Baptisteries—Silent Witnesses to a Lost Practice
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN FRANCE
“BAPTIZED by Immersion in the Cathedral,” read a headline in a French newspaper in 2001. However, the picture published along with the article showed a new convert to Catholicism standing in a large baptismal pool with water up to his knees and a Catholic bishop pouring water onto the convert’s head. This scene, repeated in many places around the world, reflects the trend in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council to baptize new converts by partial immersion. The questions arise: Whereas most Catholics were baptized as babies with a few drops of water, what form of baptism corresponds to the model set by John the Baptizer and Jesus’ apostles? How should Christians be baptized today? The history of baptisteries will help to answer those questions.*
Origins and Meaning of Baptism
Originally, Christian baptism was practiced by total immersion. The Bible account of the Ethiopian official baptized by Philip helps us to appreciate that fact. After learning of the identity of the Christ, the official, seeing a body of water, said: “What hinders my being immersed?” (Acts 8:26-39, The Emphatic Diaglott) Here the Greek root for “immersed” is ba·ptiʹzo—meaning “to plunge,” “to immerse”—from which the English word “baptize” is derived. This refers to complete immersion. The fact that baptism is likened to burial emphasizes this point. (Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12) Interestingly, several French translators of the Bible (for example, Chouraqui and Pernot) call John the Baptizer John the Immerser.—See the footnote for Matthew 3:1 in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures—With References.
In the very first centuries of Christianity, total immersion was performed wherever there was enough water—in rivers, in the sea, or in private baths. As the number of converts grew, however, baptisteries were constructed in many places in the Roman world, from Dalmatia to Palestine and from Greece to Egypt. One of the oldest baptisteries yet excavated is in Syria, on the shores of the Euphrates River, and dates from about 230 C.E.
When the “Christian” faith became a recognized religion in the Roman Empire in the fourth century C.E., millions of people became “Christians” and had to be baptized. So baptisteries built for that purpose were openly established everywhere. By the sixth century, in Rome alone some 25 baptisteries had been built, including one at the basilica of St. John Lateran. In Gaul every diocese likely had its own baptistery. These numbered up to 150, according to one source. There were probably hundreds more in the countryside, located near small churches, tombs, or monasteries.
Architecture and Water Supply
Baptisteries were often circular or polygonal monuments, either built as a special and separate edifice or connected to an existing church. Excavations show that these buildings were small (generally less than 2,000 square feet [200 sq m]) but beautifully adorned with colonnades, marble, mosaics, and frescoes, sometimes representing Bible scenes. Some baptisteries, such as the one in Mariana, Corsica, even had an elegant baldachin, or canopy, above the pool. The name baptistery was also applied to the pool itself, which could be square, round, hexagonal, oblong, cruciform, or octagonal. As shown by their width and depth, early baptisteries were evidently designed for adult baptism. They were generally large enough to allow at least two people to fit in them. In Lyon, east central France, for example, the pool measured ten feet [3.25 m] in width. Many pools had steps—usually seven of them—leading down into the water.
The water supply was of course a major concern for designers. Many baptisteries were built near a natural spring or in the ruins of thermal baths, such as the one in Nice, southern France. Water was often channeled in and out of the pools through pipes. In other cases rainwater was transported by hand from a nearby cistern.
The St. John Baptistery of Poitiers, in western France, built about 350 C.E., is a good illustration of what a fourth-century “Christian” baptistery looked like. Inside a rectangular room, surrounded by several annexes, was a large octagonal pool with three steps. The pool is four and a half feet [1.41 m] deep and seven feet [2.15 m] wide at its broadest point. It was connected to an aqueduct bringing water to the city from a nearby spring.
Total or Partial Immersion?
Was baptism by total immersion practiced in such baptisteries? Some Catholic historians answer no, claiming that partial baptism by sprinkling (pouring water onto the head) was mentioned as a possible arrangement early in the history of the Catholic Church. They also observe that many pools were no more than three feet [1 m] deep and were thus not deep enough for an adult to be submerged. A Catholic encyclopedia says that in Poitiers “the celebrant [priest] could put his feet on the third step without getting them wet.”
However, even late artistic depictions of baptism present total immersion as the norm, the candidate being represented with water up to his chest or even up to his neck before baptism. (See pictures above.) Was total immersion possible even if the water level only reached the waist of a medium-size adult? A reference work suggests that the drainage system could have been temporarily stopped up until the kneeling or crouching baptism candidate could be immersed.* Pierre Jounel, a professor of Catholic liturgy in Paris, comments: The candidate “stood up to his waist in water. By putting a hand on his head, the priest or the deacon made him bow in the water so as to be entirely immersed.”
Eventually, the simple baptismal ceremony of apostolic times changed into a complicated ritual, with special garments and gestures, exorcism prayers, blessing of water, recitation of the creed, and anointing. Partial immersion continued to spread. Baptistery pools were reduced in size, some of them being modified to half or less of their original width and depth. For instance, in Cazères, southern France, the original 3.5-foot-deep [1.13-meter-deep] pool was only about 1.5 feet [0.48 m] deep by the sixth century. Later, about the 12th century, partial immersion disappeared from Roman Catholicism and was replaced by sprinkling. According to the French academic Pierre Chaunu, this was due to “the generalization of child baptism in countries with an inclement climate, since it was not possible to plunge a newborn into cold water.”
These developments led to building ever smaller baptism facilities. In his study on the history of baptism, historian Frédéric Buhler states: “Archaeology, written documents, and the visual arts show that, generally speaking, baptizing went from the total immersion of adults during the first centuries of the Christian era to the sprinkling of infants, with the intermediate stages of partial immersion of adults and total immersion of children.”
Today the practice of partial immersion for adults seems to be gaining popularity, with modern baptisteries being larger than before. And in line with what Buhler has called the nostalgia of immersion, modern Catholic Church liturgy recommends, more than ever, baptism by total immersion. Interestingly, the Bible all along has pointed to total immersion as the proper method for Christian baptism.
The term “baptistery” usually refers to a church building or part of a church, where baptism ceremonies are performed.
Many of Jehovah’s Witnesses in modern times have been baptized by total immersion in small swimming pools or even bathtubs.
[Picture on page 13]
The St. John Baptistery of Poitiers, France
[Picture on page 13]
Reconstruction of the fifth-century baptistery of Mariana, on Corsica
© J.-B. Héron pour “Le Monde de la Bible”/Restitution: J. Guyon and J.-F. Reynaud, after G. Moracchini-Mazel
[Pictures on page 14]
DEPICTIONS OF CHRIST’S BAPTISM
The Jordan River reaches up to Jesus’ torso, and angels bring towels to dry his body, ninth century
Cristal de roche carolingien-Le baptême du Christ © Musée des Antiquités, Rouen, France/Yohann Deslandes
Jesus in the Jordan River, with water up to his neck. At left, two angels holding a cloth, ready to dry his body, 12th century
© Musée d’Unterlinden-F 68000 COLMAR/Photo O. Zimmermann