Arthur Middleton on baptismal imagery


Decorated Baptisteries

Candidates for Baptism enrolled on the eve of the first day of Lent, and spent the forty days of Lent in preparation for baptism at Easter. In early Baptisteries a decorative feature was a deer drinking at the springs: “Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks: so longeth my soul after thee, O God.” (Ps 42.1). The hart longing for running water symbolises the candidate’s thirst to receive baptism. Some were depicted with serpents in their mouths, because it was a tradition of ancient science that deer could eat snakes and to do so made them thirsty. In his daily lectures to the baptismal candidates St Cyril of Jerusalem states that it was only after quelling the serpent that the candidate could proceed to baptism: the representation of the deer which, having eaten the serpent, quenches its thirst at the river of paradise summarises for the baptismal candidates the stages of their baptismal initiation.


The Octagon

The role of octagonal baptisteries is also symbolic. The shape may come from the Roman baths, but in Christianity it took on a symbolic significance as is shown by the inscription on the baptistery of the Church of St Thecla in Milan: “It is fitting that the hall of Holy Baptism should be built according to this number, which is that in which the People obtained true salvation in the light of the risen Christ”. For ancient Christianity the number 8 was the symbol of the Resurrection: the day after the Sabbath being the eighth day, when Christ rose from the tomb. The seven days of the week are the image of the time of this world, and the eighth day that of life everlasting. Sunday is the liturgical commemoration of this eighth day, as well as a memorial of the Resurrection and a prophecy of the world to come. By baptism the Christian enters into this eighth day inaugurated by Christ. This is ancient baptismal symbolism, and it occurs frequently in ancient Christianity.


Stripped Naked

The drama is acted out when the candidate enters into the baptistery and stripped of all clothing. This symbolises the taking off the old corruptible man and his works to proceed naked to the baptismal bath to receive the tunic of incorruptibility. The “old man” symbol, both of sinfulness and mortality, was first stripped from the human race by Christ upon the Cross. By this baptismal stripping the candidate is participating in the stripping of Christ and is simultaneously stripped of the powers of evil and their hold over him. It signifies a return to primitive innocence. The candidate is next anointed with oil, which St Cyril says makes the participant a partaker of the true olive tree which is Jesus Christ. The anointing was for healing, but also for strengthening in the victorious struggles against the powers of darkness.


Immersion and Emersion

The baptismal rite is essentially constituted by the immersion and emersion, accompanied by the invocation of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. The symbolic immersion symbolises purification from sin. The emersion – the coming out of the water – signifies the communication of the Holy Spirit, which gives the candidate the sonship of adoption. It makes the baptised person a new creature by means of a new birth. St Cyril says that ordinary water, by invocation of the Holy Spirit, of the Son, and of the Father, acquires a sanctifying power. St Ambrose says that the water is the instrument; but that it is the Holy Spirit who acts. Tertullian writes that baptism regains our likeness to God; and Theodore of Mopsuestia sees it as God fashioning us anew through our configuration to Christ, dead and risen.  

Lent is a good time to consider the significance of our Baptism. The following ancient prayer from the Gallican Sacramentary could be used daily.

O Lord God Almighty, who hast commanded thy servants to be born again of Water and the Holy Ghost, preserve in them the holy baptism they have received, and be pleased to perfect it unto the hallowing of Thy Name; that Thy grace may ever increase upon them, and that what they have already received, they may guard by integrity of life. Through Christ our Lord.