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On the Archaeology of Christian Baptism

By Eldin Ricks, Assistant Professor of Religion at Brigham Young University and a general officer of The University Archaeological Society.

This lecture was first delivered at the Society's Twelfth Annual Symposium on the Archaeology of the Scriptures, April 2, 1960. It was also published on the UAS Newsletter # 72 , 30 December, 1960. (The viewpoint of the author does not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of the Society)

My last wartime visit to the Cathedral of Saint Janarius and its fourth-century baptismal font in Naples, Italy, was in November 1945.  I had seen it many times before and have seen it since, but that particular visit proved especially interesting thanks to the presence of a very cooperative and well informed priest. On the occasion in question I was accompanied by Kay Kirkham, who was associated with the American Red Cross.  We were joined by an interpreter from his office.

       We traveled by jeep to the cathedral, which is not far from the heart of Naples. When we got there we requested permission of the custodian to view the ancient baptismal font which, in fact, is inside a very old cathedral attached to the more modern one. The custodian obligingly opened a large door leading into the older structure and ushered us into the baptistery where presently we were joined by a priest.  Together we stood beside a well like basin in the floor, about five and one half feet wide and three and one half feet deep, that today is enclosed by a protective rail. The priest identified the pit as a baptismal font built, according to an ancient inscription on the wall, during the reign of Constantine in the year 343 AD.

Baptismal font at Pisa

The Baptismal font at Pisa.
  Visits to other cathedrals and a little research have provided the writer with information concerning many such immersion fonts.   The Baptistery of Pisa, near the famous leaning tower, is a good example. A number of times the writer has visited this magnificent dome shaped baptistery and its octagonal shaped font.  The building was startedin 1153, then halted, and started again in 1278.  It was completed the following century. (1) The font is 14 feet in diameter and four feet in depth and is provided with an outlet for drainage.  The source of the water is (or formerly was) a subterranean canal. One of the more interesting features of this particular font is cubbyholes or tiny compartments in the beveled corners wherein, it is believed, officiating priests used to stand and baptize without getting wet.

       In Ravenna, Italy, a baptistery connected with the original basilica houses an immersion font that is believed to have been erected in the fourth century by Orso, archbishop of that city, and restored by his successor in 451.  The marble basin is ten feet in diameter and three and a half feet deep.  It also has an outlet for drainage purposes.

       On various occasions the writer has visited the baptistery of Saint John in Florence and viewed the eight sided structure, 12 feet across, that marks the spot where an immersion font was constructed in 1371. The original font was surrounded by three steps that allowed for easy access into the water.  The font was destroyed by Francesco de' Medici in 1576, to the great disgust of many Florentines, who carried away pieces of its marble and mortar as relics.  It is be-lieved, in fact, that the building once housed several such immersion fonts for the baptism of large numbers of people at Easter time.  Dante, in his Inferno, refers to his breaking down a portion of the wall of one of them in order to save a child from drowning, a rescue action, incidentally, that appears to have brought him much criticism.

" Saint John's fair dome of me beloved,
Those [fonts] framed to hold the pure baptismal Streams,
  One of the which I break, some few years past,
To save a whelming infant:
and be this A seal to undeceive
whoever doubts The motive of my deed."(2)
of the emperor Constantine

Portion of a mural in the Church of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy depicting the baptism of the emperor Constantine.

       Also in Florence in the Church of Santa Croce is a mural depicting the baptism of the fourth century Emperor Constantine apparently kneeling in an immersion font.  Kneeling seems to have been the posture not infrequently assumed by adult persons being baptized. Whether kneeling or standing, the candidate's head and shoulders were bowed gently forward until the whole body was covered by water.

       The Baptistery of San Giovanni in Fonte in Rome offers another sidelight on the ancient Catholic practice of immersion.  This structure was built in the time of Pope Sixtus III sometime before 440 AD.  It was evidently built as an adjunct to the Church of St. John that stands only a short distance away.  Until comparatively recent times a great marble font, about 25 feet across and three feet deep, occupied the center of the building.  Three steps led to the bottom of the basin, which was provided with an outlet for the escape of water following the baptismal ceremony. The water was channeled to the font from a Roman aqueduct built in the reign of the Emperor Claudius. The writer can attest that anyone interested in early Christian archaeology will be disappointed, however, when he visits the baptistery today; for the original font is no longer intact.  The restorationists have done their work and left but a flamboyant outline of its former encasement.  Changing church custom has also left its imprint in the form of a small oblong basin in the center of the circle, which nowadays is used for the sprinkling of infants.  Ironically, around the entire architrave, supported by eight majestic columns of porphyry, may still be seen the ancient inscription, part of which reads, "Plunge thyself, sinner, in this sacred and purifying flood."

Catacomb of San Ponziano

A baptistery in the catacomb of San Ponziano, Rome. (After Cote)
  Nor have the catacombs failed to furnish clues to early Christian baptismal practices. In subterranean caves many ancient Christians were obliged to seek refuge during times of persecution.  Here they buried their dead in stone crypts hollowed out of solid rock. And here they worshipped and secretly discussed the Savior's sacred words.  Here, too, in some instances, they baptized.  One of the most interesting of these underground baptisteries is sketched by Cote, in his The Archaeology of Baptism.  It was discovered in the Catacomb of San Ponziano, Rome.  On the wall of the little room enclosing the font, is or was when it was found a painting of Jesus standing in water up to his hips evidently in the process of being baptized by John the Baptist, whose hand is on the Savior's head.  A dove hovers overhead, and an angel holds the Savior's robe. A hart also stands on the shore gazing at the water.  Below this scene is a painted cross, and at the base of the cross is the font, not a painting but an actual basin in the floor fed by an outside stream.  The font is four and one half feet long, three andone half feet wide, and three and one half feet deep.  According to Cote, it ". . . was used for administering baptism by immersion from the first to the fourth centuries" (p. 152).

Baptismal font
at Verona

An immersion font in Verona, Italy, hewn from a single block of marble .

Verona, Italy, presents more of the same kind of evidence. An immense octangular font, 28 feet across and four and one-half feet deep, may still be found in the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Fonte, a name, incidentally, that is used for many baptisteries in Italy.  The original building was destroyed by an earthquake in 1116 and built anew in 1136,  The font is formed out of a single huge chunk of venetian marble and is highly decorated with a frieze of human figures and Lombard arches.

       The testimony of archaeology concerning the ancient practice of immersion is also supported by written sources.  One such, a current German Catholic work published in 1953, declares, "The original method of baptism was very simple.  As the word (baptizeim) implies and as the realistic interpretation of Paul (Romans 6:3-11; Colossians 2:12) indicates, it consisted of immersion into the water and emergence therefrom... "(3)

       A French Catholic textbook, published in 1925, simply states, "Until the eighth century baptism was always [toujours] administered by the mode of immersion"(4)

       A discussion of literary sources bearing upon this subject, however, goes beyond the limits of this paper. I shall, therefore, close by saying that, as far as I have been able to determine, the weight of evidence, both literary and archaeological, favors the view that for many centuries the common baptismal form employed by Western Catholicism was as, indeed, it still is by Eastern Orthodox Catholicism total immersion in water.  


The University Archaeological Society (UAS) was originally founded in 1949 at Brigham Young University. The name changed to The Society for Early Historic Archaeology (SEHA) in 1967 when it became independent of BYU. This organization was absorbed into The Ancient America Foundation (AAF) in 1985 as a tax exempt organization for the purpose of disseminating knowledge of archaeological discoveries bearing on latter-day scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon; also on the archaeological activities and viewpoints of the society.   

1. The primary source used for the historical details of this paper is Wolfred Nelson Cote, The Archaeology of Baptism. (London:  1876).  Illustrations, in the main, are from a private collection of photographs obtained from commercial establishments, after considerable search, by the writer's good friend and World War II colleague, Mark Bauer.

2. Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto XIX, lines 18-23, translated by the Rev. Henry Francis Cary. Thompson & Thomas, Chicago, 1901.

3. Joseph Lechner and Ludwig Eisenhofer, Litur ik desRomischen Ritus, p. 265.  

4. L'Abbe A. Boulenger, Histoire de l'Eglise, p. 203.

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