Paleochristian Baptismal Pools from Roman Tunisia

The topic of baptismal fonts ins't something you typically see addressed -- which is rather odd when you think about it as it is the critical "entry level" sacrament that inducts one into the Christian life.  Of course, over the centuries and even by rite, one can see different approaches to this particular sacrament, ranging from those who still practice baptism by "full immersion" to what will be a more familiar practice to many, namely by the pouring of water onto the head -- the latter no doubt in part a response to practical considerations. I mention all of this so that you can understand what you are about to see; paleochristian baptismal pools intended for baptisms by full immersion. 

Located across the Mediterranean from modern day Italy is the African country of Tunisia -- which, it should be recalled, was once a part of the Roman Empire. When the Romans became Christians, prior the Islamic conquest of the region, Christianity was introduced to the region and it is for that reason that we find here some interesting paleochristian artefacts -- the most interesting of which are without a doubt the ornamental baptismal pools of the region. 

All of the examples I am about to share with you date to the sixth century or thereabouts. What is interesting to consider is their form on the one hand -- you can see how they have been made such so that one can step down into the pool -- but what is also of interest is the ornamentation that accompanies these particular examples. I draw your attention to this in part because as moderns we have a bad tendency to think of everything "ancient" as necessarily rustic and/or plain.  Looking at these will not only help you to understand some of the symbols that were important to Christians at this time, but also realize that far from being rustic, Christians from early on placed a priority on beauty and ornamentation. 

This first example is taken from the sixth century and comes from Belkata, Tunisia. One can see how spots have been carved out which would allow one to step down into the pool -- possibly even sit within it. Located at the centre of the pool, at its deepest point, is a Greek cross with the Alpha and Omega hanging from the two arms of the cross -- which comes with reference to Christ being the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. The imagery going around the pool ranges from birds to plant life, likely with symbolic intent. Originally bordering the pool was a Latin text which now only exists in part. 

Belkata, Tunisia, 6th century

Here is another view of the same:

Next we have the baptismal pool of Kelibia, Tunisia. This particular pool is made in the the shape of a Greek cross and once again at the bottom we find similar imagery, this time a Chi-Rho, once again with the Alpha and Omega.  These symbols are repeated on the pool's interior along with crosses and -- once again -- symbolic imagery of fowl, fish, lit candles and other elements taken from the natural world. Here too a Latin script surrounds the entire pool which memorializes the donors. 

Kelibia, Tunisia, 6th century

Finally I would bring your attention to  this example from the Vitalis Sbeitia church. This particular example is thought to potentially even reach back to the fifth century, though precise dating is not available.  This particular example shows particularly well how the font was intended to be used, with steps to be found on either side by which would allow the neophytes to easily walk down into and up out of the baptismal pool. One can see in this example too the remnants of pillars that would have likely formed a canopy over top the baptismal pool and the pool itself is decorated once again with the Chi-Rho symbol (see upper right for a detail), crosses, along with flowers and a Latin inscription. 

Sbeitla, Tunisia, 5th-6th century

Full immersion baptismal pools have become more popular in contemporary Catholic architecture, though they naturally raise the exact same practical concerns and considerations that likely lead to the baptismal "font" -- namely, where do you put it since it has to be of a size to potentially fit at least two adults. 

Of course, in ancient times, at least for larger churches, one frequently saw a building set apart as the baptistery. One can think here of the Lateran basilica's baptistery, located in the third century octagonal building behind the basilica proper. Outside of the duomo of Florence and Pisa one can also see similarly shaped baptisteries.  This is certainly ideal -- but not necessarily practical or even achievable in most instances. Every church needs a place to baptize, and most won't be able to create distinct baptisteries -- and even a separate space within the church itself can be a challenge. 

That said, if it it going to be done, it is certainly worth considering these paleochristian examples as sources for possible inspiration. 

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