Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries

By Everett Ferguson | Go to book overview

53. Baptismal Fonts: East

Introduction to Baptismal Fonts

When Christians built special buildings and basins for performing baptisms, they employed various names for these places.1 From secular usage they adopted

(swimming bath; the less frequent is new), (place for swimming; reservoir or cistern), (bath, place for bathing, water for washing; but rarely , bath house), piscina (fish pond or swimming pool), fons (spring, fount, or source, from which is derived font, and probably resulting from the custom of baptizing in springs) — the usual word from the fifth century on, balneum (a room or place for bathing), and lavacrum (washing, bath). A distinctively Christian usage for baptistery was , the place of enlightenment. I will follow the modern convention of using baptistery (from ) for the building (room or rooms) where baptisms were performed and piscina or font for the pool or basin in which the actual baptisms occurred. The large number of special structures for baptism built in the fourth to sixth centuries testifies to its importance in the church.

The literary sources give two principal symbolisms for the baptismal font — the tomb of death and resurrection and the womb of new birth.2 The former symbolism was reinforced by variations on a cross shape, which became fairly common in the fifth and sixth centuries. Both baptisteries and basins in the shape of a hexagon may have alluded to Jesus’ death on the sixth day of the week; the octagon to his resurrection on the eighth day or at any rate to the idea of resurrection and eternal life.3 The

1. F. W. Deichmann, “Baptisterium,” in Theodor Klauser, ed., Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum (Stuttgart: Hiersmann, 1950), Vol. 1, cols. 1157–1167 (1158), for the names and references.

2. W. M. Bedard, The Symbolism of the Baptismal Font in Early Christian Thought (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1951).

3. F. J. Dölger, “Zur Symbolik des altchristlichen Taufhauses,” Antike und Christentum 4 (1934): 153-187; Paul A. Underwood, “The Fountain of Life in Manuscripts of the Gospels,” Dumbarton

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