Baptism by Water

Separate buildings dedicated to the most important of the Christian sacraments, baptism, are a feature of many cathedrals in Italy. Some may ask why build separate structures when the baptismal font can easily be accommodated in the main church? The original reasons for a separate baptistery are several, of which the most significant are:

  1. Once, baptism could only be performed by a bishop at his cathedral site.
  2. Baptism in this location could only be performed three times a year and so accommodation had to be provided for a considerable number of neophytes on each occasion.
  3. A secure location had to be found for baptism to prevent “private” baptisms. The advantage of having a separate baptistery building was that its doors could be sealed up by the bishop after each use, thus thwarting unauthorised baptisms.
  4. In the Roman Catholic Church baptism was by total immersion until ritual changes wrought from the eleventh century onwards. This required a large font (still to be seen in many locations – for example, in our area at Codiponte) and, preferably, a separate building for it where neophytes could even expect a fireplace to warm up after submitting themselves to the rite.

With the later relaxation of rules about which church clerics could perform baptisms, the increase of baptism of newly-born infants vis-a-vis adult converts, the change of baptismal rites from immersion to aspersion (sprinkling of water) or affusion (pouring of water), the permissible times for baptism to be performed and the reduced need for large fonts separate baptisteries in Italy were very rarely constructed after the ninth century and therefore usually remain the oldest ecclesiastical buildings in any cathedral complex.

Baptisteries are also the only ritual church buildings to be always built in a centralised plan – usually octagonal or circular. There are exceptions of course: the famous round churches built throughout Europe on the plan of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and those built under the influence of renaissance architectural theories which provoked a tug-of-war between Greek and Latin cross plans. Saint Peter’s Rome, for example, was originally designed as a Greek cross (as was St Paul’s on London) but liturgical obligations altered the original plan. Only certain buildings, such as Todi’s Santa Maria della Consolazione, were fully realised according to the centralised Greek cross plan and they remain among the most beautiful churches in Italy.

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We are lucky that some of the most magnificent baptisteries in Italy are located within easy reach of our area. Pisa and Florence baptisteries are the most familiar, of course but there is also a fine example at Pistoia and, further afield, a quite amazing one at Parma (the best reason to visit that neglected city). Here are some photos to remind you which one is which:





Lucca, too, has a baptistery although its centralised plan is engulfed within the later church of San Giovanni e Reparata (the one where the city’s Puccini Festival is held). Recent archaeological excavations have revealed some very interesting remains of the original baptistery dating back to palaeochristian times which must rank among Lucca’s oldest buildings. The remains include some ancient grapphiti and some fine mosaic fragments. These can all be visited on the same ticket which admits to the cathedral museum (and also to the wonderful views at the top of San Giovanni’s campanile).

Our car is still out of action so we are having to rely on our scooter to get around. Let’s hope that we don’t suffer another total immersion, courtesy of the rainy weather, today especially as we are singing for the benefit of three wise men at Ghivizzano parish church!


3 thoughts on “Baptism by Water

  1. The winter is the time I miss being in Italy the most. Whilst I am waiting for the direct flights to start from the UK in the Spring, your blog gives me a little ‘fix’. These photos are stunning, thank you, and bring back special memories. Andrea 🙂

  2. Wonderful post and images! Another reason why baptisteries were built separate from the main building was because people were considered ‘impure’, therefore unworthy to step inside the church until their original sin was forgiven through Baptism.

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