Is a statue of St. John the Baptist atop the baptismal font in your church? Learn more about this “voice who cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord!” (Is 40:3)
June 24th is the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. St. John the Baptist was a prophet of hope (and warning); and a cousin of Jesus who in the story of the Visitation, “leaped for joy” in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:44) when the Blessed Mother, pregnant with Jesus, entered the house. After a period of formation in the desert of Jordan, St. John preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins and the coming of the Messiah saying, “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.” (Mark 1:7-8). St. John was an ascetic who was “clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey.” (Mark 1:6). It was St. John the Baptist who Isaiah wrote about as “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight!’” (Matthew 3:3) Eventually “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11) Jesus’ baptism by St. John the Baptist is a scene that is frequently depicted in baptismal fonts and stained glass windows in churches across the world. Some of that sacred art work is shown here with links to a more detailed page about the church.
A baptismal font is the container where the water of baptism is poured or gathered; while a baptistery is the building, church, chapel, or place where baptisms take place. In the early Church, baptisms occurred in natural water bodies such as lakes or rivers – such as Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. Persecution of Christians required that baptisms be moved to more private locations like pools or baths – and some were found in the catacombs of Rome. By the fourth century, separate buildings were constructed for baptisms, generally next to a cathedral as bishops administered baptisms. By the 1500’s in-ground pools were supplanted by above-ground containers, and then by fonts on pedestals; and detached baptisteries were seen less and less often. By the late twentieth century in the West, fonts were being located at the entrance to the nave, symbolizing Baptism as entrance into the Church (spiritually and physically).
Baptismal fonts have been in many shapes, but what is seen often in recent centuries is the incorporation of an octagonal shape. The eight-sided figure is a symbolic representation of Eighth Day of the Creation Cycle that has historically been associated with the Resurrection – as Baptism is, in effect, a Resurrection from Original Sin. Other symbolism frequently seen on baptismal fonts include the Chi-Rho symbol (first letters of Christ in Greek), the Alpha and Omega (beginning and end), fish (symbol of Christ) and shells (symbol of rebirth).
Before the 1960’s, the Church’s Roman Ritual suggested that the baptistery was to be decorated with an image of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus (statue, sculpture, painting or stained glass window). As a result, one will see today, many, many older baptismal fonts with a miniature l version of this scene atop their lids – maybe like the one in your church!.