Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Let’s Talk Jacuzzi Fonts: Part 2

January 13th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Part 1 here

Prepare to be riled.

It is my opinion that the revival of immersion baptism since Vatican II is a positive development –likewise, of course, the installation of pool type (‘Jacuzzi’) baptismal fonts.

I realize this is going to be a tough sell so I’m steadying myself for a certain amount of stoning.

Please let me start my argument by pointing out something easy, something tangible and basic, something …archeological. In this way I hope to demonstrate that cistern fonts are really in the best and most ancient tradition of the Church -a most ‘Catholic’ liturgical furnishing.

I know I said in Part 1 that I didn’t want to get into the history of baptism but it’s unavoidable to a certain degree.

(Click on the pictures to see larger images)

Fig. 1 In ancient Israel there was a pool or a tub outside each synagogue called a mikveh, where people coming to worship would ritually clean themselves according to the Law before entering the synagogue. It usually had to be at least four and a half feet deep and had to hold at least two hundred gallons of water.

Fig. 2 The earliest known house church, Dura-Europos, Syria, ca. 235. One room served as a baptistery and housed a tub-like font.

We assume that the earliest baptisms took place at a spring, stream, man-made stone cisterns, or at some body of water, possibly similar to John the Baptist’s  method (whatever that may have been) or, in the tradition of Jewish baptism or ablutions (Fig. 1) of which there was quite a variety. At some point –the earliest archeological evidence is the early 200s- indoor tubs or small cisterns were included in the Christian house churches during the period of persecution. The earliest extent tub font we know of was located in a separate room in the house church, across the atrium from the room used for the Eucharist (Fig. 2). Other than the tub itself, of interest are the frescos that decorate the walls of this particular room which we surely can call a ‘baptistery.’ They don’t tell us anything about how the font was used but they tell us what the rite of baptism probably meant to the candidates. We’ll get into that in Part 3.

Fig. 3 (left) Ruins of baptismal font used by St. Ambrose when he was bishop of Milan, 374-397; Fig. 4 Baptismal font in the shape of a Greek cross, ca. 612 and 679, Sobota in the Negev, Egypt

The next stage in the development of baptismal fonts appeared at least in the fourth century and was used for the next several centuries (Figs. 3). The tub and small cistern style evolved into a large cistern type (the ‘Jacuzzi’) that often could accommodate several candidates at the same time. The one under the current cathedral church in Milan, Italy when St. Ambrose was bishop, could accommodate a pretty good sized crowd! (Fig. 3)

Fig. 5 Pisa Baptistery, Italy, 1152 - completed 1363; Fig. 6 Sbeïtla Saint Vitalis baptismal font, 6th c., Sbeïtla, Tunisia. You can see the bases for the columns that supported a ciborium.

Baptisms (and confirmations) during this period were normally celebrated at cathedral churches and in baptisteries that were circular, octagonal, squared or cross-shaped buildings separated slightly from the church building (Fig. 5). A few were attached to the church but as separate rooms or additions. The font was located in the center and an altar was located on the perimeter. Baptisms took place in the context of a Mass but perhaps only once a year, at the Easter Vigil. If a parish church had a baptistery it was normally attached to the church, in a corner or at the entrance. The first St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (which was originally a martyria basilica and not a church in the sense of a cathedral or parish church) apparently had a large cistern style round baptismal font in the north transept. (Some people wanted to be baptized near the tomb of Peter just as some wanted to be buried near him.)

Fig. 7 Cathedral (or Orthodox) Baptistery, Ravenna, c. 458; Fig. 8 Dome mosaic, Orthodox Baptistery, Ravenna,

The baptisteries could be very beautifully decorated with stunning mosaics illustrating the Baptism of the Lord in the Jordan (Figs. 7, 8). The fonts themselves might be made of very finely crafted marble, porphyry, or cast metal decorated with Christian symbols. Most were octagon shaped –some were round, and some were laid out in a Greek cross plan (Fig. 4). Gorgeous marble panel railings similar to the chancel railings in the churches kept the crowd from tumbling into the cistern (Fig. 7). Steps led down into the water which was sometimes rather deep, perhaps chest level of an adult male. Tile or lead pipes fed the cistern with water, sometimes from above the pool. Other pipes drained the pool.  In some cases the water was stored and reused as it was considered sacred. Some fonts were more like a tub and were elevated by a few steps.  In very many baptisteries the font was covered by an impressive ciborium which could rival those that rose over the altars in the churches (Figs. 6, 9).

Fig. 9 Christian baptismal font, ca. 400, Timgad, Algeria. The column remnants visible in this image suggest the font was covered by a stone ciborium or baldachin; Fig. 10 Baptism of the Lord, catacomb painting, ca 4th c.

While the archeological evidence and surviving baptisteries and fonts give us a complete picture of the setting for Baptism during the period of recognition of the Church and the triumphal centuries following legalization, they don’t tell us how the baptisms were performed. That the candidates walked down into the water of the cisterns is certain. That they would have stayed standing is most likely in the few examples we have of deep cisterns. But, did the initiates remain standing in the other types of fonts, and water poured over their heads during the rite? Did they kneel or sit down in the water while water was pored over them? Were they dunked or submerged from the kneeling or seated position? Catacomb images depict Jesus standing in water while John pours water over his head (Fig. 10). In fact, most ancient images of Baptism show a candidate standing in water and having water poured over them. This is a form of immersion. All of this, of course, pertains to adults. Children were probably carried into the cistern and carefully immersed perhaps to the chest only and water dripped onto the head while the formula of Baptism was recited.

At any rate it is clear that cistern and tub fonts are very much a part of the ancient tradition of the Church –probably more ancient than the use of pedestal fonts.  It’s also clear that the sacrament of Baptism was hugely important as evidenced by the stunning and skillful decorative treatment of the baptisteries and fonts (Fig. 6). Relative to the wealth of the local cathedral or church, costly and even precious materials were used.

I invite you to stay with me for Part 3 where I would like to sketch out the Church’s figurative, metaphorical, and allegorical descriptions of Baptism.

Yipes! Please put those those stones down!


Picture sources:

Fig. 1 Fig. 3 Fig. 4 Fig. 5 Keith Bales Fig. 6 Fig. 7 Fig. 8 Fig. 9

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4 Responses to “Let’s Talk Jacuzzi Fonts: Part 2”

  1. Gen says:

    I think there’s a clear difference between your conclusion, Bernie, (which actually shows thought and taste) and the conclusions of others, namely Fr. Vosko and those of his ilk who destroy already-sacred spaces. They look back and say, “that’s what the early Church did, so let’s embrace it.” Fine. HOWEVER – they impose, at the same time, a very flawed understanding of theology, liturgy, etc. On one hand, you have people trying to do something right. On the other, you have people attempting to make political statements through their designs.

  2. Eliza10 says:

    I’m surprised because I assumed you were going to provide us with some reasons why we are getting the new tubs. Well, we don’t need Mikveh’s anymore – cleansing rituals are over and done with; we have confession for cleansing. I respect your interest in the topic, but I’m a little wary of “historical precedent” because I have heard progressive DOR officials “authoritatively” re-invent historical precedent to do things like rip our kneelers or remove the Tabernacle from view. I realize that you don’t advocate those things, and believe you have a sincere reason to support the new hot-tubs. I don’t get it, but I am willing to see Installment #3!

  3. Eliza10 says:

    It occurred to me that it would be more practical to use these baptismal tubs in cultures where the climate is hot and people routinely wear sandals year-round, and dress in gowns or togas that they can hike up when they step in the water. Better still if the tub is outdoors in a sunny climate where fresh air and sun and rain can refresh the water.

    So what do you wear for dunking? Here where the tubs have to be indoors, for three seasons a year, you’d be the only one in church with naked feet. Its all kind of attention-getting, and not everyone revels in attention. Not to mention lots of people struggle with cold feet, and wouldn’t like stepping back onto the cold floor afterward. What about people with foot fungus? And, most people wear shoes and socks all day so there’s lots of bacteria on their feet – and they step in the tub with those feet… I suppose you could just keep upping the chlorine in the tub. Then the Church would smell kind of like a gym.

    So you see, there are many practical problems that present themselves with hot tub maintenance.

  4. Matt says:

    Informative and intriguing as always….

    Just to play devil’s advocate here…what do you say to the idea of organic development–obviously the Tridentine liturgy is not exactly the same as 1st century Masses, but developed organically. Similarly with pedestal-style fonts? Is this a fundamentally different argument?

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