A List: The 15 Best Early Christian Baptisteries in Greece

The other day, mostly on a lark, I posted to Twitter a list of the top 15 baptisteries in Greece. It was 60% done as a kind of silly joke designed to spoof the ubiquitous “listicles” that fill our social media feeds and 40% done because David Pettegrew and I needed to cull our list of around 65 baptisteries to 15-20 for a publication. In any event, the list proved more popular than I imagined which has prompted me to post it here to the ole blog. 

It also got me thinking about maybe doing a little weekly list of things which I post to Twitter and then, perhaps, share them on my blog. One of the major trends of the last five years or so is that blogs like mine have declined in regular readership. Some have argued that Twitter threads and other forms of “long form” social media engagement have created new reading habits. The rise of newsletters has also drawn readers away from stand along blogs. Finally, the blogging landscape itself has changed. The slow and steady grind of research blogs stand out less visibly against blogs engaging more fully with debates that have attracted considerable public attention. In other words, it’s no longer enough to just blog and hope for readers. Today, one has to understand the digital media landscape and have a sensitivity to wider concerns both within and outside of the academy.

My effort to produce a fun little listicle is probably not a useful step in any particular direction for this blog, but it was fun so I’ll share it here with my few remaining (but dedicated and committed) blog readers:  

15. Ay. Sophia at Panormos on Crete. It’s a bit weak, but it’s ranked 15 so there’s that. It also has some archaeology to it and some phasing (it seems to have been added in the 5th century). A little architectural adaptation goes a long way in this list.

14. Kenchreai Basilica (Corinthia). I mean the Pauline tie-in makes it a lock for the list (even though the church is much later. Plus, it’s mostly under water now which is cool. And the swimming there is nice. Otherwise, pretty garden variety.

13. Kos-Zepari Kapama. No list of baptisteries is complete without at least one from Kos or Rhodes. These islands consistently produce great content. In fact, the competition is so intense that these baptisteries are often overrated by fans and critics alike. This one has style.

12. Argos – Aspis Church. I have a soft spot for the Argolid and everyone knows that. This baptistery brings the ROUND and offers just a hint of synchronism for all you old school conversion fans out there. It won’t win a prize for style or design, but it’s there all day long.

11. Aigosthena-Attica. This church is just great and the site (ashlar walls, the sea, the mountains) is almost enough to move it into the top 10. For now, it’s the number 2 baptistery in Attica.

A solid building, good font, probably some arches, but it’s all about the setting.

10. Ialysos-Rhodes. You can’t talk baptisteries without Rhodes and Kos and this little gem is more than representative of the baptismal landscape there.

Apsidal room – check.
Cruciform font – check.
Parapet screen – check.
On an ancient acropolis – check.
Top 10 – check.

9. Brauron-Attica. This basilica is great, but the baptistery is show stopper. Curving walls, a circular baptismal chamber, some apses, and some changes in elevation. This place is special and almost anticipates a day when curves matter. It’s not Ronchamp, but it’s 6th c. Style.

8. Philippi-Octagon. Don’t let the church or the Pauline associations distract you! Here it’s all about the FONT. Square room, busy building, but then: BLAM: cross pattée. It is FLASH. Like someone wanted to show that EC architecture wasn’t all geometric forms and columns.

7. Nea Anchialos – Basilica C. This baptistery is a sleeper. Two phases. Subtle. Small, but complex. From a free standing building to an integrated one. It has a story to tell. Maybe from adult baptism to child baptism? Maybe changing styles and liturgy? There’s a lot going on.

6. Dion – Basilica B. Simple can be better. Octagonal font and three room baptistery:  Apodyterion-Font-Chrismarion. Textbook with just enough style to let people know that they planned this thing. Not quite top 5, but you can feel conversion here.

Oh, man. I’ve gotten so excited that I had forgotten to enjoy my pair of post-prandial Twizzlers!! This never happens except when I’m dropping some public science and doing my baptistery thing!!

Top 5. Here we go.

5. Paros Katapoliani Church. This church speaks for itself and the baptistery is part of that conversation. Apses and aisles and cruciform font. Maybe a dome. This is class in a church that makes me pun Theoktiste and want to escape from pirates to live there alone for 35 years.

4. Metropolitan Church at Gortyn on Crete. Is this controversial? Sure. Is it free standing. Without a doubt. There is a lot going on here: lobes, ambulatories, octagons, quatrefoil fonts. Maybe earlier doubters pushed this up the list a bit, but how could it not be top 5?

3. Kraneion-Corinthia. You’d have to be living in a jar not to it in the top 5. This church is all about SUBSTANCE. The baptistery is apsidal, the font is octagonal with steps, there is an ambulatory. Plus enough burials in the church and the area to remind you of life and death.

2. Damokratia Church – Demetrias. I know this will be controversial. It doesn’t bring the architectural bling of some, but the church is flashy and the baptistery is substantial. Damokratia did this church the right way and this baptistery deserves its spot in the list.

1. Lechaion. The Lechaion baptistery shines brighter than (and predates?) the church itself. Multiple geometric forms, visible adaptations, multiple fonts, apses, parapets, opus sectile, revetment. Plus possible martyrs who died by drowning?

There’s nothing more to say here.

 

 

 

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.      

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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). 

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.

IMG 6080

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.

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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!     

Three Things Thursday: Teaching, Writing, and Hope

Next week is spring break and this means that the semester has only six weeks or so left. It also means that spring deadlines are barreling at me with alarming speed. This is both invigorating and challenging, of course, but I suppose the on-rush of deadlines, overlapping obligations, and complicated priorities is part of what makes academic life is so intoxicating to so many people.

This week’s Three Thing Thursday will focus on spring time and spring semester hope.

Thing the First

I’ve made no secret of my attitude toward hybrid and hyflex teaching this semester. I’ve come to dislike the grid of black boxes that constitute most of my Zoom meetings with students and dividing my attention between faceless and largely unresponsive students on Zoom and face-full and rather more responsive students in the classroom. 

That being said, I’ve been incredibly impressed with the work done by students in my History 101 class. As the number suggests, this class is an introductory level history class with a range of students from freshmen to graduating seniors. They mostly work in groups and do weekly assignments that involve both short form writing (500-1000 word essays) and both the synthesis of secondary source material and the analysis of primary source material.

Because of room capacity restrictions, I meet with each group for only about 40 minutes per week, and during this time, I lay out in detail the weekly work and give detailed feedback on previous assignments. The groups have time to ask questions, get comments clarified, and indulge their curiosity about the weekly subjects. As one might expect, the students are not particularly eager to engage with me during the class sessions, but the work that they’re producing in their groups is among the best that I’ve every encountered in my five or so years of running a class on this basic model. 

In other words, despite the hybrid Zoom situation, despite COVID, and despite all the other challenges of this strange academic year, my students are generally outperforming my classes during more typical semesters. I don’t think this is because I’m doing better as an instructor. I think it’s because the students have started to not only adapt, but also figured out how thrive in this strange learning environment.

Thing the Second 

I’m having fun writing this semester. While I don’t have a tremendous amount of time to commit to sustained writing projects, I’m finding little windows to write and savoring those moments. Right now, I’m trying to finish up the conclusion of my book project. This is a strange thing to write as I don’t want to be so arrogant to suggest that my book resolves in some kind of structured way. And I certainly don’t want to suggest that any kind of resolution offed in the conclusion somehow reflects reality. In other words, I don’t want to ever imply that my book could represent a plausible or totalizing reflection of the world. So, I’m trying to wrap up what I’ve said in my various chapters and then open the book up again to the complexities of the real world. This has turned out to be a challenge!

I’m also starting to work with David Pettegrew on a short piece about the Early Christian baptisteries in Greece. It’s wonderful to dip my toes back into the world of Early Christian archaeology and architecture and familiarize myself with some recent work and some older works that I haven’t looked at since the early 21st century! I’m enjoying thinking about the archaeology and architecture of these buildings with eyes refined by 15 years of more detailed study Early Christian buildings and their contexts. 

Finally, I have lots of bits and bobs projects to finish that involve filling in a little gap here and editing a little thing there. I really have come to enjoy these opportunities to think more carefully about my writing in a narrowly defined context. For so long I’ve struggled to put words on the page in a consistent way and worked to find ways to get over my writers’ block. Now, I feel like I can start to build some habits that allow me to not only write, but even to write reflectively and reflexively.

Thing the Third   

I can’t help feel a certain amount of hope the kind of year. Over at the North Dakota Quarterly blog I posted a couple poems from our forthcoming issue (88.1/2 for those keeping track at home!). The poems speak of the promise of spring (no matter how fragile and fleeting) as well the possibility for hope in a world full of potential. 

At the risk of being maudlin, do go and enjoy some poetry! 

More on Early Christian Baptisteries from Greece

A couple of weeks ago, I started to write some of a short introduction to the baptisteries of Greece that I’m working on with David Pettegew. I’m assuming writing about the Early Christian architecture of Greece is a bit like riding a bike… That said, right now, it’s a bit of a hodgepodge of random information mostly culled from recent publications. Below, I continue my rambling discussion on the topic that I hope will take shape over the next few weeks!

This will get tightened-up, re-ordered, and expanded over the next month, but I figured that Tsiknopempti was better than almost any time to think about Early Christianity in Greece. The first paragraph is the same as the one that I wrote in my previous post, but then I proceed to talk a bit about trends in the arrangement of baptisteries in Greece before summarizing a case study from a relatively recent article by Athanassios Mailis (which you can read here).

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The study of Early Christian baptisteries in Greece has developed relatively little since I. Volanakes’s 1976 book, The Early Christian Baptisteries of Greece (in Greek). The book offers a systematic survey of known baptisteries and remarks on their form and chronology. The vast majority of 68 structures catalogued by Sebastian Ristow in 1998 also appear in Volanakes and the exceptions, such as the baptisteries associated with J.-P. Sodini’s basilicas at Aliki on Thasos and the German excavations at Demetrias are fairly well known. There are undoubtedly a handful of unpublished or only superficially documented new discoveries over the past 25 years, but these seem unlikely to upset in a significant way how we understand the Early Christian landscape of Greece.

The baptisteries found within the modern boundaries of the nation of Greece produce a fairly inconsistent picture of their arrangement and basic form. We may partly attribute this to the opaque chronology of many of these structures, which we will discuss below. It is also worth noting that the modern nation of Greece includes falls mainly within the prefecture of Illyricum Orientalis which was under the jurisdiction of Rome until the 8th century but some of the Eastern Aegean islands were part of the prefecture of Asia which fell under the jurisdiction of Constantinople. While the liturgical influences of these two ecclesiastical spheres remain obscure in most cases, despite the efforts of Dimitrios Pallas (1979/1980) to associate the Constitutiones Apostolorum with the region, there appear to be traces of both Constantinopolitan and Adriatic influences on the ecclesiastical architecture as well as distinctly local trends. This suggests that the region likely saw a range of inter- and intra-regional liturgical influences and practices that may have shaped the architectural arrangement of the baptisteries and their change over time. Athanasios Mailis’s survey of the baptisteries in Greece noted for example that 50% of the baptisteries from churches in Illyricum Orieantalis (16 of 32) appear as annexes on the western part of the building. For churches in the Aegean islands, in contrast, baptisteries that stood as annexes on the western part of the church account for less than 25% of known examples (6 of 27). Mailis observed that same number of baptisteries arranged around the eastern part of the church represent examples located exclusively on the neighboring islands of Kos and Rhodes. This provides a compelling example of what was likely a regional tradition of architecture that perhaps reflected distinctive theological or liturgical understanding of baptismal practices.

The four known baptisteries with fonts located within the eastern part of church buildings on Crete, at either the north or south end of the aisles, likewise suggest regional practices (Mailis 2006). This rather unusual arrangement of baptisteries on Crete also demonstrates how complicated understanding the chronology, function, and influences of such structures can be. The baptisteries in churches at Panormos,
Vyzari, Archangel Michael Episkope, all have high stylobates which separate the nave from the aisles and this is characteristic of churches from the Aegean and mainland Greece. Mailis suggests that the tripartite organization of the eastern ends of these buildings and the appearance of apses at the eastern end of the nave and aisles at Vyzari suggests eastern liturgical influences perhaps associated with Constantinople or the churches of Cyprus or Asia Minor (Baldini 2013, 36). 

Early Christian Baptisteries of Greece

Over the next five weeks or so I have to go back to some research that I was doing in around 2008 to write a short piece and catalogue of Early Christian baptisteries in Greece. (For some reason this makes me use my Allen Iverson voice: We’re talking about Baptisteries. Not a basilica. Baptisteries). 

Anyway, the start of Lent feels like the right time for me to put some words down on paper that get the ball rolling. My little essay will contribute to a larger project spearheaded by Robin Jensen to bring together descriptions and interpretations of baptisteries from around the ancient world. I’m writing this with David Pettegrew who is writing a short survey of Early Christian archaeology that will complement our Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology

Here goes a very rough first swing:

The study of Early Christian baptisteries in Greece has developed relatively little since I. Volanakes’s 1976 book, The Early Christian Baptisteries of Greece (in Greek). The book offers a systematic survey of known baptisteries and remarks on their form and chronology. The vast majority of 68 structures catalogued by Sebastian Ristow in 1998 also appear in Volanakes and the exceptions, such as the baptisteries associated with J.-P. Sodini’s basilicas at Aliki on Thasos and the German excavations at Demetrias are fairly well known. There are undoubtedly a handful of unpublished or only superficially documented new discoveries over the past 25 years, but these seem unlikely to upset in a significant way how we understand the Early Christian landscape of Greece.

There are four significant challenges facing any study of the Early Christian baptisteries of Greece. The first, and most significant challenge, is that there are very few stratigraphically excavated Early Christian buildings in the region. In fact, most of the churches and baptisteries known from Greece were excavated before the middle of the 20th century through methods designed with a greater interest in exposing the horizontal architecture of the buildings than revealing the vertical stratigraphy associated with their construction. As a result, archaeologists have dated most churches and baptisteries in Greece on the basis of architectural style or mosaic decoration. This tends to provide only the most general chronology for these buildings and rarely allows us to reconstruct or date the changes that took place at these buildings over time. For example, it is clear that the impressive baptistery associated with the Lechaion basilica in Corinth is earlier than the enormous church which stands to its south, but it is unclear how much earlier and impossible to associate it with earlier structures at the site. The two baptisteries associated with Basilica C at Nea Anchialos (Thessalian Thebes) are only circumstantially associated related phases of the basilica. The excavator supposes that the smaller second baptistery is later and reflects a shift from adult to infant baptism in the 6th century AD. 

One consequence of the less than ideal excavation conditions associated with the both churches and baptisteries in Greece is that it remains very difficult to detect development over time. It is clear, for example, that the Lechaion baptistery underwent modification at some point with a smaller font suitable only for affusion installed in the southeastern conch of the octagonal baptistery. It is unclear however whether this font supplemented or replaced the central font in this room and reflected a wholesale change in baptismal ritual or the convenient addition of an alternative to ongoing practice of the earlier rite. It is likewise difficult to understand the chronological relationship between multiple baptisteries in any single community and whether the construction of some of these baptisteries marked earlier structures becoming obsolete or going out of use or changes in baptismal liturgy or the status of various churches.   In effect, archaeologists and architectural historians should treat the existing corpus of baptisteries for Greece, much like the corpus of Early Christian basilicas, provides a chronologically undifferentiated body of evidence which almost certainly combines regional, liturgical, and likely doctrinal variations present in Late Antique Christian communities in the region.  

Among the more interesting features of the Early Christian architectural landscape of Greece is the number of baptisteries associated with major urban centers. Nikopolis, Nea Anchialos (Thessalian Thebes), Argos, Corinth, and Athens all have multiple churches with baptisteries. Conventionally, the bishop was responsible for baptism and the rites occurred once per year as part of the Easter Vigil. Thus multiple baptisteries, assuming that they contemporary, requires some explanation. Of course, it is possible that the annual baptismal rites occurred on a kind of rotation between churches or even that the bishop performed the rites at multiple sites on the same day. Another explanation is that various congregations following various doctrines each had their own baptisteries in Greek cities attended by their own bishop. We have relatively little understanding of doctrinal diversity in Greece during Late Antiquity, but the evidence that we do have suggests that divisive church politics did not spare Greek see any more than any other part of the empire. Finally, it is tempting to imagine that the presence of baptisteries at some sites maybe have had a connection to pilgrimage and so-called “ad sanctos” baptismal practice in which pilgrims traveled to particular sites to receive baptism. The connection between the basilica at Lechaion, for example, and the martyrdom of Leonidas and his seven companions may provide an explanation for the elaborate character of the baptistery at that site. St. Leonidas and seven women were drowned off the coast of Corinth and, according to a 13th century martyrology, while being drowned celebrated his imminent martyrdom by comparing it to a second baptism. While it seems unlikely that the Lechaion baptistery performed second baptisms, which would be a distinctly heterodox practice at a site likely associated with an effort to promote imperial orthodoxy in a see situated at the eastern edge of western ecclesiastical control, it may suggest that the site was a popular destination for “ad sanctos” rites.

The large number of baptisteries in Greece especially in urban areas have also taken on particularly significant for scholars who seek to use baptisteries as a way to asses the nature or rate of conversion in Greece. Recent scholarship has suggested that large-scale Christianization in Greece occurred rather late and the proliferation of baptisteries in urban areas was a response to the need for mass baptisms during the Easter vigil. Putting aside the role of the bishop in baptism, this is not necessarily an implausible scenario, but the lack of chronological control over the dates of the baptisteries (and their destruction) in Greece makes it hard to align with existing evidence.

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This is a start. I promised myself to spend time today on my book project and this is all the time that I can allot for this today, but stay 

Early Christian Cyprus: An Outline

I was pretty pleased to be asked to co-author a chapter on Early Christian Cyprus for the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology. Since I’ll be co-authoring it with the incomparable (and the intensely busy) Jody Gordon, I offered to get things rolling by putting together an outline.

The goal of our chapter is both to present a basic guide to Christian archaeology on Cyprus, as well as to put Early Christian archaeology on the island in the context of larger issues both in modern Cypriot political culture and the historiography of Roman, Late Antique, and Early Byzantine Cyprus.

This is just a draft, and nothing is cast in stone, but I thought I would throw it out there to see what people think…

The Archaeology of Early Christian Cyprus

  1. Early Christianity in a Cypriot Context (<1000)

    1. Pre-Archaeology of Cypriot Christianity

      1. Barnabas (late-6th c.)

      2. The Phaneromene

    2. Archaeological Context

      1. Megaw – typology

      2. Cypriot Archaeologists – often salvage and primarily focused on architecture.

      3. Recent Work: Kopetra, Polis, Maroni, Pyla-Koutsopetria.

    3. Contemporary Political Context

  2. Textual Christianity on Cyprus: Short and Sweet (<1000 words.)

    1. Acts of the Apostles

    2. Epiphanios

    3. Council of Ephesus (431)

    4. Hagiography

      1. Jerome, Vita Hilarionis (4th c.)

      2. Auxibios (5th? c.) (I don’t remember; but local).

      3. John the Almsgiver (Sophronios) and Tykhonas (6th c.)

  3. Christian Archaeology on Cyprus (<4000). This would be the nuts and bolts section of the essay. It would lay out the evidence for Christianity on the island and the basic archaeological problems (dating, excavation approaches, publishing, et c.).

    1. Basilicas (1200 words)

    2. Baptistries (800 words)

    3. Epigraphy (600 words)

    4. Objects

      1. Mosaics

      2. Lamps

      3. Fineware

      4. Seals?

  4. Contexts and Consequences (1200)

    1. Christianization

    2. Connectivity – trade, pilgrimage, and travel

    3. Settlement – towns, cities, capitals, and bishops.

  5. The End of Early Christian Cyprus (800)

    1. Plagues

    2. Wars

    3. Transformation

A Few Observations on Early Christian Baptisteries

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.