry for the Future where one of the main characters immerses himself in a lake to avoid a devastating heatwave and emerges transformed by the experience. It inspired me to think back to his book New York: 2140 which is set in New York City inundated by rising sea levels which transformed the character of the city and the United States. In some ways, it paralleled J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) which was set in a similarly inundated London. Time in the inundated city and the experience of a world devolving to a more primitive, pre-human, state triggered in its main character, Dr. Robert Kearns a journey to intensely tropical south with the goal of becoming a new Adam. Obviously, both books are more complex than these simple summaries, but they both involve immersion and inundation as experiences that require radical changes — conversions if you will. If that doesn’t motivate me to think about baptisteries in the waning days of summer, I’m not sure what will.

There are five well-preserved baptisteries on Cyprus. Three are in the neighborhood of Salamis: Ay. Epiphanios in the city itself, Ay. Trias and Ay. Philon on the Karpas Peninsula. The other two are at the Episcopal Basilica at Kourion and the coastal site of Ay. Georgios-Peyias. The remains of a font part of the baptistery was excavated at the site of Petounta in Larnaka district.

The small number of baptistries excavated on Cyprus is almost certainly an accident of discovery rather than a feature of the ecclesiastical landscape. The preserved examples of baptisteries on Cyprus suggest that they were quite monumental and architecturally elaborate structures that often stood separate from the main body of the church. As a result, the tend to appear most commonly at churches excavated extensively. Despite the massive number of churches excavated on Cyprus, excavators only occasionally have opened the kind of exposures necessarily to reveal the presence of a baptistery complex. It is hardly surprising, then, that three of the five well-preserved baptisteries appear associated with churches located amid large scale excavations (Ay. Epiphanios at Salamis, The Episcopal Basilica at Kourion, and the baptistery basilica at Ay. Georgios-Peyia). Conversely, the absence of baptisteries at Paphos, for example, which was an important ecclesiastical city with Biblical associations almost certainly reflects the limited areas excavated around the large churches identified at this site.

That said, it also seems likely that Cypriots developed smaller and simpler alternatives to the large scale baptisteries present at the five basilicas identified by large-scale excavations. These alternatives may have included mobile fonts and used annex rooms common to the Cypriot churches or even space in the aisles, atria, or narthex. 

The monumental baptisteries present on the island suggest adult baptism which perhaps correlates with the large-scale conversion of the island over the course of the later 5th and 6th centuries. The baptisteries at Kourion, Ay. Philon, and Ay. Epiphanios are on slightly different orientations from their associated churches which would seemingly suggest either earlier or later construction. The excavators at Kourion and Ay. Philon, however, saw the similarities in form between the baptisteries and the main church as evidence for their close contemporaneity. Megaw largely dated the church at Kourion on the basis of coins found in foundation trenches and argues for a fifth century date for the basilica and links it to the prominent bishop Zeno who attended the Council of Ephesus in 431 (Megaw 158). Ay. Philon appears to have a similar date on the basis of numismatic evidence. The church at Ay. Epiphanios was famously dated on the basis of the Life of Ay. Epiphanios in which God tells the Bishop Epiphanios to build a church. This dates the church to the late 4th century at earliest and considering the scale and opulence of the building, it is probably safer to date the church to the early 5th century with later modifications perhaps in the 6th century. The baptistery is likely associated with the first phase of the building. The similarities between the baptistery at Ay. Trias and that of the nearby Ay. Philon (as well as the baptistery at Kourion and Ay. Epiphanios) would seem to support a 5th century date for that structure and coincides with the date assigned by Papageorghiou at least partly on the basis of a coin of Honorius (395-425). The baptistery and basilica at Peyia is an outlier in terms of design and most likely date, but seems likely to date to the 5th century. Whatever the shortcomings of the archaeological evidence for dating these buildings, a 5th century date seems reasonable. This century not only represents a period of aggressive church building perhaps linked to efforts by Cypriot bishops to assert their independence from Antiochene authority at the Council of Ephesus in 431. It would also be a plausible time for large-scale adult conversions on the island.   

Richard Maguire’s 2012 dissertation which offers the most convenient and recent survey of the churches on Cyprus, argues that the design of the four baptisteries – Ay. Epiphanios, Ay. Trias, Ay. Philon, and Kourion – served to support a processional baptismal rite. This rite involved four spaces linked by a corridors. A large atrium space allowed the catechumens to gather prior to the start of the rite itself. The candidate then proceeded into an apodyterion where pre-baptismal rites took place and the individual undress before moving to the font itself. Cruciform fonts suggest at least partial immersion and complemented the role of movement associated with the processional rite. The candidate would have walked down into the font by means of a stair case on one of the font’s cross arms and ascended, newly baptized, by  another before continuing into the chrismarion where the newly baptized Christian received anointing with oil. Presumably then the fully baptized member of the church would enter the basilica and experience the full liturgy. Maguire suggests a link to the baptismal rituals and architectural forms at Jerusalem, Sidé in Turkey, Gerash, and the pilgrimage church at Qalat Sem’an in Syria. Considering the close, if sometime fraught, connections between the church on Cyprus and the ecclesiastical landscape of the wider Levant, this seems plausible. The outlier of this group is the baptistery church at Peyia. Its circular font and lack of obvious architectural support for a processional right may well reflect Aegean influences and hints at more diversity present in the baptismal liturgy on the island that existing evidence reflects.      

~

It’s a start, at the end of summer, to a little catalogue of Cypriot baptisteries will be part of a larger project coordinated by Robin Jensen and which will also include a catalogue of Early Christian baptisteries that I put together with David Pettegrew (and blogged about here, here, and here). 

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