Over the Christmas holiday, I’ve spent some time thinking and reading on Early Christian baptisteries. This contributes to a relatively long-term collaborative project with Robin Jensen of Vanderbilt University and Dick Rutherford of the University of Portland, but also to a short-term project of writing an encyclopedia entry on Early Christian Baptisteries for a encyclopedia of world religious architecture published by Cambridge University Press. So, I’ve spent the break reviewing some very basic works on Early Christian baptisteries and considering how to approach a 2000 word essay on their architecture.
In many ways, the study of baptisteries suffers from many of the same problems that the study of Early Christian architecture faces in general. There are five major problems, as I see it:
1. Most Early Christian baptisteries, like churches from the same period, lack a clear date for their construction, use, and modification. Many of the best examples of architecture from the Early Christian period (roughly from the 3rd-7th century) were excavated before the middle years of the 20th century and were not subjected to stratigraphic excavations (or at least not published as such). The absence of stratigraphic information and the archaeological material that allows scholars to assign dates to the relative chronologies produced through careful excavation has made it difficult to determine the degree to which diversity across the entire corpus of Early Christian architecture is the result of chronological changes or simply differences in style, taste, or the needs of a specific community.
2. In fact, it is clear that there was considerable diversity in the architectural forms of baptisteries across a region or even across the buildings in a specific city. This diversity may reflect differences in taste or a desire to create a distinct space of initiation for admission into a particular group of Christians. The diverse range of “orthodoxies” among Christian groups present in the Mediterranean basin ensured that any number of different Christian groups could live and build in a particular region. The Arian and Orthodox baptisteries in Ravenna are clear evidence for this and propose a model that might explain the differences of architectural form in other urban centers like Corinth where several baptisteries of different forms existed at the same time.
3. Recognizing that different groups may have desired different kinds of buildings is a far cry from understanding why these differences were required. The importance of ritual in the process of Christian initiation suggests that differences in the baptismal liturgy might account for some of the differences. The known rituals across the Mediterranean reveal considerable variation even among grounds regarded broadly as Orthodox. It would stand to reason that “non-orthodox” groups would have differed from their Orthodox brethren as well as from one another adding to the considerable variation in ritual structure of Christian initiation. Unfortunately the lack of chronology for many of our buildings and our uneven coverage of known baptismal rituals mean that liturgical texts can only shed light on the function of Early Christian baptisteries in some areas. For Greece, for example, we have no liturgical texts at all.
4. Further compounding the uneven distribution of liturgical texts is the diverse range of symbolic and exegetical readings of the baptismal ritual. Even if a liturgical text provided a blue-print of sorts to the rites involved in Christian initiation, the meaning of these rites derived from the ongoing interpretative work of various communities, church leaders, and even, one must assume, the viewers. Moreover, it seems likely to me that the rich symbolism and interpretive skill of Early Christians produced multiple simultaneous or even contested meanings for baptismal ritual. It, therefore, becomes very difficult to assign a single symbolic text to an Early Christian baptistery and then relate this text to a particular Christian community or set of initiatory values. This does not mean, of course, that it is impossible to interpret the symbolism present in Early Christian baptisteries. Some symbols like water, the hart, paradise, the river Jordan, and the dove appear consistently enough to present a consistent array of baptismal imagery. What I mean, rather, is that the diversity of images associated with baptism and baptisteries should discourage us from assigning a single, exclusive meaning to Early Christian space and ritual.
5. The diversity of meanings in Early Christian architecture is made clear in the practice of literary ekphrasis. Ekphrasis was a popular genre of Early Christian ritual focused on unpacking and exploring the symbolism present in architecture. The authors of ekphrastic texts clearly took it upon themselves to produce wide ranging symbolic meaning from even relatively mundane objects in a religious building. Such extensive architectural exegesis often departed from structural reality which these authors subordinated entirely to their own creativity. Efforts by modern scholars to reconstruct actual spaces and buildings from ekphrastic texts regularly end in tears. The goal of ekphrasis was the text itself as a literary artifact and not as an even loosely empirical reproduction of an actual building. As a result, some of the most detailed descriptions of Early Christian space are, ironically, the least helpful in construction actual practice or architecture, and, instead, reveal Early Christian architecture as a suitable foundation for multiple symbolic regimes.
The challenges associated with our understanding of Early Christian baptisteries and architecture more broadly will likely discourage any scholar committed to understanding these spaces as a manifestation of a single unified ritual or symbolic regime. (And, in all fairness, I am not sure that there are many scholars committed to this particular approach.) Instead, the diversity of architectural forms, symbolic regimes, and the ambiguity of chronology begs for interpretations that embrace the multivocal nature of the evidence itself. Taking the lead from the authors of ekphrasis, scholars might be well-served by exploring the space of Christian initiation as the space susceptible to multiple, overlapping, and perhaps in some cases contested, symbolic, architectural, and ritual significance. In such a case, the study of Early Christian architecture becomes the study of Early Christian architectures in the same way that Early Christianity has given way to the study of Early Christianities.