A few posts ago, I noted that Venice contains extremely few free-standing Baptisteries. Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello had one outside the “front door” of the basilica, connected through the front portico to the cathedral, and built soon after 639 A.D. It was destroyed long ago, with only the octagonal foundation remains.
No other free-standing Baptistries are apparent in Venice today, and perhaps never in the City’s history, although the domed octagonal front chapel of San Michele on the cemetery island looks suspicious! However, that appendage is the Cappele Emiliani. The remaining baptismal fonts are located inside of the churches, often in a side chapel or free-standing near the entrance end of the nave.
A few existing historical examples from elsewhere in Italy are presented below, to demonstrate the very deliberate and iconic architecture used to house the sacrament of Holy Baptism in the Christian church.
This city in west-central Tuscany is built over a cave-riddled tufa hill for defense, the site of a pre-Roman, Etruscan arcropolis. The 13th-Century baptistery is located across a small piazza outside the main door to the primary church of the City, the city cathedral, Duomo Santa Maria Assunta. Its octagonal shape is very characteristic.
The interior of the baptistery is very austere compared to many ecclesial structures in Italy from the same epoch. Its focused art and symbolism celebrating the solemnity and importance of the rite.
After being baptized with their heads thrust down into the central pool, the newly baptised emerge from the “drowning” of their Old Adam and original sins (to that date!) to see Jesus Christ directly overhead in the firmament of Heaven with the Holy Spirit, surrounded by a host of apostles and saints, all witnessing and celebrating the baptism!
What an immediate and overpowering image of the company they are now covenanted to join!
Ravenna hosts a second hexagonal free-standing baptistery, Battistero degli Ariani, adjacent to the former Arian cathedral Santo Spirito, built at the direction of Ostrogothic King Theodoric later in the 5th century.
The glorious Renaissance cathedral complex again includes an immense free-standing octagonal baptistery sited across from the front door of the church (the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, or Il Duomo for short). The Battistero di San Giovanni may have been renovated and expanded from an ancient Roman temple, with its current form finalized during the Renaissance. The interior focuses on the artwork of the vaulted ceiling space, illustrating the history and meaning of the Sacramental.
Often overlooked by visitors, and an addition to the main Duomo entrance ticket, the baptistery and its art are certainly not overshadowed by the phenomenal richness of the cathedral above it!