A Description of an Early Christian Baptistery
I continue to work with Robin Jensen and Richard Rutherford in an effort to prepare a catalogue of Early Christian baptisteries. The goal of the catalogue is to present this material in a way that makes it more accessible to a broader audience (than Ristow’s otherwise satisfactory work) and with a greater emphasis on regional characteristics, indicators of ritual activities, and their place within their immediate spatial context and built environment. I’ve taken a stab at one of the longer entries in this catalog, but may not have struck the balance between scholarly precision and accessibility.
The Lechaion Baptistery ranks among the most architecturally elaborate and lavishly decorated baptisteries in the Eastern Mediterranean and yet remains relatively unknown. The baptistery sits less than 200 meters from the Gulf of Corinth at the ancient harbor of Lechaion, the Western harbor of Corinth. The baptistery is situated at the southwestern corner of the Lechaion basilica. This massive three-aisled basilica with a large atrium and double narthex is the largest and most ornate church in Greece and seems almost certainly to be associated with a prominent local saint. Today, nothing of the church exists about the lowest reaches of the walls, but these are sufficiently well-preserved to provide a complete floor plan of this impressive building.
The baptistery itself consists of three architecturally distinct compartments. The largest is a 16.20 m x 7.60 hall with apses on its north and south end. This main hall was entered from the south end, presumably from the basilica , through the apse. To the east of this apsidal hall were two additional chambers. The northern chamber has a central core measuring 5.05 m square with apsidal exedra at the cardinal directions. Entered from the west through the western apse, this room was identified by the excavator as the apodyterion. This chamber lacks a font and seemed well positioned for this purpose. Immediately to the south of this chamber was the octagonal photisterion or baptistery proper which measures 3.15 m across. It appears to have communicated with the apodyerion to its north through the triangular space formed by the east wall of the long hall and the west walls of the north and south chambers. The octagonal room featured apses at the corners and square exedra at the cardinal directions. To the west, the photisterion communicated with the long hall. To the east projects an usually shaped apse. Marble revetment decorated the walls of the elaborate buildings and the interior of the font.
The photisterion preserved two fonts. The center of the octagonal interior space featured cruciform octagonal font set in the floor with stairs on the northern and southern cross-arms. It is just under .50 m in depth. Such cruciform fonts are common in the Corinthia and in Late Roman Achaea more broadly. A smaller font sits in the southeast apse. The chronology of the baptistery complex is difficult to ascertain with any certainty. The basilica has a terminus post quem of 425 leading the excavator to argue that the basilica was largely 5th century in date and destroyed during the 6th century earthquakes. Recently, however, scholars have been inclined to date the basilica to the 6th century, perhaps during the reign of Justinian or Anastasius, on the basis of ceramics found in nearby graves and architectural cues. While an archaeological date for the construction of the basilica is unlikely to emerge, it seems probable that the building continued to stand into the second half of the 6th century. Any clarity regarding the dating of the church sheds little light on the date of the baptistery. It is on a slightly different orientation to the main church, however, suggesting an earlier date. The baptistery may have also remained in use later than the main church. One argument for the second font suggests that it came into use to allow the photisterion to serve as the church after the main basilica became damaged or fell out of use. This practice appears to have occurred elsewhere in the Corinthia.
The baptistery is striking in that it is close to the main basilica, but they hardly represent an architectural unit. The entrance on the south side of the baptistery allowed for easy access from the narthex of the main church through a door in its north wall. Seemingly later and relatively insubstantial walls created a courtyard between the north wall of the basilica and the baptistery. Ancillary room attached to the northern wall of the basilica may have also functioned in conjunction with the baptistery and provided access to the church’s northern aisle or galleries which are no long preserved. This may have provided an easy way for catechumens to enter and leave the basilica for the baptistery complex.
Bolonaki, I. (1976). Ta Palaiochristianika Baptisteria tes Ellados. Athens Archaeological Society, Athens, 65-66.
Ristow,S. (1998). Früchristliche Baptisterien, Aschendorffesche Verlagsbuchhandlung. Munich, pp. 155-156, no. 249
Sanders, G. D. R. (1999). A Late Roman Bath at Corinth: Excavations in the Panayia Field, 1995–1996. Hesperia 68: 441–480.
Sanders, G. D. R. (2005). “Archaeological Evidence for Early Christianity and the End of Hellenic Religion in Corinth,” in D. N. Schowalter and S. J. Friesen, Urban Religion in Roman Corinth. Harvard Theology Studies, Cambridge, MA., pp.. 419-442.
Varales, I. (2001). E epidrase tes theias leitourgias kai ton ieron akolouthion sten ekklesiastike architectonike tou anatolikou Illyrikou (395-573). Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Thessaloniki.