The baptismal font in my local church is pretty, but unremarkable—a plain white marble basin resting on eight columns. Around the world, however, some baptismal fonts elevate their basic functionality to extraordinary works of art, ranging in size just big enough for an infant to a pool that can invite a group of adults to dive right in. These are my favorites.
#1 Orvieto Cathedral (Orvieto, Italy)
Orvieto’s cathedral is simply unforgettable. Its Gothic façade is one of the great masterpieces of the Late Middle Ages, what with its elaborate sculptures, rose window, and striking mosaics. Completely beguiled, I stepped inside, awed by the stiped walls and columns, the incredible murals, and the outstanding Pietà. Near the cathedral’s left entrance, under a translucent alabaster window, stands the magnificent baptismal font. Begun in 1390 and expanded later on, the font received its final touches in 1407. The font sits on the backs of eight different lion statues. Resting on a marble base, the red marble basin bears a trio of panels with elaborate frieze reliefs on each of its sides. Atop that, an octagonal pyramid could pass for a mini-cathedral, what with its entrance doors, towers, pinnacles, crockets, and a lantern, all capped with a statue of St. John the Baptist, the original baptizer.
#2 Christ Church Cathedral (Dublin, Ireland)
One of the most beautiful churches in Ireland, Christ Church Cathedral sits in the heart of Dublin’s Viking city. Dating back to the 1180s, it’s the city’s oldest building. Its heavy austere and somber exterior belies the airiness and lightness within. I followed the colorful mosaic floor of intriguing patterns around the cathedral, eventually arriving at the handsome baptismal font. Resting on a base of eight pillars in alternating marbles, the circular font is adorned with quatrefoils with the same cross in the middle of each one, surrounded by four circular decorative pieces, with a mostly floral motif, that shift position from one quatrefoil to the next. A font cover with beautiful metalwork keeps the lid on things. The noteworthy feature of the font is that it contains a piece of every type of marble found in Ireland.
#3 Pisa Baptistry (Pisa, Italy)
The round Pisa Baptistry is one of three key buildings in the city’s Piazza dei Miracoli, along with Pisa Cathedral, and, of course, that engineering failure, the Leaning Tower. Inside the single-room building, the octagonal font, situated right in the center, dates from 1246, completed long before the building itself, in 1363. In the Middle Ages, baptism was done by immersion (“baptism” comes from the Greek word for “immersion”), so the font had to be large enough to accommodate about-to-be-Christians and is more like a pool. Three steps—representing the figures in the Holy Trinity: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—lead up to the font. Intricately sculpted panels, two on each side, are filled with geometrically patterned, polychrome marble inlay combined with foliate bands and animal and human heads. A statue of St. John the Baptist rises from the inset cruciform pool. To get a unique perspective of this work of art, I climbed up to the viewing level, where it’s easy to look down at the font and appreciate its perfection.
#4 St. Mary’s Basilica (Gdansk, Poland)
I shouldn’t have been surprised that one of the largest brick churches in the world, St. Mary’s Basilica in Gdansk, would also have the largest baptismal font I’ve ever seen. The basilica took more than a century and a half, from 1343 to 1502, to be completed. The baptismal font came along a little later, by 1555, and like the one in Pisa, this, too, is an immersion pool. Those about to be christened pass through a gate, climb four steps, and then pass through another gate before stepping down into the pool to receive their first Christian sacrament. The walls of the octagonal pool are decorated with tremendously intricate bas-reliefs from the Old and New testaments. Within the pool, female statues representing eight virtues stand on a step. One more step up leads to the monumental basin, awash in fine sculptures, including cherubs, animal heads, the four evangelists, and women wearing what could almost pass for Mesoamerican headdresses.
#5 Grace Church (New York, New York)
When you’re gaping at Grace Church, you get the sensation of heading to a service in an English village in the 1800s. Prolific architect James Renwick Jr., who was only 23 when he received the commission to design this church, created a masterpiece that has been one of the most beautiful churches in Manhattan since 1846. I headed down the central aisle, under the gorgeous ribbed ceiling with bosses, made a left, and approached the Baptistry. Resting on a cluster of columns, the carved marble basin has eight sides, signifying both the dawning of the eighth day as well as the eight survivors of the Great Flood, one of the watery references here, in addition to the baptismal water itself. The gorgeous carved-oak canopy is a masterwork of wood, an octagonal pyramid embellished with crockets and a bouquet. I looked down at the mosaic floor and appreciated the whimsy of the design—wavy lines signifying water, complete with a few fish.
- St. Cecilia Catholic Church (Brooklyn, New York)
- Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Atlanta, Georgia)
- St. Joseph’s Old Cathedral (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma)
- St. James Cathedral (Seattle, Washington)
- St. Francis Xavier Church (St. Louis, Missouri)
Leave a Comment
Have you been here? Have I inspired you to go? Let me know!