For some reason baptistery projects take a long time to come out. This week, two baptistery related projects of mine somehow reached milestones. It’s a Christmas miracle.
The first is the MASSIVE Cambridge Guide to the Architecture of Christianity edited by Richard A. Etlin. I had only a tiny contribution to this gigantic and long simmering project: “Early Christian Baptisteries.” From what I can tell, I started working on this project in 2010 or so. In fact, this project took so long to come to pass that you have to go to my OLD blog to find a draft of the published manuscript: You can read that draft of it here. You can check out the table of content here. I’m particularly pleased to have slipped an image of the Lechaion baptistery into this article!
Yesterday, I completed a draft of another long simmering project on the Early Christian baptisteries of Cyprus. It is a companion piece to one that David Pettegrew and I wrote on the Early Christian baptisteries of Greece.
If you’re into baptisteries and into Cyprus, I think this as good a place as any to start. Note the bibliography at the end for key additional reading and reference!
The Baptisteries of Cyprus
Scholars have long recognized Cyprus as a crossroads in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Late Roman period. This location of the island between the Levant, Asia Minor, and the Aegean and its wealth during the Roman and Late Roman period shaped its distinct ecclesiastical and Christian history. The island’s location made it a predictable stopover for St. Paul (Acts 9:27; 11:19-26). Its connection to the Levant inspired traditions of prominent early bishops on the island including Paul’s companion Barnabas and the resurrected Lazarus. By the fourth century, the island sent three bishops to the Council of Niceae including St. Spyridon and by the end of the century produced the charismatic St. Epiphanius whose status a heretic hunter drew him to Constantinople to participate, albeit briefly, in the machinations surrounding St. John Chrysostom’s condemnation at the Synod of the Oak in 403. The prominence of Cypriot bishops in the first half-millennium of Christianity is just one indicator of the political and religious significance of the island. Indeed, the sudden discovery of the relics of St. Barnabas in the 5th century, helped bolster the island’s case for ecclesiastical independence from the See of Antioch and reinforce the uniquely autocephalos relationship between the Metropolitan bishop of Cyprus at Salamis-Constantia and the Patriarch in Constantinople. The prominence of the church and its leaders also fostered the growing number of relics on the island and helped make the island a place for pilgrims to stop on their way to the Holy Land. Even in the 7th century, as the Late Roman Eastern Mediterranean started to dissolve under the pressures of religious and political schism, Cyprus remained a key node in Christendom. Displaced populations, such as thousands of Armenians captured during the Persian wars, and displaced bishops, such as Cypriot-born St. John the Almsgiver who fled Egypt in advance of the Persian attacks on Alexandria, found new homes on the island. Throughout the Early Christian period, the island’s location, economic and political prominence, and ecclesiastical stature ensured that its churches were both impressive and diverse in style and shape (see Gordon and Caraher 2018; Mecalf 2009; Zavagno 2017).
Considering its geographic, political, and ecclesiastical context, it is hardly surprising that Cypriot churches drew freely on the architecture of the Near East, Asia Minor, and the Aegean coasts. This diversity of church architecture on the island suggests the presence of different communities with different liturgical practices as well as different groups of builders with access to different material and techniques. Like many places in the Mediterranean, the paucity of clearly dated buildings also means that our chronology of these churches remains provisional. Only a handful of the over 100 Early Christian churches on Cyprus have dates established on the basis of published archaeological excavations (for the most recent catalogue of Cypriot churches see Maguire 2012). As a result, it is difficult to discern development over time or to link architectural trends to the ecclesiastical history of the island. This is particularly disappointing as Cyprus’s location, distinct ecclesiastical history, and remarkable continuity has make it a useful for understanding the dissemination and transformation of church architecture in the Early Byzantine period.
Despite the large number of churches excavated on Cyprus, there are only six well-preserved baptisteries. Three are in the neighborhood of Metropolitan See on the island, Salamis-Constantia: Ay. Epiphanios in the city itself, Ay. Triada and Ay. Philon on the Karpas Peninsula. The are also two well preserved baptisteries at the Episcopal Basilica at Kourion and the coastal site of Ay. Georgios-Peyias. Most recently, the Department of Antiquities excavated a baptistery at the site of Petounta in Larnaka district (Georgiou 2013). There are several poorly preserved or poorly published baptisteries that add to this meager corpus. At the site of Shyrvallos near Paphos, salvage excavations revealed a baptistery in the early 1960s (Metcalf 2009, 459 with citations). An unpublished baptistery stands to the west of the basilica excavated east of the harbor at Amathous. There is also evidence suggesting a baptismal installations at the Chrysopolitissa basilica at Paphos.
The small number of baptistries excavated on Cyprus appears to be partly an accident of discovery and partly a feature of the island’s distinctive ecclesiastical landscape. The best preserved examples of baptisteries suggest that there was a tradition of monumental and architecturally elaborate structures that often stood adjacent to, but separate from the main body of the church. As a result, these monumental baptisteries tend to appear most commonly at churches excavated extensively. Urban contexts for many of the churches on Cyprus and salvage excavation practices has meant that excavators only occasionally opened the kind of exposures necessary to reveal the presence of a baptistery complex. It is hardly surprising, then, that three of the six well-preserved baptisteries are 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 monumental baptisteries at Paphos, for example, which was an important ecclesiastical city with Biblical associations and the absence of any substantial Early Christian remains from the city of Kition (modern Larnaka) almost certainly reflects accidents of discovery.
That said, there is also some evidence that Cypriots developed smaller and simpler alternatives to the large-scale baptisteries present at the basilicas identified by large-scale excavations. These alternatives may have included mobile fonts, the use of annex rooms common to the Cypriot churches, or even space in the aisles, atria, or narthex. The presence of the remains of a baptistery in the south apse of the Chrysopolitissa basilica at Paphos and may well indicate the use of moveable baptismal fonts. Stewart suggests that a gap in the opus sectile floor in the north apse of Amathus Acropolis basilica might represent the remains of a displaced baptismal font at this building that otherwise lacks a formal baptismal space (Stewart 2013, 292).
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 5th century. 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 basilicas at these sites 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 2007, 158). Ay. Philon appears to have a similar date on the basis of numismatic evidence and the perhaps tenuous attribution of this church to Ay. Philon, a descendent of Ay. Epiphanios (Megaw and du Plat Taylor 1981). The church at Ay. Epiphanios was famously dated on the basis of the Life of Ay. Epiphanios in which God tells the fourth-century 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 modifications continuing into 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) (Papageorghiou 1964, 372-374). The baptistery and basilica at Peyia with its Aegean influences is an outlier in terms of design, but seems likely to date to the 6th century if it is contemporary with its associated church (Papageorghiou 1985, 316). The baptistery at the site of Mazotos-Petounta produced coins dating from between the 4th and 7th century (Georgiou 2013, 123). Without additional context for these finds, it remains difficult to assign to this building a narrower date, but its general form suggests a fifth or sixth century date. These centuries represents a period of aggressive church building perhaps linked as much to the growing Christian population on the island at to efforts by Cypriot bishops to assert their independence from Antiochene authority at the Council of Ephesus in 431 (Maguire 2012, 138).
Richard Maguire’s 2012 dissertation offers the most convenient, recent, and thoughtful survey of the churches on Cyprus. He argues that the design of the four baptisteries – Ay. Epiphanios, Ay. Trias, Ay. Philon, and Kourion – served to support a processional baptismal rite (Maguire 2012, 97-139). To this we can add, albeit tentatively, the baptistery at Mazotos-Petounta. The basilica associated with this baptistery was not excavated, but it nevertheless shares sufficient similarities with the four studied by Maguire to be added to that group. He proposes a rite involving four spaces linked by 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 staircase on one of the font’s cross arms and ascended, newly baptized, by another. They would then continue to 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. Moreover, the character of Cypriot baptisteries do appear to emphasize processional movement through a series of discrete spaces that mediate the converts liturgical and physical entry into the church.
A mild outlier of this group is the baptistery at Peyia. Its circular font is unusual for Cyprus, with only the poorly preserved font at the site of Shyrvallos in Paphos sharing this shape. The location of the Peyia baptistery to the west of the atrium rather than connected to the main nave may hint at an alternative baptismal liturgy, the use of the atrium as the start of the baptismal processional route, or just constraints imposed by the neighboring buildings. A similar arrangement is apparently present at the still unpublished basilica near the harbor at Amathus which might have reflect the physical limits of the church’s situation near the coast (Keane 2021, 52).
The association of baptisteries with the seats of bishops has largely been a given on the island. The close association of the imposing church of Ay. Epiphanios with the bishops of Salamis-Constantia make it the obvious cathedral. The size, location, and opulence of the Kourion basilica, baptistery, and residential space makes it the cathedral of that city. The baptistery at Peyia likely seems to be associated with a cathedral as is evident in the presence of a synthronon at the church and the adjacent elite residence plausibly associated with the bishop. The later synthronon at the site of Ay. Philon and the elaborate annex rooms may well indicate that it was also a probable cathedral. At the same time, the presence of a baptistery some 20 km away from Ay. Philon at the site of Ay. Triada suggests that some non-cathedral churches may have been also equipped with baptisteries on the island. Metcalf suggests that the church and the baptistery at Ay. Triada predated the more elaborate cathedeal at Ay. Philon and the bishop moved his seat sometime in the fifth century (Metcalf 2009, 275). It is more difficult to explain within the limits of contemporary evidence why some cathedrals lacked obvious baptisteries. The scant evidence for architecturally distinct baptisteries at the massive basilicas at Paphos, including the largely unpublished Chrysopolitissa church, may suggest that in these contexts baptisms took place using moveable fonts or less substantial installations that stood within the liturgical space of the church itself. This would allow us to understand, for example, the Chrysopolitissa as the cathedral of the city despite its lack of a formal baptistery.
The handful of baptisteries on Cyprus reflect a certain amount of continuity of design, ritual and tradition likely centered on around the seat of the metropolitan bishop at Salamis-Constantia. There are, however, some indications for the perennial tension on the island between local practices and broader regional influences. The presence of an Aegean-style baptistery at Peyia on the western side of the island suggests that the influence of the church at Salamis may have had its limits. While this would be hardly surprising, the relative paucity of excavated baptisteries on Cyprus makes speculative any conclusion surrounding the traditions and practices broadly operating on the island. The likely use of moveable fonts which may have left only faint traces in the archaeological record, chronological ambiguities, and the limits to many excavations, further complicates our understanding of ancient practices on the island. The remains that do exist, however, suggest that Cypriot baptismal rituals centered on processional movements similar to those found elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean.
du Plat Taylor, J. and A.H.S. Megaw. 1981. Excavations at Ayios Philon, the Ancient Carpasia. Part II. The Early Christian Buildings. Report of the Department of Antiquities, Cyprus, 209-250.
Georgiou, G. 2013. An Early Christian baptistery on the south coast of Cyprus. Cahiers du Centre d’Études Chypriotes 43: 117-126
Gordon, J. M., and W. R. Caraher. 2018. The Holy Island. In D. K. Pettegrew, W. R. Caraher, and T. Davis, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology. Oxford University Press. 475-494.
Keane. C. 2021. “More than a Church: Late Antique Ecclesiastical Complexes in Cyprus.” Ph.D. Diss. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich.
Maguire, Richard. 2012. “Late Antique Basilicas on Cyprus sources, contexts, histories.” PhD diss., University of East Anglia.
Megaw, A. H.S. ed. 2007. Kourion: Excavations in the Episcopal Precinct. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.
Metcalf, M. 2009. Byzantine Cyprus 491-1191. Nicosia: Cyprus Research Centre.
Papageorghiou, A. 1964. Ἡ Παλαιοχριστιανικὴ καὶ Βυζαντινὴ Ἀρχαιολογία καὶ Τέχνη ἐν Κύπρῳ κατὰ τὸ 1963. Ἀπόστολος Βαρνάβας 25: 153-162, 209-216, 274-284, 349-353.
Papageorghiou, A. 1985. L’architecture paléochrétienne de Chypre. Corsi di Cultura sull’Arte Ravennate e Bizantina 32: 229-334.
Stewart, C. 2013. Military Architecture in Early Byzantine Cyprus. Cahiers du Centre d’Etudes Chypriotes 43: 287-306.
Zavagno, L. 2017. Cyprus between the Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (ca. 600-800): An Island in Transition. London: Routledge.