Theological Reasons for Baptistry Shapes

In her wonderful book, A Place for Baptism, Regina Kuehn reminds readers that the baptismal font’s shape reveals baptismal truth, and the font points to baptism’s key element, water. She invites churches to think more about baptism’s sacramental weight and "the radical nature of our baptismal promises," than about whether the font is pretty.

Browsing readymade products available for churches, you might think that baptistry choices involve mainly color, how many people the baptistry holds, tile ⁄ fiberglass, portable ⁄ permanent, heated ⁄ unheated, and whether the minister gets wet or stays dry.

In her wonderful book, A Place for Baptism, Regina Kuehn reminds readers that the baptismal font’s shape reveals baptismal truth, and the font points to baptism’s key element, water. She invites churches to think more about baptism’s sacramental weight and "the radical nature of our baptismal promises," than about whether the font is pretty.

"The baptistry is an abiding reminder of what we once were, what we now are, and what we shall one day yet be," she states.

Kuehn says that putting more thought into the design of a baptismal font can "make a permanent visual imprint on our memory... Such a font will not escape our mind and memory; our one-time baptismalevent then will develop into a baptismal way of life."

Her amply illustrated book traces the history of baptism from the early church till now (mainly in Catholic churches, with some references to Baptist churches). Throughout Christian history, certain baptistry shapes have spoken without words. Whether called fonts or pools, these deliberate designs were generally large enough to hold an adult.

Womb. Many Christians refer to "Mother Church." An unborn baby floats in darkness within its mother’s womb. In the early church, catechumenates were baptized after the long dark Easter Vigil. Baptism births a person into a new Christian life.

Cruciform (both four-lobed and shaped like the cross Jesus hung on). When venomous snakes were killing rebellious Israelites, Moses raised a bronze serpent on a pole; bitten people looked at it and lived. Jesus said that in the same way, he would be lifted up so that those who believed in him would have eternal life (John 3:14-16). Kuehn quotes Saint Chrysostom, who said, "Baptism is a cross. What the cross was to Christ and what his burial was, that baptism is to us."

Tomb. The oldest font known to still exist, from a 3rd century house church in present-day Syria, is shaped like a coffin. Water in a tomb-shaped font signifies triumph over death. Churches that practice adult baptism identify the tomb with being joint heirs with Christ in his dying and rising (Romans 8:14-17, Romans 6:4-5, Ephesians 2:5-6). Kuehn says a tomb font makes sense even for infant baptism, once you understand that "infant baptism anticipates the total life span of the Christian and not only the washing of original sin."

Step-down. Ruins of 6th century baptistries in Jordan and Turkey reveal step-down cruciform pools. Walking down into the water and up out of it helps the baptized person experience dying with Christ, being buried with Christ, rising with Christ, and living in Christ. Fonts with three sets of steps refer to the Trinity and the baptismal formula of pouring water three times, in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Four sets of steps point to the four gospel writers or the angels at the four corners of the world (Revelation 7:1). Baptist churches often have six steps down and six steps up to symbolize the sixth day of Holy Week, Good Friday.

Octagonal. Eight-sided fonts recall the eighth day, the first day of resurrection. Saint Augustine writes about "the Day of the Lord, an everlasting eighth day." Saint Ambrose explains that a certain font is octagonal "because on the eighth day, by rising, Christ loosens the bondage of death and receives the dead from their graves."

Hexagonal. Ambrose and Augustine also link the number six to Good Friday, the day on which Christ died (the sixth day of Holy Week). Many communion chalices are hexagonal for this same reason.

Tub. Pools and fonts large enough to bathe in emphasize baptism as a washing or cleansing of sins (Ezekiel 36:16-18, Ephesians 5:26).

There are also churches who see no reason to choose among shapes for a baptism pool or font—because they believe in being baptized outdoors in a stream, as Jesus was.

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