The Sacred Depth of the Baptismal Font: The Place of Re-Creation
Jan 14, 2018

The Sacred Depth of the Baptismal Font: The Place of Re-Creation

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes a broad but theologically-rich statement about church buildings. In paragraph 1180, the Catechism states, “visible churches are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ.” In other words, the church building is more than the steel and stones of its construction. It allows people to perceive with their senses that God has fulfilled the promise to be present with his people. For this reason, a church is a “sacramental building,”[1] one which makes present the otherwise invisible realities of the Catholic faith and leads the viewer to their hidden spiritual meaning. The Church calls this process mystagogy, from the Greek words agein, meaning “to lead,” and mystes, meaning the “mysteries” or hidden spiritual realities.

Everything in a church can be seen in this light, yet each part of the church building, like each member of a body, has a specific purpose and makes a particular contribution to the whole. Because of the vital role baptism plays in the living faith, Church documents are unanimous in heralding the baptistery as one of the primary parts of a church. Every architectural and artistic decision about the baptistery, then, grows from the essential nature of baptism and the true magnificence of its meaning.

A Plunge into the Depths of Baptism’s Mystery

The Book of Blessings contains the prayers used for blessing a new baptismal font, and its first paragraph contains an amazing density of theological richness. The baptistery, it says, is rightly considered one of the “most important parts of a church” because baptism is the “first sacrament of the New Law” in which people receive the “Spirit of adoption” and become “in name and in fact” God’s adopted children. Moreover, they join with Christ in a “death and resurrection like his” and “become part of his body.” To top it off, baptism fills a person with “the anointing of the Spirit,” making the baptized “God’s holy temple and members of the Church,” which it then characterizes as “a chosen race, royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1080). Many of these same ideas are taken up in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), which adds that baptism forms a “sacramental unity” linking all who have been baptized.

The Catechism contributes several other ideas to this treasury of theological concepts. The word baptism itself comes from the Greek word baptizein, it notes, which means “to plunge” or “immerse.” But in mystagogical fashion, it quickly adds that this plunge is not merely a human, external event alone, but symbolizes a person’s burial into Christ’s death by going down into the water, and a person’s emergence as a “new creature” through Christ’s resurrection.

This plunging also takes its meaning from naturally derived realities that water and washing signify. But in mystagogical fashion, baptism brings about not a literal purifying with water only but also “the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit” which forgives all sins, original and actual (CCC, 1263). Moreover, this regeneration is called a “birth of water and the Holy Spirit,” and so the act of baptism has long been associated with coming from the natural womb of a human mother to the supernatural womb of Mother Church. Lastly, the Catechism quotes St. Justin Martyr, who calls baptism a bath of “enlightenment” which makes every baptized Christian a child of light, indeed, “Light himself” (CCC, 1214-1216).

Living, Liberating Waters

The scriptures reveal the meaning of water in several ways. In the beginning, God created the waters and breathed across them, making them a wellspring of holiness.[2] Since a spring of fresh water turns the lifeless desert into a life-giving garden, it becomes a spiritual symbol of life. Yet in Noah’s flood, water signifies death and destruction from which sanctuary is needed in the ark. Water is seen as a barrier as well, since the Israelites had to cross the Red Sea to move from slavery to freedom and the Jordan River to find their promised land.

Christ, however, brings these aquatic paradoxes to fulfillment in baptism. Just as the triumphant power of the Cross brought life from death, so baptism brings life through water: it leads a Christian from the desert of life outside of Christ to the new garden of the restored Eden of the glorified world; it leads a person from waters of the womb and natural birth to the new waters of supernatural rebirth;[3] and it allows a person to pass from the slavery of ignorance to the new life of enlightenment.

Baptism makes these invisible ideas real in the life of a catechumen, and in proper mystagogical design, a baptistery allows the viewer to perceive them with the senses and encounter their reality. Since the rite of baptism “is held in the highest honor by all Christians” (General Introduction to Christian Initiation, 4), it comes as no surprise that the Church’s official documents note that a baptistery should be “worthy of the sacrament that is celebrated there.” Therefore, the baptistery should be spotlessly clean, of splendid beauty (BB, 1084), and located in a prominent place.[4] Other than that, the Church gives very few specifics on their design, and so the five points below are given to help to reveal the nature of the baptismal font and therefore establish how it ought to be designed.

Five Points of Baptistery Design

1. Baptistery and Font

The words “baptistery” and “font” are often used interchangeably, yet each has a distinct meaning. Properly speaking, the term “baptistery” belongs to the building, chapel, or place where baptisms occur. The “font” is the actual vessel where the water of baptism is poured or contained. Many baptisteries in older cities are buildings separate from a church or cathedral, within which the font is located and the rites are celebrated. Perhaps surprisingly, several of the Church’s books still presume the possibility of a baptistery that is erected apart from the main body of the church. The Book of Blessings gives several instructions on the topic (1083-1084) and the General Introduction to Christian Initiation notes that the baptistery may be “either inside or outside the church” (25).

2. Immersion, Pouring, Infusion

The notes in both the General Introduction to Christian Initiation and the Rite for Christian Initiation of Adults restate what is said clearly in canon 815 of the Code of Canon Law: baptism may be lawfully celebrated by only two methods, “immersion” or “pouring” (GICI, 22: RCIA, 213). Pouring is simply the more everyday term for “infusion,” meaning that water is poured over a person’s head in baptism while the formula, “N., I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” is said by the minister. The precise definition of immersion is not easy to find in the Church’s documents, however. In some descriptions, it presumes full submersion of a person’s entire body under water. In others, it presumes the person to be baptized will be standing in a significant amount of water and get a substantial drenching through pouring on the head. The National Statutes for the Catechumenate, for example, offers the term “partial immersion,” meaning at least the candidate’s head is brought completely under water.[5]

While in today’s liturgical climate an immersion baptistery is considered de rigueur, the documents make it clear that a font may be set up for either pouring, immersion, or both (RBC, 22; BB, 1085). However, a clear preference is given to immersion. The Book of Blessings says the font “should permit baptism by immersion, wherever this is the usage” (1085), while the General Introduction to Christian Initiation makes a clearer theological statement, calling immersion “more suitable as a symbol of participating in the death and resurrection of Christ” (GICI, 22). To further enhance the sign value of baptismal water as the living water of new life, the Book of Blessings recommends a font function as “a fountain of running water” (BB, 1085).

3 Tomb and Eighth Day

As is typical of the Church’s universal documents, very few specific details are given for baptisteries, although many historical examples can give theologically-derived inspiration. In ancient Roman culture, tombs and other places of veneration were most frequently designed with a centralized plan known as a tholos: a design using a circle, octagon, square, or Greek cross as its fundamental shape. As a place where a catechumen dies with Christ and rises again, the tholos serves an important purpose in mystagogical revelation: the inherited marker of a place of death is transformed and used as an image of new life.

In many historical examples, the octagon has taken precedence from the list of possible shapes, likely because of the symbolism of the number eight and its association with the theological “eighth day.” Genesis speaks of God creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh, and so the “eighth day” is the metaphorical day of eternity as the day “after” the earthly sabbath, a day of re-creation into eschatological completion. Relatedly, there were eight souls in Noah’s ark who became the source of new life after the deadly flood. Since baptism is the door to this new life, the eight-sided baptistery takes on a symbolic significance particularly appropriate to the sacrament’s effect.

4. Relationship to Altar and Ambo

The Church makes no prescription on the location of the baptismal font. In 1955, scholar J.B. O’Connell wrote that the traditional location for the baptistery was at the northwest corner of an oriented (literally, eastward facing) church, noting that the north side was associated with the darkness of paganism, and the west side with the church entrance.[6] With the 20th century Liturgical Movement’s reaffirmation of the significance of baptism, fonts became larger and began to appear on a worshipper’s path of entrance to the church building. Even as early as 1941, liturgical reformer H.A. Reinhold wrote that it should be “in the way” of the faithful as they go to church so they could be reminded “of the one fact to which they owe their salvation.”[7] Similarly, the designers of the highly-influential St. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville, MN, placed a baptistery at the center of the narthex, requiring worshippers to encounter the place of their baptism at each visit.

Today, the location of the font in the center aisle at the rear of the church has become common for this same reason, but it is by no means legislated as such. The placement of the font logically follows the theological principle that it is well-placed when it meets the needs of the rite, and indicates the nature of baptism as “entry” to the Church as celebrated by the whole Christian community. Legally and logically, the baptistery could be a separate building, at the rear of the church, in a transept or in some other chapel within the church. However, a font should never be located in a place that makes it appear to be a final destination, such as the center of a sanctuary.

One consideration for the location of a font is its relation to the other liturgical rites to which it is related. As the first sacrament of initiation, baptism is geared toward further initiation into the Christian mysteries, particularly deeper understanding of the Word of God in scripture and completion in the Eucharist. The Catechism calls baptism the “sacrament of faith” in several places, in part because baptism itself is a response to faith in Christ after “the proclamation of the Word of God enlightens the candidates” (CCC, 1236), but also because baptism enlightens their understanding going forward (CCC, 1216). Baptism therefore has a clear relation to the proclaimed Word of God, and so by extension, the font has a relation to the ambo. Similarly, the baptized Christian is now admitted to the Eucharist and can approach the altar. Font, ambo, and altar are therefore knitted together in a spatial and artistic relationship established by their theological relationship. During the Rite of Baptism for Children, in fact, the infant is led by the rite from the doors to the church building to the ambo for the Liturgy of the Word, then to the font, and finally to the altar for the Lord’s Prayer and blessings.

The Book of Blessings rightly recommends that in setting up the church, “everything must be arranged to bring out the connection of baptism with the word of God and with the Eucharist, the high point of Christian initiation” (BB, 1083). The United States bishops’ text Built of Living Stones uses biblically-inspired language to make the same point: “the baptismal font and its location reflect the Christian’s journey through the waters of baptism to the altar” (BOLS, 66, italics original). The document gives several practical suggestions to make this mystagogical revelation evident, including placing the altar and font on an axis with each other or using similar materials for all three furnishings.

5. Mystagogical Revelation Through Ornament

Up through the 1960s, the Church specified in the Roman Ritual that the baptistery was to be adorned with an image of John the Baptist baptizing Christ. To this day, many older baptismal fonts show a small version of this scene atop their lids or in stained glass windows nearby.[8] Today, liturgical law gives no such specifics, leaving it up to the artistic and theological expertise found in each culture. But ornament, by definition, clarifies the nature of a thing and indicates festivity, and so the enrichment of fonts today can draw from the very meaning of baptism itself as an entry to eternal life and the New Earth of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Historical examples include many varied images: the Good Shepherd, Christ’s monogram, the alpha and omega, symbols of victory, the four rivers of paradise, the palm tree and other garden imagery, the phoenix, the peacock, fish, shells, and wave patterns.[9] In every case, ornamental things should be presented as glorified and perfected, indicating that the things of the world, like the persons receiving baptism, have been made into a new creation.

Fluid Advice

Amidst the high theology of baptism, practical recommendations, too, are made in various documents, such as heating the water in cold climates (BB, 1085) or providing nearby areas for the newly baptized to dry off and change into their white baptismal garments (BOLS, 69). But as with all liturgical things, external expression in art and architecture ought to grow from the essential nature—the ontological reality—of the liturgical rite for which they are used. It has been common for half a century for liturgists to call architects to the concept that form follows the needs of the rite, even parroting Modernist architects with the words “we want our churches to be functional.”[10] While this is indeed a good start, a mystagogical view requires more.

In order to move from the external things to the spiritual realities behind them, a sacramental worldview uses ornament, imagery, color, marble and mosaic to “vest” the naked realities of liturgical action with the splendid robes of their heavenly and cosmic significance. Then the catechumen—or even the passerby—can be enchanted by beauty and behold the mysteries of divine adoption and eternal life present in their midst.

[1] M. Francis Mannion, “Toward a New Era in Liturgical Architecture,” in Masterworks of God, Essays in Liturgical Theory and Practice (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2004), 145.

[2] In The Roman Ritual, the blessing of a baptismal font included a rubric that the bishop would breathe across the baptismal waters three times just after asking that the “Sanctifier of spiritual waters” make the baptismal waters “ready to cleanse and purify mankind.” See “Blessing of the Baptismal Font,” The Roman Ritual, v. 1 (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1950), 191.

[3] Book of Blessings, 1084: “…as befits the place where, from the womb of the Church, so to speak, Christians are reborn through water and the Holy Spirit.”

[4] United States Catholic Conference, Built of Living Stones, par. 66.

[5] See Built of Living Stones, page 27, footnote 91.

[6] J.B. O’Connell, Church Building and Furnishing: The Church’s Way—A Study in Liturgical Law (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1955), 124.

[7] H.A. Reinhold, “The Liturgical Church,” Church Property Administration 5 (June-July 1941): 8.

[8] Roman Ritual, II, I, 46. For more on this topic, see O’Connell, 125.

[9] O’Connell, 125.

[10] Reinhold, 8.

Image: The Baptistery, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy. Pediment over the entrance.

Denis R. McNamara

Dr. Denis McNamara is Associate Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Beauty and Culture at Benedictine College in Atchison, KS, and cohost of the award-winning podcast, “The Liturgy Guys.”