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Baptismal Font

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A basin or vase, serving as a receptacle for baptismal water in which the candidate for baptism is immersed, or over which he is washed, in the ceremony of Christian initiation. In the Church's present practice it is ordinarily a decorative stone basin, though metal or wood are used; supported on a pedestal or columns at a convenient height for receiving the water which is poured over the head of the person baptized, a form which marks the term of a development graphically illustrating the history of the mode of conferring baptism.


In the Apostolic Age, as in Jewish times ( John 3:23 ), baptism was administered without special fonts, at the seaside or in streams or pools of water ( Acts 8:38 ); Tertullian refers to St. Peter's baptizing in the Tiber (De bapt., iv); similarly; in later periods of evangelization, missionaries baptized in rivers as is narrated of St. Paulinus in England by Bede (Hist. Eccl., II, xiv-xvi). Indoor baptism, however, was not uncommon ( Acts 9:18 ; 16:33 ) and, for the sake of both privacy and solemnity, came to be the rule; while reverence for the rite itself and for the water, which came in time to receive a special consecration, gave rise to the use of a special basin or font for the baptismal ceremony and, at a later period, for the preservation of the water. With the establishment of distinctively Christian places of worship this font became one of their important adjuncts. In the East it took the form of a pool or cistern, similar to those of the baths, often larger, and deep enough to permit total immersion. Whence it was called kalymbethra (swimming-bath), a name which in its Latin equivalent, natatorium , was also used in the West, as was the term piscina with its apt allusion to birth and life in the waters ( Tertullian, De bapt., i; St. Augustine, De schis. Donat., III, ii). The name fons (a spring of water) was also in early use and came to prevail.

The oldest western fonts are found in the Roman catacombs, cisterns hewn from the tufa in the floor of baptismal chapels. (See BAPTISTERY.) Examples are to be found in the Ostrian Cemetery, where in a small shallow basin in the floor a spring wells up in the Cemetery of Pontianus, where an oblong reservoir about eighteen square feet in surface area and three feet in depth, is yet filled with water (Marucchi, Archéologie Chrétienne, II, 63); that of St. Felicitas (ibid., 304); and of St. Priscilla, where in 1901 was found a basin of particular interest on account of its presumably high antiquity as a baptismal center (Marucchi in Nuovo Bullettino, 1901, 73). Besides these actual specimens, the font is also depicted in the remains of early Christian art. In nearly every instance it is a shallow pool or basin in which the neophyte stands with feet immersed, while water is poured on him from an overhead stream or from a vase held by the person baptizing. That this was the ordinary mode of baptizing during the early centuries, is a view the acceptance of which is compelled by all recent study in the archaeology of baptismal fonts (de Rossi, Bullettino di Archeol., 1876, 8-15; Duchesne, Les Eglises séparées, Paris, 1905, 89-96). With the church-building activity of the fourth century the font was reverently enshrined in the magnificent baptisteries which date from that period. It took the form of a basin which was either entirely below the level of the baptistery floor or was partially raised above it by a low curb of masonry, over which the neophytes passed by steps, in going down into the water; to the ascent and descent, as well as to the number of steps this involved, there was often attached a mystical significance ( Isidore of Seville, De divin. off., II, xxv). These fonts were either circular or octagonal in form and rarely hexagonal or square; a few were in the form of a cross ( Gregory of Tours, Mirac., I, xxiv), a type more common in the East than in the West, while an occasional sarcophagus-shaped font was suggested, perhaps by the allusion to baptism in Romans, vi, 4.

In size fonts varied, but as a rule they were large enough for the simultaneous baptism of a few catechumens. Their average depth of less than three feet points to the continued prevalence of but partial immersion down to the eighth century. Water was provided either by natural springs or by pipes leading into the basins, though there are many examples of its being poured in from above the font, over the heads of the neophytes. Drain pipes conducted the water into the earth or into a nearby stream after the ceremony. These early fonts were lined and paved with marble or other decorative stone and were often highly ornamented, features more common in the West than in the East where simpler fonts, sometimes even of wood, were used. The "Liber Pontificalis" (ed. Duchesne, I, 174) describes in detail the Constantinian font in the Lateran baptistery as a porphyry basin heavily ornamented with silver; on its rim were a golden lamb and seven silver stags from whose mouths gushed water from the Claudian aqueduct; the golden lamb was flanked by statues of the Savior and of St. John the Baptist. From the center of the font arose a porphyry column bearing a golden lamp in which, during the ceremonies of baptism, was burned an oil of fragrant odor. This font was despoiled by the barbarian invaders, but its general design may be seen in the present day structure. The passing of the period of adult conversion to Christianity and the growing prevalence of infant baptism with a consequent frequency of administration determined a change in the structure of the fonts. Instead of a basin below the floor level, walls of masonry were built up to a height of three or four feet, to facilitate the ministers holding a child over its opening; or a font hewn from solid stone rested on the chapel floor. Immersion of children had come to be the rule, and as the practice was adopted too in the case of adults, the fonts were sometimes large enough to admit of their being immersed. With the thirteenth century, however, simple infusion came by degrees to be adopted, and with its general use, the font became smaller and more shallow, and was raised from the floor on piers or columns. The older type of font continued to find favor in Italy, but in the Northern countries the winter chill of the waters hastened the general use of infusion, and as this rite required for each person baptized but a small quantity of water, the font generally took the simple form and small dimensions it has today.


The Church's legislation kept pace with this development. Early enactments urged stone as the regular material, though metal was permitted. With the erection of fonts for the continual preservation of the water, reverence and cleanliness became the Church's chief concern; the font, if not of impermeable stone, must be lined with metal; it must be used exclusively for baptism, and to guard it against profanation, securely covered and locked. Frequency of thirteenth-century legislation on this point throughout Northern Europe reveals the prevalence of a passing superstitious belief in the magical efficacy of the font and its waters. The constitutions of Bishop Poore of Sarum (Salisbury, c. 1217) and of St. Edmund of Canterbury (1236) combated the abuse in England as did the Councils of Tours (1236), Trier (1238), Fritzlar (1243), and Breslau (1248), on the Continent. The cover was enacted in the name of cleanliness and decoration as well, and, besides a close-fitting, cloth-lined lid, there was demanded in many dioceses an outer dome-like cover, sometimes highly ornamented and draped with a canopy or veil. The repugnance to continued repetition of baptism over a font whose water was to last for ten months, was overcome by providing two compartments, one to contain the Baptismal water, the other, always empty and clean to receive the drippings and drain them into the sacrarium, a provision embodied by Benedict XIII in his still authoritative "Memoriale Rituum" (Tit. vi, cap. ii, #5, 9). The Roman Ritual (Tit. ii, cap. i, 28-30) epitomizes the present law providing that the font should be in the church or in a nearby baptistery, within a railed enclosure and secured by lock and key; of a substantial material fit to hold water; of becoming shape and ornamentation and so covered as to exclude anything unclean (cf. Council II Balt., #234-237). As models of diocesan legislation concerning fonts are cited the synodal acts of St. Charles Borromeo (Acta Eccl. Mediolan., Paris, 1643, 58-63) and those of Benedict XIII when Archbishop of Benevento (Collectio Lacensis, I, 69 sq.)

Two important liturgical functions center at the font, the baptismal rite itself, and the blessing of the font. The earliest allusion to such a blessing is by Tertullian who refers to the sanctification of the water by the invocation of God (De bapt., iv). St. Cyprian speaks of its being purified and sanctified by the priest (Ep. lxx, Ad Jan.); St. Basil considered the blessing, already of long-standing practice in his day, as of Apostolic institution (De Spiritu Sancto, xxvii); St. Ambrose first refers to an extended ritual including blessings, exorcism, and invocations (De myst., iii, 14-20). The oldest extant rite is that of the Apostolic Constitutions (VII, xliii). an extended prayer in Eucharistic form. The blessing of the font is henceforward an important feature of the sacramentaries and ordines, which contain nearly all the features of the present rite. It served as the preliminary to baptism, which was solemnized on the vigils of Easter and Pentecost; and notwithstanding the increasing frequency of solemn baptism, the blessing was reserved for those two days on which it should now be carried out in all churches having fonts (Decreta S.R.C., 3331-4005). This blessing is in the form of a long Eucharistic prayer the burden of which is an appeal that the Holy Spirit descend on the water and endow it with regenerative virtue, during which the celebrant performs a series of expressive ceremonies of high antiquity. He divides the water in the form of a cross; signs it with the cross; divides the water and casts a portion of it toward the four cardinal points; breathes on it in exorcism and dips in it the Paschal candle . After the prayer he pours into the water first the oil of catechumens, then the Holy chrism, a rite alluded to by St. Gregory of Tours (loc. cit.), and finally the two oils simultaneously.

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