Home > Early Christian Baptisteries, Korinthian Matters > Some thoughts on St. Leonidas and Baptism at Lechaion in Greece

Some thoughts on St. Leonidas and Baptism at Lechaion in Greece

The Lechaion basilica and baptistery are among the most impressive archaeological and architecture remains from the Early Christian period in Greece. As I have blogged on many times, the massive Lechaion basilica stood near the coast at Corinth’s Western harbor. It’s baptistery is often thought to date earlier than the massive basilica situated to its south largely because they have slightly different orientations. (This post has a companion post here).

Scholars have often associated the basilica with the martyr Leonidas and his several companions who, according to the preserved lives, were drowned in the Gulf of Corinth (AS II, April 16). Since Robin Jensen’s visit a few weeks back, I’ve been thinking about this episode and its relationship to the great church at Lechaion. In several articles, Jensen argues that ad sanctos baptism was a not uncommon practice in Early Christian times (for a nice summary see here). This largely involved traveling to pilgrimage sites or even just local martyr’s tombs for the initiation rite of baptism. For Jensen, this evokes the long-standing association between baptism as a kind of spiritual rebirth and the death of martyrs as their birth into spiritual and eternal glory.

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I began to wonder whether ad sanctos type baptisms might have taken place at Lechaion. After all, the church is conspicuously close to the sea where a martyr shrine to Leonidas would be appropriate. Moreover, the church makes abundant use of water both in some of the imagery present in the yet unpublished architectural sculpture (at least one unpublished fragment of sculpture includes a dolphin which would have had particular significance in the context of baptism and Corinth through the myth of Arion) and in the various water features associated with its massive western atrium. These water features include the installation of a large basin, perhaps for fountains, in the center of its western hemicycle and two large basins along the eastern wall of the atrium. The baptistery itself is quite large with three rooms: two ancillary rooms and the baptistery proper with its central font. In short, the basilica featured water prominently, and if the basilica was to be associated with the martyr Leonidas, then the use of water throughout may well have been evocative of the events surround his and his companions martyrdom.

The use of water around Lechnaion is not enough, however, to link this church to the martyr Leonidas or to make an argument for ad sanctos baptismal practices. Corinth and the Corinthia was known in antiquity for fountains and water; so, the the use of water at Lechaion may have merely evoked or advanced Corinth’s longstanding reputation. There is something more however linking Leonidas to baptismal practices. First, it was not uncommon to associate explicitly martyrdom with baptism, especially if the martyr was a catechumen. Leonidas seems to have been a full-fledged Christian. He was, however, martyred on during Easter. Easter was the common time for baptism in the Mediterranean in general and in the Greece specifically according to the historian Socrates (5.22). While there does not appear to be explicit (at least that I’ve found) references to baptismal imagery, the accounts of St. Leonidas’ martrydom are short and the link between their physical and fatal submersion in the sea at Easter when catechumens experienced (at least symbolic) submersion of their own in the baptismal font at Lechaion seems hard to overlook.

To take this admittedly speculative reading a step further, it would be interesting to imagine the relationship between the Lechaion basilica and the nymphaion excavated a short distance to the south of the church (E. Stikas, Ergon (1957), 53-58).

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This building shows many remarkable similarities in both architectural decoration and in the use of opus sectile floors to the Lechaion basilica. While the building itself may be earlier, it seems likely that it underwent some modification by the same work crews who were involved in building the Lechaion basilica. The location of the nymphaion at the base of a coastal bluff gave it access to water and a position along a likely coastal road leading to the north coast of the Peloponnesus and, presumably, past the massive Lechaion church. It would be appealing to imagine this building as a symbolic billboard (are there other kinds of billboards?) for the Lechaion basilica taking not only certain decorative cues from the church as well as the reference to water. Water would have brought together the local history of the church, well-known Corinthian water culture, the martyrdom of Leonidas, and the Christian rite of baptism performed in an elaborate building less than 100 m from the foreshore of the Corinthian gulf.

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