We might start by understanding that the holy water stoup receives its symbolic imagery from the baptismal font, but the font receives its imagery from creation itself.
Christ’s Baptism by John the Baptist
When we enter a Church, we reach for the holy water stoup to bless ourselves: a symbolic renewal of our baptismal vows in a small and compressed way. This act is part of our entering into Mass, which itself is a compression of the yearly liturgical cycle, which finds its fullest expression in the liturgy of the Paschal Triduum at which adult catechumens are normally baptized. But the yearly cycle, and the Triduum, are themselves compressed expressions of all of salvation history, which begins when “God created heaven and earth, the earth was still an empty waste, darkness hung over the deep, but the Spirit of God hovered over the waters” (Gn 1:1-2) and end with the manifestation of, “the new Jerusalem being sent down by God from heaven, all clothed in readiness, like a bride who has adorned herself to meet her husband” (Rev 21:2). As we shall see, the baptistery, the font, and the rite of baptism are called upon to express and manifest a huge and interwoven body of scriptural, liturgical, and sacramental thought, which frankly is a massively difficult task today.
Holy Water Stoup at St Clare of Assisi Catholic Church, Surprise AZ.
Bronze by Brian Donahue, Sierra Vista, Arizona.
We might start by understanding that the holy water stoup receives its symbolic imagery from the baptismal font, but the font receives its imagery from creation itself. In the Genesis account of creation and the Garden, there were no doors or portals or gates or walls. The gates of paradise could only be said to be closed after the expulsion; before that all of creation was the domain of man as part of the “garden of delight” into which God placed Adam and Eve. Doors, gates, portals, and such (along with all the symbolism of dwelling apart from nature: the cave, the tent, the house, the temple) are consequences of alienation from God. It is thus fitting that by Jesus’ example, the order of creation is restored through the waters of baptism where we are no longer alienated from God or each other, but rather enter into a new and restored relationship in Christ through this first sacrament. This alienation will only finally and completely be eradicated in the heavenly Jerusalem. Significantly, the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem will never be shut (Rev 21:25). Unlike the ancient Roman portal, or city gate, that was unconsecrated so that unclean things could be carried across the threshold, the gate is Christ himself who calls all nations to himself (Rev 21:26). Nothing unclean or corrupt or mendacious will ever pass the gates for “there is no entrance but for those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev 21:27). This passage shows the restoration, even the reversal, of the Fall: now the garden is restored with the life giving waters that flow from the throne of the Lamb (Rev 22:1), the waters nourishing the tree of life that bears fruit all twelve months of the year, the fruit of which brings health to all the nations (Rev 22:2). Recalling the passage in Ezekiel 47, the water flows from the right side of the temple eastward, that is from the side of the crucified body of the Lord. The throne of the Lamb in Revelation 22 can thus be understood to be the cross, for when one of the soldiers pierced the side of the Lord, blood and water flowed out (Jn 19:34).
Thus, baptism not only commences our journey in Christ, it also both causes us to participate in his passion, death, and resurrection, and is a foretaste and promise of our destination in Christ. The intended message of baptism is primal—primal both as “of first importance” and as “originary” both to creation and to our lives as Christians—and this importance was expressed in the early Church by a clear separation between the font and the altar, between the unbaptized catechumens and those who were admitted to the “mysteries” through the disciplina arcani. As St. Justin Martyr tells us of the primitive Christian practice, the catechumens are first brought to a place where there is water to be baptized, and after the new Christian has been washed, is then brought to the places of the Eucharistic assembly. 1 Not until the neophyte (literally, “new growth” as part of the vine and branches imagery) was received into the Church, and taught the fuller mysteries of the Faith, would he or she be admitted to the Eucharist.
Detail of St Paul baptizing his jailer, by Keith Johnson.
St. Paul Catholic Church, Pensacola, Florida
The place of baptism in the primitive Church could be any place with water: a public bath, a town well, a spring or river or lake or sea. Christ was baptized in the River Jordan; St. Phillip baptized the Ethiopian official at some non-descript place of water (quamdam aquam); St. Paul found some water to baptize his jailer, and the man’s household. Tertullian, writing in the second century, comments: “it makes no difference whether a man be washed in a sea or a pool, a stream or a fount, a lake or a trough; nor is there any distinction between those whom John baptized in the Jordan and those whom Peter baptized in the Tiber…” 2 The context of this passage gives us insight into the Church’s understanding of the sacraments themselves.
For the North-African theologian, Tertullian, as for the ancients in virtually every culture, water itself was a sacred and life-giving thing, but also a dangerous and deadly thing. Tertullian points out that water is used by all cults as means of purification—the followers of Isis and Mithras, the Zoroastrian, Apollinarian and Eleusinian rituals, the Egyptians, Jews, and Romans, all used water for purification and illumination. Justin Martyr had earlier commented that the healing properties of water were perverted by the demons, such that the false religions also had rituals of washing and sprinkling before entering the temples for their idolatrous practices. 3 Water was, therefore, universally understood to nourish and sustain life, but also was associated with both death by drowning, as well as various maladies of madness such as “nympholepsy”, “hydrophobia,” and “lymphatic” illness. Sacred springs were places of healing, such as the Pool of Siloam (Jn 9:7ff), or at Bethsaida that was stirred by the angel for healing (Jn 5:2-4), as well as for the pagans at Sulis Minerva, which is now the City of Bath. Conversely, swamps and putrid waters were places of contagion and evil, inhabited by evil spirits. Because of the primal and cosmological nature of water—that “the Spirit of God hovered over the waters”—water itself is “in a manner endued with medicinal virtues.” The Spirit of God continues to hover over all water, which is the cause of its holiness, and becomes the apt sacramental symbol for new life, cleansing, and sanctifying: “Thus the nature of the waters, sanctified by the Holy One, itself conceived, therefore, the power of sanctifying.” 4
Tertullian thus considered water as the apt symbol of baptism—not merely by some general sign-value that we are washed in water, or that we are born and nourished in water, or that it can express death in Christ—but because the Spirit of God continues to linger over the waters and, so by divine fiat, water is itself a source of sanctification. It is a proper sacramental sign since by revelation we know it is an outward sign of an inward grace in the operation of the Holy Spirit, much as by the words of institution by Christ, the bread and wine used as Mass are, indeed, the Body and Blood.
The baptistery at St Clare of Assisi Catholic Church, Surprise Arizona, is an open sided octagon, to the left of the main sanctuary which allows for full congregational participation. The raised font accommodates both infant and adult baptism, and the stone mosaic tile floor is sloped to drain to allow for affusion baptisms. Baptistery and font by Liturgical Environs PC.
Therefore, it made no difference where a person was baptized. The Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions mention that through baptism, “your sins may be washed away with the waters of the fountain, or river, or even sea.” However, at some early point, perhaps due to the decorum needed for the nude baptisms, the early Church set aside special places for baptism. The earliest known example is found in the ancient house-church at Dura Europos (c. 232 AD), where a special room off the central courtyard, set apart from the main liturgical area, was converted to an elaborately decorated baptistery. The font itself was covered by a dignified “civery” (canopy), and diverse scriptural scenes show the Good Shepherd, Jesus and Peter walking on water, the Woman at the Well, the Healing of the Paralytic, Adam and Eve, and the Women at the Tomb. Although this is the only identifiable pre-Constantinian baptistery, Dura Europos displays a rich, complex, and integrated iconography of baptismal themes in the early Church.
Soon after Christianity was made legal by Constantine (313 AD), and the Christian population rapidly grew, the Church started erecting free standing baptisteries to accommodate the sacrament. These were at first administered by the bishop himself at the cathedral baptistery, and only later were parishes and parish priests granted the rights of baptism. The grander, imperial baptisteries, such as San Giovanni at the Lateran Palace, took the form of centralized buildings from the imperial mausoleums in allusion to the death/tomb significance of the baptism rite. These were often octagonal in specific recollection of the eighth day on which Christ rose from the dead—St. Ambrose among others draws out this architectural parallel in a late fourth century epigram:
The octagon is raised for a sacred purpose
For which the octagonal font is also worthy
For this number eight aptly signs the sacred baptistery
In which the people are raised to true health restored
By the light of the Risen Christ who unlocks the gates
Of death and raises the dead from the grave. 5
These ancient baptisteries were rich in Scriptural allusion, architectural form, and ritual function, and were opportunities for great artistry and expression. The octagon was not only a mausoleum form, but a site memorial, a sort of “martyrion” (usually refers to a church that contains relics of a martyr or marks the grave of a martyr) that commemorated the location of the River Jordan where Christ was baptized. In addition to the widely used octagonal form, baptisteries and fonts could be cruciform, hexagonal, simple bowls, trefoils, or reused funereal sarcophaguses. Common theological themes are found both in the artistic expressions of the fonts and the baptisteries both in carving and mosaics, as well as in the various Patristic writings on the meaning of baptism: Noah’s ark, the parting of the Red Sea, Christ healing the paralytic, the Resurrection, the Samaritan woman, and, of course, the baptism of Christ, are all typical themes. Often images of fish are found in baptistery mosaics, recalling the association in the Patristic mindset: “We, little fishes, after the example of our Fish (ΙΧΘΥΣ), Jesus Christ, are born in water” (Tertullian) and “You are a fish, caught in the net of the Church,” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem) for example.
Major free-standing baptisteries were built throughout the Roman empire, and this practice lasted on the Italian peninsula for about 1000 years into the 14th century. The baptistery was an occasion of civic pride, especially since citizenship into the commune was granted at baptism, usually at the cathedral baptistery in the center of the city. However, as Europe became increasingly Christian, and baptisms were now mostly for infants, and relegated to the parish level, the free standing baptistery lost its sense of ceremonial importance. Still, in many medieval and Renaissance cathedrals, the font itself remained a significant architectural feature, rich with carving and detail, sometimes surmounted by a massive “micro-architecture” presentations: at Orvieto, the font cover is in the form of a huge Church building, with an image of Christ atop, to teach us that we are baptized into the Church, and into Jesus Christ.
In the Counter-Reformation, St. Charles Borromeo recommended returning to the ancient practice of building detached baptisteries, especially for cathedrals and other large, important churches, but this was not widely adopted. For the typical parish church, St. Charles recommended that the font should be located in a side chapel, preferably on the north side, enclosed by a wood or iron gate, and recessed by three steps, so that it expressed a sepulchral character appropriate to the funereal imagery of baptism. St. Charles’ directives influenced the design of baptisteries until the Second Vatican Council, and the imagery of the gates that he called for, show up in the rubrics of the Rite of Baptism.
As we saw in the beginning of this section on baptism, the baptism rite is a sacramental restoration of the alienated relationship between God and humanity, expressed in a highly compressed and complex language of ritual and symbol. It takes its symbolic cues from the Genesis account of creation, the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, and from the notion of the return to the Garden that is the eschatological fulfillment of salvation history. In baptism, we are restored to our relationship with God, brought into the community of the Church, participate in the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, are washed clean of our sins, claimed from the kingdom of Satan for the Kingdom of God, and sealed with the Blood of the Lamb that allows us entrance into the gates of the Heavenly Jerusalem.
This is best expressed in the recently restored Extraordinary Form of Baptism (the Roman Ritual of 1962) wherein this process of passage from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of Christ is expressed through the symbols of doors, gates, illumination, and the waters of baptism: each a sort of threshold experience. The process is similar for both the baptismal rites of children and adults, especially regarding the symbolism of passage, so we will just look at the rite for the baptism of infants. The child to be baptized is first greeted at the doors of the Church or in the narthex, where he (she) is sealed with the sign of the Cross, given the first exorcism, and the first call of the Holy Spirit. The priest prays: “Open wide for him (her) the door to your fatherly love,” thus welcoming the child into the Church, the house of God. After the second exorcism, and the prayer of enlightenment, the priest then invites the child into the Church: “Come into God’s sanctuary, N., where you will be given a share with Christ in everlasting life”: and is then brought to the gates of the baptistery, singing from Psalm 99, “Enter His gates, giving thanks. Enter His courts with praise; give thanks to Him and bless His name.” At the gates of the baptistery, still closed, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer are recited, and the last exorcism is administered, before opening the gates and bringing the child to the font to be baptized.
The baptistery chapel at Saints Anne and Joachim Catholic Church in Fargo ND opens to the nave for full visibility. The font is made from sodalite, a blue marble stone, to symbolize the waters of baptism. The stained glass window, by Pickel Studios, commemorates St. Francis Xavier who is said to have baptized over 100,000 people in his missionary efforts. Design by Liturgical Environs PC.”
Seen in the context of the rite of baptism, the image of the gates take on fresh meaning: baptism is a “rite of passage” in the deep sense of transitioning from one status to another. From the slaves of sin to sons and daughters of God. From “poor, banished children of Eve” to those whose names are written in the book of Life. The gates symbolize the recovery of Adamic innocence in Christ that allow us to enter into the ever-open gates of the Heavenly Jerusalem and, once again, eat of the tree of Life. Indeed, Ghiberti’s famous doors at the Baptistery in Florence were aptly named by Michelangelo as “the gates of Paradise,” as baptism allows us to enter into the Heavenly Jerusalem through the door, the sheep gate, that is Christ.
Since the 1950s, the fashion has been to place rather large spa-type fonts at the main doors, on direct alignment with the altar. This trend developed from a small book by Fr. Reinhold written in 1952, Speaking of Liturgical Architecture. Fr. Reinhold insisted that in “building the idea of a Catholic church… we must have two foci: Baptism and Eucharist.” 6 His ideo-grammatic approach to thinking about churches thus made the font and altar the two points and, since then, liturgical architects have placed the font at the front doors of the nave on axis with the altar, such that every liturgical procession, bridal party, and funeral pall has to negotiate its way around some oversized hot tub blocking the clear path of circulation. This was not Fr. Reinhold’s intention (in fact, he well understood the practical architectural problems of such a poor arrangement), but it has certainly become fashionable with the idea that for some reason the baptized faithful need to be reminded of their baptismal vows each week by being confronted with a massive spa, which is a place of sacrament (and therefore confuses the sacrament of Baptism with the sacramental of blessing oneself with holy water) that is an obstacle on their path to the altar. One would think that if the liturgy were really doing its proper work of sanctification, that Christ’s faithful would not need such ham-fisted reminders to be good Christians in living their baptismal vows.
At St Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola, FL, the baptistery has a monumental octagonal form, evocative of the ancient eight side baptisteries. The three images in the upper rondellos show the OT prefiguration of baptism in Moses parting the Red Sea (left), Christ being baptized (center), and the NT practice in St Paul baptizing his jailer (right). Baptistery by Liturgical Environs PC, painting by the late Keith Johnson.”
The baptistery, of course, can take a lot of different forms and expressions, and be located in a number of different areas in the Church. Each decision should consider the various, multivalent symbols encoded in the rite of baptism. There is certainly an aspect of entrance into the Church as the Body of Christ, which recommends the old practice of placing the font near the main doors, even in the narthex itself. Yet, the current fashion to have everyone at Mass be able to witness the baptismal rite has given rise to placing the font either in the center of the Church, or to one side of the sanctuary so that the folks in the pews can readily see everything. The significance of death and Resurrection seems to suggest more of a sepulchral feeling, more of an enclosed space, which is more conducive to the gated imagery in the older Roman Ritual form, and using the octagonal form, as well as the descent of three steps into the basin, can serve to help recall the Passion and Resurrection imagery that is implicit in the rite. Due to the complicated and interwoven symbolism of the rite of baptism, along with the contemporary congregational expectations for “full and active participation” which translates to the ability for everyone to see everything at all times, there is no claim for some idealized baptismal arrangement. However, in our consideration of what Church architecture means, and how we participate in the sacramental symbol structure of a Church building, this extended reflection on the meaning and form of baptism may help us better think about the architectural and ritual implications of this first sacrament.
- Justin Martyr, First Apology, 61 and 65. ↩
- Tertullian, On Baptism, IV. ↩
- Justin Martyr, First Apology, 62. ↩
- Tertullian, On Baptism, IV. ↩
- Octachorum santos templum surrexit in usus / octagonus fons est munere dignus eo / hoc numero decuit sacri baptimatis aulam / surgere quo populis vera salus rediit / luce resurgentis Christi qui claustra resolvit / mortis et e tumulis suscitat exanimes. The Latin is complex and subtle, and can admit of many emphases in translation. ↩
- H.A. Reinhold. Speaking of Liturgical Architecture (Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame, 1952) 5. ↩