Under The Dome of Heaven – Baptisteries

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.

Volterra, Tuscany - Baptistry   (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Volterra, Tuscany - baptistery (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch


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.

Volterra Baptistry Interior  (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Volterra baptistery Interior (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Adjoining the Catedrale Sant’Orso, named after Bishop Ursusthe ancient Battistero Neoniano shares the traditional octagonal shape and centrally placed interior baptismal pool.   It was built in the early 5th Century on the remains of an old Roman bathhouse by Bishop Ursus, and named after his successor Bishop Neone, who supervised its completion.
Ravenna-Battistero Neoniano  (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Ravenna-Battistero Neoniano (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

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.

Firenze - Baptistry, Il Duomo, Campanile  (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Firenze - baptistery, Il Duomo, Campanile (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

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. 

This traditional form and siting still exists in a number of other locations near the Mediterranean Sea, including Pisa, Italy, adjacent to the famous leaning tower.  
 Over 1000 similar structures have been identified, including many still in use, in a variety of regular geometric shapes, not just hexagonal.  The regular shape is thought to represent the “dome of Heaven” over a sacrament routinely enacted outdoors (under the dome of Heaven) since its origination with John the Baptist baptizing Jesus Christ in the Jordan River.
Sorry, no free-standing baptistery, octagonal or otherwise, in Siena!  The cathedral (Duomo di San Giovanni) baptistery is located underneath the church, under the main altar below the famous dome far above.  It occupies part of the earlier church on the site over which the current Duomo was constructed, remodeled in the early 1300’s for this purpose. 
Siena - Duomo - The Baptismal Font  (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Siena - Duomo - The Baptismal Font (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

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!

 Here, the baptised must exit, labor up an immense and extremely steep flight of stairs, each step a little too tall for comfortable climbing, then go around to the front of the large basilica to join the congregation within it. 
Did free-standing, polygonal baptisteries go “out of style” by then?  Or is ths architectural remodeling also representative of Baptism’s… 
Theological Adaptive Reuse?

About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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