Catholic Encyclopedia: Baptistery
The separate building in which the Sacrament of Baptism was once solemnly
administered, or that portion of the church-edifice later set apart for the same purpose.
In ancient times the term was applied to a basin, pool or other place for bathing. The
Latin term was also applied to the vessel or tank which contained the
water for baptism, and in the Early Church denoted indifferently the baptismal font
and the building or chapel in which it was enshrined. There is no means of knowing
when the first baptisteries were built; but both their name and form seem borrowed
from pagan sources. They remind one of the bathing apartments in the , and
the fact that Pliny, in speaking of the latter, twice uses the word seems to
point to this derivation. The term was also applied to the bath in the circular chamber
of the baths at Pompeii and to the tank in the triangular court of suburban villas. The
earliest extant type of baptistery is found in the catacomb chambers in which were the
baptismal-pools. (See BAPTISMAL FONT.) These rooms were sometimes spacious;
that in the Roman catacomb of Priscilla adjoins other larger cubicula used perhaps for
the adjuncts of the baptismal rite; that of the Pontian cemetery bears traces of sixth-
century mural decoration, a beautiful with other Christian symbols
being yet visible. With the construction of edifices for Christian worship a special
building was erected for the ceremonies of initiation. Ordinarily circular or polygonal,
it contained in the centre the font; a circular ambulatory gave room for the ministers
and witnesses who, with the neophytes, were numerous at the Easter and Pentecost
solemnities; radiating from the structure were rooms for the preparation of the
candidates, and sometimes a chapel with altar for the Eucharistic service following
baptism (cf. BAPTISM), as may be seen in the Lateran baptistery, The building
sometimes joined, but was generally adjacent to, the cathedral or church to which it
belonged, and was usually situated near the atrium or forecourt. Immersion gradually
gave way to infusion, though in the South the custom of immersing children in the
baptisteries persisted long after the North had commenced infusion in the small
baptismal chapels. When separate baptisteries were no longer needed, the term was
then applied to that part of the church which was set apart for an contained the
baptismal font. The font was sometimes placed in a separate chapel or compartment,
sometimes in an inclosure formed by a railing or open screen work; and often the font
stands alone, either in the vestibule of the church, or in an arm of the transept, or at the
western extremity of one of the aisles, and occasionally in the floor chamber of the
The modern baptistery is merely that part of the church set apart for baptism.
According to the Roman Ritual, it should be railed off; it should have a gate fastened by
a lock; and should be adorned, if possible, with a picture of the baptism of Christ by St.
John. It is convenient that it should contain a chest with two compartments, one for the
holy oils, the other for the salt, candle, etc. used in baptism. The form of the early
baptisteries seems to have been derived from the Roman circular temples of tombs.
And in adopting the plans, the early Christians modified them to some extent, for the
internal columns which, in Roman examples were generally used in a decorative way,
were now used to support the walls carrying the domes. To cover a large area with one
roof was difficult; but by the addition of an aisle in one story, round a moderate-sized
circular tomb, the inner walls could be replaced by columns in the lower half, which
gave such buildings as these early baptisteries.
The earliest existing baptistery is that of the Lateran, said to have been erected in its
original form under Constantine. Throughout the Roman world round or polygonal
baptisteries seem to have been constantly employed from the fourth century onwards.
In many places the Italians have preserved the separate building for baptism, while
north of the Alps the practice generally prevailed of administering the rite in the
churches. The construction of the baptistery of the Lateran is interesting because of a
direct adaptation of the columnar system of the basilica to a concentric plan. The inner
octagon is upheld by eight simple shafts, upon the straight entablature of which a
second story of columns is superimposed. The original character of the ceiling and the
roof cannot now be determined, but the weak supports were hardly adapted to bear a
vault of masonry. Although baptisteries and mortuary chapels were generally built as
simple cylindrical halls, without surrounding passages, other examples of the two
modes of extension are not lacking.
The arrangement of the baptistery requires but brief notice. A flight of steps
descended into the round or polygonal font ( or ), which was sunk
beneath the level of the floor, and sometimes raised a little above it by a row of
columns which supported curtains to insure the most perfect privacy and decency
during the immersion. The columns were united occasionally by archivolts, more
frequently by architraves adorned by metrical inscriptions; the eight distichs in the
Lateran baptistery are ascribed to Sixtus III.
The baptistery of Pisa, designed by Dioti Salvi in 1153, is circular, 129 feet in diameter,
with encircling aisle in two stories. Built of marble, it is surrounded externally on the
lower story by half columns, connected by semicircular arches, above which is an open
arcade in two heights, supported by small detached shafts. It was not completed till A.
D. 1278, and has Gothic additions of the fourteenth century, in consequence of which it
is not easy to ascertain what the original external design really was. The structure is
crowned by an outer hemispherical dome, through which penetrates a conical dome 60
feet in diameter over the central space, and supported on four piers and eight columns.
Thus, if there were another internal hemispherical cupola, it would resemble the
constructive dome of St. Paul, London. This baptistery bears remarkable similarity to
the church of San Donato (ninth century) at Zara, in Dalmatian, which, however, has a
space only 30 feet in diameter. The baptistery at Asti, if examined with those of San
Antonio, will give a very compete idea of Lombardic architecture in the beginning of
the eleventh century. More or less interesting examples of baptisteries exist at Biella,
Brindisi, Cremona, Galliano, near Milan, Gravedona, Monte Sant' Angelo, Padua,
Parma, Pinara, Pistoia, Spalato, Verona, and Volterra. These are very few examples in
Italy of circular or polygonal buildings of any class belonging to the Gothic age.
Baptisteries had passed out of fashion. One such building, at Parma, commenced in
1196, deserves to be quoted, not certainly for its beauty, but as illustrating those false
principles of design shown in buildings of this age in Italy. In later Romanesque and
Gothic periods, in Italy, where the churches were not derived from a combination of a
circular Eastern church with a Western rectangular nave, as in France, but were correct
copies of the Roman basilica, the baptistery always stands alone. In Germany, the
earlier baptistery was joined to the square church and formed a western apse. The only
examples in England are at Cranbrook and Canterbury; the latter, however, is
supposed to have been originally part of the Treasury. It is not known at what time the
baptistery became absorbed into the basilica. The change was made earlier in Rome
than elsewhere. A late example of a separate baptistery, which, although small, is very
beautiful in design, is in a court alongside the cathedral at Bergamo. This may be
regarded as a connecting link between large buildings and fonts.
THOMAS H. POOLE
Transcribed by Janet Grayson
Taken from the New Advent Web Page (www.knight.org/advent).
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