The Connection Between the Emperor Hadrian and the Baptismal Font of St. Peter's Basilica

In the midst of everything else that St. Peter's basilica in Rome has to offer you might well only give the baptistery a quick glance but you really shouldn't. The baptistery and baptismal font of St. Peter's Basilica has an interesting history which I'd like to bring to your attention today.

In the first instance I should note that there have been a few different baptismal fonts attached to St. Peter's. Old St. Peter's originally contained a fifth century baptismal font, that of Pope Damasus, however like Old St. Peter's itself, it had fallen in decay and had become unusable. As a result of this, in the mid fifteenth century Pope Nicholas V replaced the Damasus font with a repurposed sarcophagus, that of the fourth century prefect of Rome, Anicius Sestus Petronius Probus (+390), for use as the basilica's baptismal font:

Sarcophagus of Anicius Sestus Petronius Probus

Relatively speaking, however, it did not remain in this function for very long, as late in the 1600's a new baptistery was commissioned from Carlo Fontana, including the design of the baptismal font itself. 

The baptistery of St. Peter's Basilica

The baptismal font of St. Peter's Basilica

Some may notice the other basin on the floor in which this font is set. This comes from the time Pope Benedict XIII (1725) whom apparently wanted to make baptism by full immersion also possible. As a result, he had this floor basin installed, which originally had steps which allowed one to descend down into it. After Benedict's death, Fontana's font was placed within the basin, making it unusable. 

It is Fontana's basin which is of particular interest however, not because of Fonrtana's beautiful gilt cover design -- a design that includes a symbol of the Resurrection in the form of the Agnus Dei by Tedeschi, as well as an image of the Holy Trinity giving benediction.

This is all very beautiful of course -- exquisite really -- but no, the real point of historical interest I wish to highlight here is rather the red porphyry basin itself, perhaps easily missed with all the gilt decoration above and beneath it:

The reason for this is because, in point of fact, this basin is another instance of spolia; it is the ancient Roman cover for a sarcophagus that was recovered from Castel Sant'Angelo, which of course was the former mausoleum of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. 

A reconstruction of Hadrian's mausoleum intact and what is now called Castel Sant'Angelo, stripped of it marble and original function. 

Bust of Hadrian and the location of Hadrian's sarcophagus with present day Castel Sant'Angelo. It would have been much more ornamental originally of course, but it has long since been stripped of its ornament.. 

As a result, it is thought that this may very well have been the cover of the tomb of the Emperor Hadrian himself, now repurposed to serve as the baptismal font of St. Peter's Basilica.

To see its original function as the cover for an imperial sarcophagus we only need to flip the basin to better imagine it:

For a time this porphyry cover also functioned as the cover for the sarcophagus of the tenth century ruler, Otto II (+983) (placed in the portico of Old St. Peter's) before being put into its present usage -- and if it was not to remain in place in its original function in relation to Hadrian, having it function as a baptismal font in one of the most important churches of Christendom is surely a far more fitting and noble use than merely repurposing it for an arguably less historically significant ruler.

This font presents us then with yet another example, not only of the frequent use of spolia in Roman churches in general, it also shows yet another instance of the Church serving as a kind of bridge between the classical culture of imperial Rome and the new Christian culture which it helped facilitate the spread of, thanks in great part of Constantine. 

Rather than merely skipping past the baptistery on your next visit to St. Peter's Basilica then, you may wish to pause and ponder this monumental piece of history set before you. 

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