Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Posts Tagged ‘Baptismal Fonts’

Savannah Georgia’s Cathedral Church

March 12th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Can you stand a peek at another cathedral?

(See a video that I made of the Cathedral, here.)

I was fortunate to visit the cathedral church of Savannah, Georgia (St. John the Baptist) a couple of weeks ago and was delighted with what I saw.

(click on photos to see larger images) 


The Cathedral has published a book that displays the art of the Cathedral and provides interesting historical background as well as religious definitions and explanations.2 I’ve reproduced several of the book’s photographs for this post.

Savannah Cathedral (3)

The first thing that struck me about the decorative program of this church appears high up in the clerestory, above the nave. The murals there led me to ask if there was a book available that would explain not only the personages in those murals but also the subjects and symbols that were in abundance throughout the rest of building. A beautiful book it is.

Those murals in the clerestory, along each side of the nave and on each side of the transept(s), depict a celestial procession of saints realistically portrayed against a regally patterned, flat, pinkish, wall paper-like, background. I immediately thought of the tapestry procession of saints in the controversial Los Angeles Cathedral.

Los Angeles Tapestries (4)



A celestial procession of saints as part of the decorative program of a church goes way back to the earliest Christian churches. The only surviving ‘house-church’ (ca. 243), at Dura Europos in Syria, shows a procession, in the baptistery, of the three women to the tomb of Christ.

Three women at the tomb. Dura Europos, Syria (243) (6)

Sant'Apollinare Nuovo (7)

Probably the best known example is in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (561) in Ravenna, Italy where processions of saints line the clerestory walls of the nave (see a clip here). Processions of 22 virgins appear below the saints on one side of the nave and 26 martyrs, on the opposite side.

I don't think churches "in the round" work because they focus inward on the community too much and not enough on the Lord. But, I give this parish credit for including the saints above and around them. (Photo has been edited to emphasize the 'clerestory.') (8)

A program of saints hovering above the nave of a church is an excellent way to reinforce a congregation’s sense of the communion of saints (a ‘Catholic’ concept). The saints, as well as the congregation, are participating in the liturgy from heaven, represented by church imagery high up on the walls of the nave. In my opinion, the suggestion of timelessness (‘God’s time’) is an important goal for church architecture. It is impressively achieved in a traditionally arranged long nave which leads to -and ends at- the altar where a strong eschatological image is displayed behind/above the altar.
Psalm 84, the first in today’s morning prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours,  suggests that  processional imagery in the nave of a church is most approriate:
“My soul is longing and yearning,
is yearning for the courts of the Lord.”
“They walk with ever growing strength,
they will see the God of gods in Zion”
And, from Revelation 15:4 of today’s morning prayer:
“All peoples shall come and worship in your presence”
Liberals, progressives (or whatever the term should be) often invoke the image of journeying but it is interpreted in their ‘creative’ liturgies and church environments as ‘wandering.’ It never seems clear to me as to where they are journeying to, except inward toward the earthly confined community. In an environment like the Savannah Cathedral the journey is clearly to Zion and to the celestial celebration. The saints have successfully gone ahead of us -that’s why they are depicted in a higher register, above our heads. They encourage and help us by accompanying us; journeying, not wandering aimlessly.
Let’s also remember that Biblical history -salvation history- has an absolute beginning and an absolute end. Like an arrow it flies straight to the target from a definite starting point.

John points to the Lamb of God. Apse window. (9)

The Savannah Cathedral’s decorative program follows one type of Catholic tradition that emphasizes eschatological treatment of a scriptural scene; in this case, the Baptism of Christ and the story surrounding St. John the Baptist. It is in the nature of stained glass to transfigure even realistically rendered imagery into a vision of sanctification.  And so it is in the situation here: the saints of the murals in this Cathedral process toward the chancel (toward the altar of sacrifice and the table of the celestial banquet) in which are three luminous windows each proclaiming around the head of St. John “Behold, the Lamb of God”. (You recall, I hope, the image of the Agnus Dei -the Lamb of God– we saw in the chancel of the Washington Cathedral.)


Overlooking the altar, on each side, are the four evangelists participating from their box seats in the clerestory.

Transept window. (11)

The windows of the transept in St. John the Baptist are also quite beautiful and symmetrically programmed opposite each in the transept. In the north is depicted The Ascension of Our Lord and in the south, The Assumption of Mary. Both hopeful images for the successful completion of our journey. Below the transept windows are lancet windows of saints, the Christ Child, and the Holy Virgin.


There are Stations of the Cross, of course. These were made in Munich, Germany and installed in 1900. You can’t get to enjoy Easter without enduring Good Friday. Appropriately, these are located just slightly above eye level.


1 -by Bernie

2, 3, 9, 11 -Aviles, Suzanne, Art and Symbols of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, (2007) Diocese of Savannah, 222 Harris Street, Savannah, Georgia 31410. The book is available for $20 and includes photographs of nearly all the works in the church as well as a wealth of information both historical and religious.

7 Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Tango7174

4 Los Angeles Cathedral

Tapestry Saints

8 Anne Spenny (original photo has been altered) Corpus Christi University Parish, Toledo, Ohio

10, 11 -Bernie

A Pedestal Font from the Sanctuary for Sacred Arts Gallery

January 18th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Here is a nice use of an original pedestal font in the renovated St. Mary Catholic Church, Mt. Angel, OR, built in 1940.  For the renovation, the font may have been moved to just inside the doors from a back corner or a chapel. I don’t really know. The parish apparently decided it did not want to add a cistern font to the arrangement; probably a wise decision in this case. But, the nice octagonal treatment of the floor around the front suggests a cistern. The sculptural group on the covering of the font is of the Baptism of Christ by St. John. I can’t make out the other sculptured images, below, on the trunk of the font but you can make out some beautiful decorative patterns on the basin. I’m guessing those are confessionals in the background of the picture on the right. I wonder if they are still being used as such or are now simply decorative? As confessionals the arrangement makes a wonderful conjoining of the two sacraments. The treatment of the ‘doors’ leads me to think they are just decorative, but, again, I don’t know.

Sanctuary for Sacred Arts – J. David Richen, architect

Let’s Talk Jacuzzi Fonts: Part 4

January 15th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Figure 1

The inclusion of cistern style fonts in new and renovated churches is, in my opinion, a positive development. Their prominent placement, just inside the doors of new churches (Fig. 1), symbolizes the gateway significance of Baptism to a life in Christ. They remind us, vividly, of the spiritual transformation brought about by the sacrament. In Catholic tradition prior to the Second Vatican Council, baptismal fonts were off to the side or in separate chapels, and used mostly for baptisms conducted privately. Holy water fonts at the doors were meant to remind us of our own Baptism for we seldom witnessed an actual Baptism. Private Baptism is still an option, of course, and should be. But now the congregation at Mass can sometimes experience its role as the Church bringing forth new life in Baptism. Can that be a bad thing? We should welcome the cistern fonts as powerful additional symbols of the importance of Baptism in the liturgical life of the Church.

Figure 2

As Baptism is the origin of a new life in Christ and the Eucharist is the nourishing of that life, I think the positioning of the font in direct line with the altar is most appropriate and full of potential for reflection on the part of the congregation.

Like any other art or furnishing used in the church some examples are effective, edifying and beautiful while others are less so. Perhaps you can think of some local examples at both ends of the spectrum. I would personally like to see a return to using architectural canopies (ciboria) over the fonts to stress their importance and to associate the font with the image of a tomb.  Beautifully sculpted fonts, railings and floors, could show images related to Baptism.

The shape of the cistern font is also important. The octagonal shape is symbolic of regeneration and resurrection as the universe as a whole began its existence on the eighth day of creation, and Christ rose from the dead on the eighth day after the commencement of his passion. Rectangular shapes and styles can express as well the idea of a tomb. In my opinion, fonts should always be obviously fashioned by human hands and designed with geometrical shapes and patterns that suggest human intelligence or reasoning. Secondary, organic motifs are appropriate but a sentimental presentation of contrived natural settings is totally out of line (Fig. 3). But, that is a whole other issue.

Figure 3 In my opinion this kind of font (if that is what it is) is NOT appropriate.

Most cistern style fonts I have seen incorporate in the design a pedestal font of equal visual weight (Fig. 2). When I see a cistern font without a pedestal font incorporated I suspect that the people in charge are of a tyrannical frame of mind and are willing to jettison a whole tradition of pedestal fonts in favor of their own preferences.

The cistern fonts have appeared because Baptism by immersion has made a comeback in the ritual life of the Church since the Council. Immersion or partial immersion is not required, of course, but it is now chosen by some catechumens who want to experience the fuller meaning of Baptism by immersion. As long as it is not forced on candidates, partial immersion (by standing, kneeling or sitting in the font while water is poured over the head and body) should be highly recommended. Parents, also, should be encouraged to choose immersion for their children, not because it is any more effective than pouring, but, because they, family, friends, and the congregation will benefit from the more vivid ‘sign value’ of immersion.

Well, I hope I have been able to articulate a point of view that I know is probably not popular among my fellow orthodox Catholic friends. It is an issue I have thought about as a result of researching for another project. It occurred to me that I have not heard the topic of cistern fonts seriously discussed even though people express strong reactions to them. I hope you have found this brief series at least interesting even though you may not agree with my views.


Picture Sources:

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3  Bernie

Let’s Talk Jacuzzi Fonts: Part 3

January 14th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Part 1, Part 2

I don’t have a memory of my own birth but I’ve read that being born is a very sensational –traumatic even- experience for the baby (the mother, too, of course –so I’m told). The baby is evicted from a nice warm, comfortably cozy place into a cold, noisy, scratchy environment in which he is poked, prodded and otherwise ill treated. To the child, the event is huge –memorable, you would think. In fact, I think I’ve also read that we hold onto an unconscious memory of our birth. Not unconscious for our moms, though.

Christian Baptism is a birth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist) as bearing “a certain likeness to the origin, development, and nourishing of natural life. The faithful are born anew by Baptism…” (CCC 1212)  It, too, is a kind of birth from out of darkness into bright light; from death, to life in Christ. And like our moms at our natural birth, so also Mother Church brings us forth in our second birth, our Baptism. Like our natural birth, our spiritual rebirth should be memorable both for us and for our Mother -the Church (those gathered for the Baptism).

It is to ‘memory’ or ‘memorable’ that I would like to call your attention.

The Catechism (1213) identifies Holy Baptism as “the gateway to life in the spirit and which gives access to the other sacraments… we are freed… and reborn as sons of God… ‘Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.’”  Think of that phrase, water as “the gateway to life in the spirit.” The water is a sacramental, sanctified by Christ going down into the water of the Jordan River. His body sanctified the water. In the rite of Baptism the priest first blesses the water, imparting Christ’s impact on the water of the Jordan to the water to be used for this particular baptism. As a gateway the water is like a sacred portal. There was a movie some years ago –I don’t remember the name; “portal’” might even have been in the title- in which people would step through an energy field that looked and acted very much like water. When a person walked through it he was instantly transported to another place. I think of that scene when I see a baptism by immersion while the words of Baptism are recited and the person disappears into the water and then re-emerges. The sanctified water washes across the body and slides off of it resulting in a rebirth to another life. In full immersion, when re-emerging, the head and face break through the surface of the water and the person gasps for air or at least looks startled. That’s pretty memorable, not only for the initiate but also for the witnesses.

To “plunge” or “immerse”, the Catechism points out (1214), is the meaning of the word, baptize. In the context of the rite of Baptism to “plunge” into the water and to be covered by the water “symbolizes the catechumen’s burial into Christ’s death, from which he rises up by the resurrection with him, as a new ‘creature.’”  “Taking the plunge” is rather more memorable in baptism by immersion. In fact, the cistern resembles a stone tomb dug and fashioned in the ground. In some you step down into the tomb on one side and then rise up on the other side, further adding to the experience, going down one way and coming out by another route. Going down into the water and into the tomb is uncomfortable, which is why the water should not be warm. It is intense and traumatic for the candidate but coming up out of the water, up and out of the tomb, is a relief and refreshing. Again, for the candidate, the experience is memorable but also for the Church –the witnesses around the cistern- for the action is dramatic and therefore also memorable especially when viewed repeatedly over the years.

Who would disagree that taking a shower or bath renders one cleaner than merely washing one’s hands? Now, Baptism by pouring water over the forehead is just as effective as full body immersion. The catechumen has been washed clean of sin in either case. But which is more memorable if we describe, as the Catechism does, Baptism as a “bath” (1216)? The Catechism quotes Church Father Justin Martyr who wrote that Baptism is called a “bath” of enlightenment; St. Gregory of Nazianzus refers to it as –among other things- a “bath of rebirth” and a “bath because it washes.”

Finally, then, the Catechism speaks of the Old Testament prefigurations of the sacrament of Baptism: Noah and his family saved from the flood –redeemed from sin and a sinful world and set apart to begin anew; the crossing of the Red Sea by going through the water which has parted for them and through which they attain liberty –spiritual freedom, and grace to follow the Lord; and the crossing between the parted waters of the Jordan River, like the Red Sea, only this time to accept the gift of the land from God –the ‘type’ of the gift of eternal life for the Christian (1217-1222). Those were dramatic, awe-inspiring, memorable events.

The sacrament of Baptism should be as memorable an event for the catechumen as natural birth, and also for the Church that witnesses the rebirth, the Church responsible for bringing forth the new birth.

In Part 4, I would like to make some summary observations concerning sacramental ‘signs’ and choices, discuss ‘memory’ relative to infant baptism, and offer my opinion as to what baptismal fonts should look like.

Wow! No stones. Have I at least given some pause to think more agreeably about cistern fonts?


Picture source:

Portal scene:

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

Let’s Talk Jacuzzi Baptismal Fonts: Part 1

January 11th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Some call this the 'Jacuzzi' style font


That’s what my orthodox Catholic friends usually call the pool-like baptismal fonts that have often been installed in new and renovated churches over the last forty years. Usually located at the opposite end of the nave from the altar, just inside the main doors, they are often six to ten foot wide recessed pools of water, one to three feet deep. With a marble railing surrounding it, and steps down into the water, they do look (more so if elevated) somewhat like a hot tub –a Jacuzzi.

This style of baptismal font became popular following the Second Vatican Council in a revival of baptism by immersion. Immersion generally means to plunge or immerse in water as in “full immersion” in which the candidate is completely submerged in (or covered by) the water in one of a couple of different ways. This is radically different from what had been for a long time the traditional Catholic practice of baptizing by pouring water over the forehead of the candidate who bent over a font that rested on a pedestal. Perhaps because full immersion baptism is a popular image we have of

Eastern full immersion Baptism

fundamentalist protestant sects and because the method was highly touted by heterodox liberals in the Church following the Council, orthodox Catholics have tended to ridicule full immersion baptismal fonts.

As far as I know, full immersion has been and continues to be the only method used by the Eastern Church. With some exceptions, mainline Protestants before the Council generally followed the Catholic practice of using pedestal fonts and baptized by pouring water over the forehead. Baptists use full immersion.

Baptism by pouring

Baptism by pouring

How to baptize –immersion or pouring- is a hot topic of debate among some Christians. Most non-Catholic and non-Orthodox groups maintain that baptism is merely an ordinance of the Church, nothing more. Yet, bring up the issue of immersion vs. pouring and it seems one’s immortal soul depends upon which method is employed. (Talk about legalism!). Catholics have the most liberal attitude; they even have a baptism that does not involve water.

What seemed most important to the early Christians, however, was the water and not so much how the person got wet. A first century Christian document called the Didache does not mention immersion but does outline several alternatives that suggest an attitude of considerable flexibility:

“But concerning baptism, thus baptize ye: having first recited all these precepts, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in running water; but if thou hast not running water, baptize in some other water, and if thou canst not baptize in cold, in warm water; but if thou hast neither, pour water three times on the head, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Didache 7:1-3, as translated by Charles H. Hoole.)

In the early Church baptism was apparently approached pragmatically.

I don’t wish to get into the history of Christian baptism or speculation concerning how Christ was baptized. There are plenty of informative as well as polemic (far more of the latter) sites available on the internet for anyone really interested in researching those topics. I wish only to offer my opinion and explanation on what I think a baptismal font should look like –Jacuzzi or pedestal. I’ll tackle the issue straight on in Part 2. I hope you find it interesting.