Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Baptisteries
From The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

The importance of Baptism as a rite of passage for entrants to the Christian church is such that architectural provision has been made for it since at least the first half of the third century CE, when, in Dura-Europos on the Euphrates River, a canopied bath-like structure was built in a house that was converted for use as a place of Christian worship. Later, separate buildings made for the ceremony of baptism are circular, square, or (most often) octagonal domed structures covering a font—usually a pool recessed into the center of the floor, fed either by a spring or by water piped from a cistern; there is usually an entrance chamber, or narthex, to one side. Baptisteries of this type were built alongside churches across the empire in the fifth and sixth centuries: examples include the baptisteries of St. John Lateran, Rome (440), Qal'at Sem'an (after 459), and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (532), the latter made into an Ottoman tomb in the seventeenth century. Baptisteries could be elaborately decorated: the late fourth-/early fifth-century example at stobi in Macedonia has a mosaic floor decoration of paired peacocks and deer flanking fountains and wall-paintings depicting New Testament episodes. The (Orthodox) Baptistery of Neon in Ravenna (late fifth century) has a mosaic decoration in its dome consisting of a medallion with John baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River at the summit, with a procession of apostles led by peter and paul below, and in a third register, a frieze of fictive architecture. On the walls below there is a stucco decoration of relief figures in niches. An iconographically near-identical dome mosaic is present in the early sixth century Arian Baptistery in Ravenna.

Figure 1.

Neonian Baptistery. Ravenna, Italy. © Photo Scala, Florence.


Architecture, Byzantine; Church architecture.

References And Suggested Readings
  • Downing, C. J. (1998) "Wall paintings from the baptistery at Stobi, Macedonia, and early depictions of Christ and the evangelists." Dumbarton Oaks Papers 52: 259-80.
  • Kostoff, S. (1965) The orthodox baptistry of Ravenna. New Haven.
  • van der Meer, F.; Mohrmann, C. (1996) Atlas of the early Christian world. London.
  • Lyn Rodley
    Wiley ©2012

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Baptisteries
    Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World

    The mystery of baptism marked the believer's full admission into the Christian community; only after baptism was the initiate allowed to share in...

    Full text Article The Good Life
    Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World

    In his tenth homily on Paul's Epistle to the Philippians, John Chrysostom, at that time patriarch of Constantinople, gave a vivid description of...

    Full text Article Art, Late Antiquity and Byzantium
    The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

    The category of Late Antique and Byzantine art involves definitions of two different kinds: Late Antique (Spätantike), a term widely used in German

    See more from Credo