Saturday, October 9, 2010

Early Baptismal Art (2nd through 5th Centuries)

The Seeming Discrepancy between Literary and Artistic Accounts

Many modern non-immersionist[i] writers have supposed that despite the references to immersion consistently found in early literary accounts, most depictions of baptism in early Christian art actually show that pouring or sprinkling was the mode generally used. For instance, the Presbyterian scholar Dr. Hughes Oliphant Old (b.1933; Reformed) maintained that early Christian iconography provides “clear evidence that in the second century baptism was most often performed by pouring.”[ii] The well-known Reformed theologian Dr. R. C. Sproul (b.1939) remarked: “In fact, early Christian art depicts John doing this, possibly revealing that pouring was his actual practice.”[iii]

Dr. Thomas Lindsay (1843–1914; Presbyterian), Professor of Church History at Glasgow College (Scotland), expressed puzzlement at the variance that appears to exist between what early church writers verbally described, and what early pictures of baptism seem to portray:

It is a somewhat curious fact that if the evidence from written texts, whether ancient canons or writings of the earlier fathers, be studied by themselves, the natural conclusion would seem to be that immersion was the almost universal form of administering the rite; but if the witness of the earliest pictorial representations be collected, then we must infer that affusion [pouring] was the usual method and that immersion was exceptional; for the pictorial representations, almost without exception, display baptism performed by affusion.[iv]

Benjamin B. Warfield (1581–1921; Presbyterian) perceived the same discrepancy:

The evidence of the practice of affusion as something more than an unusual and extraordinary mode of baptism which fails us in the writings of the Fathers, seems to be provided, however, in the monumental representations of the rite. The apparent evidence of the monuments runs, indeed, oddly athwart the consentient witness of the literary remains.[v]

The prospect of such a marked contradiction existing between early Christian writings versus pictorial illustrations warrants a careful investigation indeed.

What is Actually Depicted in Early Baptismal Scenes?

Perhaps one of the first things to recognize is that there are relatively few examples of baptismal scenes that pre-date the 5th century.[vi] Moreover, as Philip Schaff (1819-93; Presbyterian) also noted:

The oldest of these pictures represents the baptized as coming up (after immersion) from the river which reaches over his knees, and joining hands with the baptizer, who is dressed in a tunic, and assists him in ascending the shore...[See Fig. 1 in the picture section at the end of this article][vii]

Of course more important than determining the exact age of a particular art specimen, is to try and understand the characteristic form and intent of early Christian art itself. Some, such as Dr. Old, have maintained that early Christian artists carefully represented the way baptism was actually administered in the early church, and thus their depictions conclusively show that pouring was a common, even normative practice in the early church:

All the early pictures of baptism show pouring. These pictorial representations of the sacrament invariably show the one being baptized standing naked in water about waist deep. The one performing the baptism is pouring water over the head of the one being baptized. The pouring is done simply with the hand. In most cases over the hand of the one baptizing there is a representation of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.

Anyone familiar with the art of the classical world and particularly with the beginnings of Christian art is aware of the way the pictures of this period evolved into stylized representations and the way, once these representations were established, they remained fixed for a long time. In those days the artist strove not for originality but for fidelity. It was the job of the artist faithfully to reproduce the pattern of reality.[viii]

Even if one accepts this literalistic theory, however, there is a crucial fact with regard to what is actually shown in virtually every pre-6th century baptismal scene, which Dr. Everett Ferguson (a highly-regarded patristic scholar) pointed out:

Despite claims that the [catacomb] art represents pouring or sprinkling, the hand of the administrator is never shown pouring water but uniformly rests on the head of the baptizand, a feature absent from the Gospel accounts, so drawn from liturgical practice. [emphasis added][ix]

In offering an explanation for the varying amounts of water that is shown in early baptismal imagery, Dr. Ferguson argues that one must certainly appreciate the symbolical aspect of early Christian art:

Some scenes attempt to show a large amount of water...Usually, however, the water is shown only to the feet or at the most to the knees. This accords with the art’s allusive nature, which was designed only to show the presence of water. Since a picture can capture only one moment, a realistic depiction of immersion was not possible, and the representation of a quantity of water was artistically difficult (especially in the case of sculpture). Later representations, however, did succeed in showing the water to the waist or above.[x]

Dr. Robin Jensen[xi] agreed that early Christian artists were not attempting to document history, as it were, stating that their work surely incorporated elements of both realism and imaginative allegory. Moreover, she concluded that virtually all pre-6th century examples appear to be depictions of Jesus' baptism by John, as the regular presence of the Holy Spirit in the form of a hovering dove suggests. She also explained the probable meaning of two common features in these early baptismal scenes—the nudity and diminutive size of Christ:

[In early Christianity] visual imagery never merely retold or condensed a text into corresponding pictorial language, but rather made meaning in its own right—by using symbols and allegories already present in written expressions (narratives, commentaries, etc.) in such a way as to become a communication mode in itself—one that paralleled, commented upon, and explained the text, rather than simply amplifying or serving the text.

...[According to written accounts] in the early church the baptized were disrobed and immersed...Moreover, nearly the only actual early Christian representation of baptism per se portrays John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, who is usually presented as a small nude, childlike figure. John, often identifiable by his animal-skin tunic, places his right hand on top of Jesus’ head, a gesture that may have been intended to suggest the anointing after the immersion, or the laying of hands. According to the Gospel narratives, Jesus was an adult when he was baptized in the Jordan by John. The child-like size and appearance of Jesus in these scenes thus appears to contradict the literary source. Some interpreters have even taken these compositions as evidence of the practice of infant baptism in early Christianity

On the contrary, the most logical explanation of the diminutive size or child-like appearance of Jesus is that the iconography reveals an aspect of the rite itself, an aspect also symbolized by the nudity shown in the image—it returns the candidates to the status of children. The symbol of Jesus here symbolizes all neophytes. As newly born, just emerged from the waters of the font, they are like naked babes. Textual evidence supports this interpretation. In the first week after baptism the newly initiated were referred to as ‘infants’ (infantes) in the west.[xii]

The Importance of Synthesizing the Literary and Artistic Evidence

Expanding on a point made by Jensen, two South African scholars, Drs. Hendrick Stander and Johannes Louw, also stressed the logical necessity of interpreting historical literature and art each in light of the other:

The key is that conclusions drawn from writings and from art should supplement and not contradict each other...Thus it is unlikely that written documents and pieces of art, originating from the same place and period of time, would give contradictory accounts of the world in which they came into being. To interpret the baptismal bearing testimony to the practice of sprinkling and of infant baptism in the church of the first four centuries, would go directly against all the explicit descriptions which we encountered in the writings of the Church Fathers...It is important to realize that pictorial art should be examined in conjunction with explicit verbal descriptions in the related literature, before a painting or sculpture can be analyzed and appreciated. [xiii]

Understanding the Hand-on-Head Pose in Early Baptism

When we consult various early church liturgies in which the act of baptism is in fact described in some detail, then the significance of the hand-on-head pose typical in early baptismal scenes becomes much clearer. Once again, Dr. Ferguson:

[Early literary sources indicate that] the baptizer placed his hand on the head of the candidate, who was standing in the water, when he asked for a confession of faith. The gesture might not only refer to this moment of confession but could also be functional. The triple immersion accompanied the confession, and the administrator’s hand, therefore, was in position to guide the candidate’s head into the water. The hand on the head plunging it into the water would be a natural extension from the self-immersions of Judaism.[xiv]

One such first-hand account is from a document known as the Apostolic Traditions (c.4th century), the basic rudiments of which are often attributed to the Roman presbyter Hippolytus (c.170–236):

When the one being baptized [Latin: baptizatur] goes down into the waters [ aquam], the one who baptizes [baptizat], placing a hand on him [manum—hand—imponens], should say thus: ‘Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?’ And he who is being baptized [baptizatur] should reply, ‘I believe.’

Let him baptize [baptizet] him once immediately, having his hand placed upon his head [manum habens in caput eius inpositam].[xv] And after this he should say: ‘Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God..?’

And when he has said, ‘I believe,’ he is baptized [baptizetur] again. And again he should say: ‘Do you believe in the Holy Spirit..?’ And he who is being baptized [baptizatur] should say: ‘I believe.’ And so he should be baptized [baptizetur] a third time.

And afterwards, when he has come up from the water [ascenderit ungueatur], he is anointed by the presbyter with that sanctified oil...And afterwards, each drying themselves, they shall dress themselves, and afterwards let them go into the church...[xvi]

In commenting on what may be the second-oldest depiction of baptism, Dr. Charles Bigg (1840–1908; Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford University) realized the significance of this particular written account with regard to the pictures of baptism in the Roman catacombs, as both evidently originated in the same general time period and geographic locality. He also noted that the action being referred to in accounts such as Hippolytus' must have been something other than pouring or sprinkling water on the recipient's head, as it seems highly unlikely that the administrator would do so while his own hand was still placed on it:

It has, however, been thought by high authorities that we have a picture of Baptism by Affusion, dating from the second century [i.e., as it was then typically dated; see fig. 2]...Let us pave the way for its consideration by observing that in the Canons of Hippolytus the priest is directed to keep his hand of the head of the baptized throughout the three immersions, an attitude which would be difficult in the case of baptism by affusion...Now in the fresco in question...this appears to be the moment selected for representation.

Wilpert[xvii] gives four other pictures representing Baptism of which three are quite parallel [see figs. 3, 4 - I am uncertain as to what the "3rd" such image was]...In all the moment chosen for representation is the same, and the priest is seen laying his hand on the head of the baptized.[xviii]

The English-Baptist historian Thomas Armitage (1819–96) noted that local (Italian-Catholic) scholars have long interpreted the iconic pose in question here in just such a manner:

...The highest authorities on these works of Christian art tell us, that the hand on the head of the person in the water is the sign of immersion.

Beltrami,[xix] of Ravenna, says of John’s hand on Christ's head in the Arian Mosaic: ‘The priest placed his hand fully upon the head of the candidate while in the water; and thus by three immersions and rapid emersions the baptism was complete.’

Bottani[xx] states that ‘The hand is placed on the head to indicate immersion.’

...Garrucci[xxi] in his history of Christian Art says: ‘That the laying on of the hand was customary and of special moment in immersion.’

Cardinal Colonna[xxii] writes: ‘The Catechumens... descended into the water of the baptistery, and were there immersed three times; the priest accompanying the act with his hand, and invoking at each immersion the name of one of the persons of the Holy Trinity.’

And De Rossi[xxiii] warns us that ‘We ought not to confound the imposition of the right hand with which the ministrant accompanies the immersion of the candidate with what the bishop does in the case of the neophyte, as he emerges from the water, and is clothed in white at the confirmation.’[xxiv]

Most importantly, we find direct literary evidence that Christians of the period would have interpreted this pose relative to John’s baptism of Jesus in such a manner when we consider a correspondent 4th or 5th century homily[xxv] in which the interaction between the two subjects was dramatized thusly:[xxvi]

[Jesus speaking] ‘Lend me, therefore, O Baptist [Greek: Baptista—a baptizer; i.e., ‘one who baptizo-s’], thy right hand [deksion—the right hand] for the present economy [oikonomian—dispensation; administration; plan], even as Mary lent her womb for my birth. Immerse me in the streams of Jordan [kataduson—plunge; submerge—es tois Iordanou reithrois], even as she who bore me wrapped me [eneilsse—enwrap; cover up] in children’s swaddling-clothes. Grant me thy baptism [baptisma] even as the Virgin granted me her milk.

Lay hold of [krateson—have dominion over; hold firmly] this head [kepsalen—head] of mine, which the seraphim revere. With thy right hand [deksias] lay hold [krateson] on this head [inferred from the previous clause], that is related to thyself in kinship...Baptize [baptison (baptizo)] me, who am destined to baptize [baptizein] those who believe on me with water, and with the Spirit, and with fire.’

...On hearing these words, the Baptist [Baptistes] directed his mind to the object of the salvation...and stretching forth [ekteinas—to stretch out] slowly his right hand [deksian], which seemed both to tremble and to rejoice, he baptized [ebaptisen (baptizo)] the Lord.[xxvii]

We find continuing, clear evidence of what might best be described as “baptism by a prompted self-immersion with the administrator’s hand positioned on the recipients head in an exceptionally detailed baptismal liturgy written by the patristic father Theodore (c.350–428), an early Bishop of Mopsuestia (central Asia Minor):[xxviii]

So it is because Christ our Lord has abolished the power of death by his own resurrection that St. Paul says: ‘All of us who have been baptized in Christ Jesus were baptized into his death’; we know he means that Christ our Lord has already abolished death.

Believing this we come to him for baptism, because we wish now to share in his death so as to share like him in the resurrection from the dead. So when I am baptized and put my head under the water, I wish to receive the death and burial of Christ our Lord, and I solemnly profess my faith in his resurrection; when I come up from the water, this is a sign that I believe I am already risen...At the time I have already explained to you, you go down into the water that has already been blessed by the bishop.

...Then the bishop lays his hand on your head with the words, ‘In the name of the Father,’ and while pronouncing them pushes you down into the water.[xxix] You obediently follow the signal he gives by word and gesture, and bow down under the water. You incline your head to show your consent and to acknowledge the truth of the bishop’s words that you receive the blessings of baptism from the Father...You bow your head when you immerse yourself...

You bow down under the water, then lift your head again. Meanwhile the bishop says, ‘And of the Son,’ and guides you with his hand as you bend down into the water as before.

...You raise your head, and again the bishop says, ‘And of the Holy Spirit,’ pressing you down into the water again with his hand. You bend beneath the water again...Then you come up out of the font to receive the completion of the mystery.

...Three times you immerse yourself, each time performing the same action, once in the name of the Father, once in the name of the Son and once in the name of the Holy Spirit.[xxx]

The 5th Century Mosaic of Christ's Baptism in the Orthodox Baptistery of Ravenna

Even though what it presently depicts is noticeably different from virtually every other baptismal scene of the period (as well as those previous), a 5th century mosaic in the orthodox baptistery in Ravenna (Italy) is often said to provide the most compelling proof of all that pouring was regularly used in the early church. [See fig. 5] For example, Dr. Old stated:[xxxi]

Perhaps the most remarkable picture of a baptism is in the ceiling of the Baptistery of the Orthodox at Ravenna [xxxii]...Clearly the baptisms performed in this baptistery were immersions. In the center of the room was a large pool obviously used for immersions. How is it, then, that the picture of the baptism of Christ in the ceiling, put there to be seen by those who being baptized as they were laid into the water, is a baptism not by immersion but by pouring?

The answer is simple. The traditional picture of baptism had evolved at a time when pouring was the normal way to baptize. The traditional icon must have evolved in the second century; by the third century we find traces of it all over the Empire. Here we have clear evidence that in the second century baptism was most often performed by pouring.[xxxiii]

Any questionable inferences aside, many historians have noted that this particular art specimen has suffered much physical degradation over the centuries. As a result it has undergone numerous “restorations.” For instance, Dr. Wolfred Cote (d.1877), a Baptist scholar and missionary who resided in Rome, wrote:

Much stress has been laid by some writers on the fact, that in these mosaics, which are of great antiquity, John is represented as pouring water on the Savior’s head; therefore, they conclude that baptism in primitive times was administered both by immersion and affusion.

It is well to note, however, that the mosaics of this baptistery have been repeatedly restored, and well informed critics are of the opinion that unwarrantable additions and alterations have been made in this magnificent work by incompetent artists. These restorations have been rendered necessary by the leaky condition of the cupola, a defect which unfortunately still exists.

...Thus we may be indebted to a restorer for the cup, which John holds in his right hand, and the jeweled cross in his left, for in every other painting of the same period, he is represented holding a reed in his left hand, and placing his right on the Savior’s head. The mosaics of this famed baptistery have therefore lost much of their archaeological value, in consequence of these restorations and alterations.[xxxiv]

In their well-known documentary on the history of Italian art, Joseph Crowe (1825–96) and Giovanni Cavalceaselle (1820–97) similarly noted:

We may be indebted to a restorer for this strange addition [the bejeweled cross] to the mosaic of the Baptism...In the central baptism, the head, shoulders and right arm of the figure of the Savior, the head, shoulders, right arm, the right leg and foot of the Baptist, and the cross in his right hand have been repaired, and thus the type and character of the heads may have been altered.[xxxv]

The main area of the mosaic affected by these restorations can in fact be made out quite easily in modern photographs of it.[xxxvi] The German art historian Dr. Josef Strzygowski (1862–1941), who undertook a specialized study of early Christian imagery directly related to Jesus’ baptism, stated of this particular specimen:

In the existing mosaic John holds in his outstretched right hand a flat shell, out of which he pours water on the head of Christ. This mode of conception, as in the Lateran sarcophagus, is furnished by a restorer of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries,[xxxvii] who paid no regard to the original representations. The evidence of this is in the fact that there are not to be found in Italy or elsewhere before this period, any representation in which John administered baptism to the Redeemer by pouring water from a flat shell on his head.[xxxviii]

Dr. Earl Smith (1888–1956), who chaired the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University, believed the mosaic in Ravenna’s Arian baptistery—in which Jesus’ baptism is depicted in the traditional manner [see fig. 6]—would have replicated its slightly earlier catholic counterpart, as it originally existed:

The two scenes of the Baptism on the fifth century mosaics of San Giovanni in Fonte [i.e orthodox] and the Arian Baptistery (Santa Maria in Cosmedin) at Ravenna show a strange mixture of Eastern and Western features. The restorations of the mosaics of San Giovanni have greatly altered the iconography. It is probable, however, that the scene of the Baptism in Santa Maria in Cosmedin is a copy of the earlier scene in San Giovanni in Fonte.

Such being the case, we may with Strzygowski ascribe to the restoration of the earlier mosaic the patera [shallow dish] in the hand of the Baptist, the substitution of the cross for the pedum [shepherd’s crook], and the placing of the nimbus [halo] on John’s head.[xxxix]

Some local historical references also deserve consideration in this matter. Foremost would be the manner in which Peter Chrysologus (c.380–c.451)—the Bishop of Ravenna at the approximate time when the original orthodox mosaic was being created—homiletically described John’s baptism:

He [John] went to the Jordan, because a water jar could no longer wash away the filth of the Jews, but only a river could [Latin: sordes non poterat hydria jam lavare, sed flumen].[xl]

With specific regard to Jesus’ baptism, he vividly wrote:

And so that this mystery of awesome mercy would be evident, Zechariah, your son [John] submerges his Lord in the baptism of repentance [tuus filius suum Dominum paenitentiae demergit in baptisma]...[xli]

As for the baptismal practice of his own church, Chrysologus declared:

Let the faithful listen and learn how the three days the Lord spent in the grave are represented by the triple immersion in baptism [Domini sepultura trina demersione figuratur in baptismo].[xlii]

In addition, an ivory relief of Jesus’ baptism is featured on the highly ornate 6th century cathedra (“throne”) of a succeeding Bishop of Ravenna, Maximianus (499–556). Here the scene is once again depicted in the classical manner, with Jesus standing in the water (which, as in the case of the two baptistery mosaics, is waist-deep) while John’s right hand rests firmly on the Savior’s head.[xliii]

On the whole, then, a careful review of all the historical evidence strongly suggests that, just like all of the other similarly themed art of the period, the mosaic in the orthodox baptistery of Ravenna originally depicted John’s right hand resting on Jesus’ head, in preparation for an assisted immersion.

What then do the Emanations Sometimes Shown Proceeding from the Hovering Dove Represent?

It is certain that the hovering dove shown in early portrayals of Jesus’ baptism is a representation of the Holy Spirit, in accordance with what is described in each of the four Gospels.[xliv] There have , however, been varying ideas as to how the emanations shown proceeding from the dove in many of these scenes should be interpreted. As we have already noted, some observers have obviously taken this feature as a depiction of the waters of baptism being poured down upon the Savior’s head.

Yet a more probable answer seems to present itself if we again consent to be guided by the way patristic writers often figuratively described that aspect of the event. For instance, the 4th century theologian Optatus of Milevis (modern Algeria) vividly wrote:

The heaven is open. When God anoints [Latin: ungente] him [Jesus] the spiritual oil [spiritale oleum] at once comes down under the form of a dove [descendit imagine columbae] and sits upon his head [insedit capiti ejus] and pours over [perfundit] him; the oil [oleo] is spread asunder; whence he began to be called Christ, for he was anointed [unctus] by God the Father.[xlv]

Peter Chrysologus—again, the Bishop of Ravenna at about the time the orthodox baptistery there was being adorned with its original iconography—employed the same graphic allegory:

Today [at Jesus’ baptism] the Holy Spirit hovers in the form of a dove over the waters [Latin: Spiritus sanctus supernatat aquis in specie columbae]...But this dove does not, like the first, bear a mere twig of the old olive-tree [Genesis 8:11], but pours [fundit] the whole fatness of the new unction [novi chrismatis] upon the head [in caput] of its author [parentis], that it may fulfill what the prophet foretold: ‘Wherefore God, even thy God, hath anointed [unxit] thee with the oil of gladness [oleo laetitiae] above thy fellows.’ [Psalm 45:7] [xlvi]

In light of descriptions like these it seems almost certain that the rays (cf. fig. 4) or flow (cf. figs. 4, 6) which are sometimes shown proceeding from the dove in early baptismal scenes are artistic portrayals of the “shedding forth” of the Holy Spirit upon the Son, as opposed to being directly related to his physical baptism with water—the former aspect of the event being represented by the water in which Jesus stands. If this is indeed the case, then even John’s placement of the patera between the dove and Christ’s head in the modified picture at Ravenna might be interpreted as relating to an anointing with oil.[xlvii] Such a concept would certainly correspond with what had become an important feature in many baptismal ceremonies from around the mid-3rd century onward.[xlviii]

The 2nd Baptismal Mosaic in The Catacomb of St. Callisto

Next to the mosaic in Ravenna's orthodox baptistery, perhaps the example of early art most appealed to as proof that pouring was common in the early church is a picture that is again found in the Roman Catacomb of San Callisto (Room 21; c. 3rd century [see Fig. 2]) In this instance Christ is shown standing in water that is only shin-deep, while additional “lines” of water surround his head and sides. Some have again taken this as depicting the water which John had just poured over Jesus, which is then flowing off of him.[xlix] Others have suggested that it may depict the water flowing off of Jesus’ body as he emerges from his just completed immersion.[l] However, the considerable amount of water depicted, and the fact that it is made to arc well above the head, seems to discourage these largely literal interpretations (with the latter view also discounting the shin-deep water).

An alternative explanation which seems to have greater plausibility is that this was a largely figurative way of showing Christ surrounded with water in simple representation of the concept of immersion. If such is in fact the case, then it may be an early precursor to a motif that was employed with some frequency in later baptismal scenes, in which the water is crudely (and rather unnaturally) shown rising up and surrounding the baptized person. In any event, the administrator’s hand is again in the traditional position of resting on Jesus’ head, rather than being raised above it as if ready to, or having just engaged in the act of pouring.


In conclusion, it is important that written and pictorial data coming from the same period of history be treated as complimentary, rather than separate or adversarial forms of evidence. In so doing, there seems little reason to disagree with Philip Schaff’s appraisal of the early evidences concerning the mode of baptism, even though he was writing in 1885:[li]

...The Didache, the catacomb pictures, and the teaching of the fathers, Greek and Latin, are in essential harmony on this point, and thus confirm one another. They all bear witness to trine immersion as the rule, and affusion or pouring as the exception. This view is supported by the best scholars, Greek, Latin, and Protestant.[lii]

Perhaps then the various forms of historical evidence can be seen as functioning in a way similar to how various parts of the Bible correspond with each other. By design some books are primarily historical in their perspective, while others are written in doctrinal, pastoral, prophetic, and even poetic prose—each so as to most effectively convey an intended message. Yet appreciating the form and intent of each genre is necessary in order to grasp how its particular message cohesively, and without contradiction fits into the overall picture.

[i] The term non-immersionist is used in this article to broadly designate those who would say that immersion is not necessary for a proper baptism, and that pouring and/or sprinkling are wholly equal and perhaps even preferable modes. Immersionist is used of those who would see dipping/immersion as the necessary or strongly preferable mode for baptism. Neither term is meant to convey anything derogatory or pejorative toward these positions, or any person who may hold them.

[ii] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in The Sixteenth Century, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), 272.

[iii] Robert Charles Sproul, Tabletalk, (Mary Park, FL: Ligonier Ministries, September, 2006), 48.

[iv] Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia-[Baptism; The Reformed View], (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 1:419.

[v] Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, Studies in Theology, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932), 361.

[vi] Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1981), 46; C.F. Rogers, Baptism and Christian Archaeology [1903], (reprint; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2006), 18f.

[vii] Philip Schaff, The Oldest Church Manual Called the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1885), 37.

[viii] H. Old, The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite, 271.

[ix] Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 125.

[x] E. Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church, 124f.

[xi] Dr. Jensen is Luce Chancellor’s Professor of the History of Christian Worship and Art, at Vanderbilt University Divinity School (Nashville, TN).

[xii] Robin M. Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000), 5, 177f.

[xiii] Hendrick F. Stander, Johannes P. Louw, Baptism in the Early Church, (Webster, NY: Carey Publications, 2004), 174f.

[xiv] E. Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church, 126.

[xv] The English liturgist Dr. Darwell Stone (1859–1941; Roman Catholic) translated this phrase: “Then he is immersed in the water for the first time, while he (i.e. the presbyter) leaves his hand upon his head.” (Holy Baptism, [London, England: Longman’s, Green, & Co., 1905], 286).

[xvi] Apostolic Traditions, 21.10f, (Alistair Stewart-Sykes, Hippolytus; On the Apostolic Tradition, [New York, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001], 111f).

[xvii] Joseph Wilpert (1857–1954) was a German-Catholic archeologist who extensively studied the Roman catacombs. He was among those who have interpreted their baptismal scenes as evidence that pouring was the normal mode in the early church. Bigg was referring to Wilpert’s work, Die Malereien der Katacomben Roms, (Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: 1903).

[xviii] J.F. Bethune-Baker, F.E. Brightman, eds., The Journal of Theological Studies, (London: MacMillan & Co., Ltd., 1904), 5:580f.

[xix] Francesco Beltrami (1748–1802) was an Italian-Catholic abbot who wrote a famous guidebook to the historical sites of Ravenna. (Forestiere Instruite delie Cose Notabili delia Citta di Ravenna e Suburbane Della Medesima, [Ravenna, Italy: Stamperia Roveri presso, 1783].)

[xx] Giovanni Bottani (1725–1804) was a Roman Catholic art historian and papal librarian.

[xxi] Raffaele Garrucci (1812–85) was a Roman Catholic art historian who authored numerous books on the subject, including the one mentioned, Storia della Arte Christiana (Prato, Italy: 1873–81; 6 vols.).

[xxii] It is unclear to me which Cardinal Colonna is being referred to, as the source is identified only with a minimal abbreviation. At least 18 members of the powerful Colonna family were appointed to the cardinalate in the 13th to 18th centuries, with one, Oddone, even becoming pope (Martin V [1417–31]).

[xxiii] Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822–94) was the Italian Catholic archeologist who discovered and explored a number of the Roman catacombs. He wrote about his findings in his famous documentary, Roma Sotterranea Cristiana, (Rome: 1864–77; 3 vols.).

[xxiv] Thomas Armitage, A History of the Baptists, (New York, NY: Bryan, Taylor & Co., 1887), 274f.

[xxv] This homily has traditionally been attributed to Gregory of Neo-Caesarea (a.k.a. Gregory Thaumaturgus—“the Wonderworker; c.213–c.270 AD). However, it is now generally held to have been written sometime later by an unidentified Christian writer. (See, E. Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, 747.)

[xxvi] Cf.; Chrysostom, Baptismal Homilies, 11.13. Also, the most renowned Christian hymnist of the 4th century, Ephrem the Syrian (c.306–373), lyrically wrote: “Blessed are you [John], even you, a barren woman’s son, whose hand was made worthy to be placed upon his [Jesus’] head. You baptized the Baptizer...Blessed are you, little Jordan River, into which the Flowing Sea [i.e. Jesus] descended and was baptized...Blessed are your torrents, cleansed by his descent. For the Holy One, who condescended to bathe in you, descended to open by his baptism, the baptism for the pardoning of souls.” (Hymns on Virginity, 15.1, 3; Kathleen E. McVey, Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns, [New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1989], 325f.)

[xxvii] Four Homilies, 4; On the Holy Theophany, or, On Christ’s Baptism; Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, The Ante-Nicean Fathers, (Buffalo, NY: The Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), 6:70.

[xxviii] Theodore’s original writings were in Greek. However, the oldest surviving translations are in Syriac, for which English transliterations are not readily available. For those qualified to evaluate it, the full Syriac text is given in Alphonse Mingana’s, Commentary of Theodore of Mopsuestia on the Lord’s Prayer and on the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist [Woodbrooke Studies, Vol. 6], (Cambridge, England: W. Heffer & Sons, 1933).

[xxix] Alphonse Mingana translates this phrase: “The priest places his hand on your head and says ‘of the Father,’ and with these words causes you to immerse yourself in water...” (Commentary of Theodore of Mopsuestia on the Lord’s Prayer and on the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, 62).

[xxx] Baptismal Homilies, 3.5, 9, 18, 19, 20 [Catechetical Homilies, 14]; Edward Yarnald, The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation: Baptismal Homilies of the Fourth Century, (Slough, England: St. Paul Press, 1972), 192ff.

[xxxi] Dr. Old posits the somewhat unusual theory that the use of immersion has periodically “waxed and waned” throughout church history. More specifically, it is suggested that in the 1st century “immersion was used normally”—although not exclusively—but by the 2nd century pouring came to dominate, as appears to be shown in early Christian art. Then, based on the evidence of literary accounts, “by the third and surely the fourth century immersion [again] became the preferred mode.” Immersion then “held sway for the next six to eight centuries,” after which time pouring and sprinkling were yet again returned to prominence. (The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite, 268ff).

[xxxii] For the satisfaction of the curious, the third figure in both the orthodox and Arian baptistery scenes of Jesus’ baptism (as well as many other Latin depictions of that event) is a personification of the “River Jordan,” shown in the traditional Roman style of a bearded old man holding a river rush.

[xxxiii] H. Old, The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite, 271f.

[xxxiv] Wolfred Nelson Cote, The Archeology of Baptism, (London: Yates & Alexander, 1876), 177f.

[xxxv] Joseph Archer Crowe, Giovanni Battista Cavalceaselle, A New History of Painting in Italy, (London: J. M. Dent & Co., 1908), 1:19.

[xxxvi] See fig. 5—note the area with lighter background tiles in the upper and central sections of the image, inside of which most ofl the questionable features are found.

Dr. Spiro Kostof (1936–91), a Greek architectural historian who did an extensive study of the orthodox structure, created a diagram showing where he believed “modern restoration” has affected the mosaic, in which this large area is distinctly included. (See, The Orthodox Baptistery of Ravenna, [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965], Fig. 42b—in the picture section towards the back of the book.)

[xxxvii] Such a timeframe is in line with the fact that a drawing in a late 17th century documentary of Italy’s historical architecture and art depicts the mosaic’s main features as they presently exist. (Giovanni Giusto Ciampini [1633–98], Vetera Monimenta in Quibus Paecipue Musiva Opera Sacrarum, [Rome: Joannis Jacobi Komarek Bohemi, 1690], Vol. 1, tab. 70 [in the picture folios following p.234]).

The eminent archeologist Dr. Johannes Ficker (1861–1944; German Lutheran) likewise believed the work that effected these changes was done sometime “anterior” to Ciampini’s documentation. (See; The American Journal of Archaeology, [Boston, MA: Ginn & Co., 1888], Vol. 4, 114.) In light of Strzygowski’s dating it is also interesting to recall that the first church synod to explicitly put affusion on fully equal terms with immersion was held in the early 14th century—incidentally, in Ravenna.

The revised features of the mosaic were also commented on in the mid 18th century by the Roman Catholic antiquarian Paul Maria Paciaudi (1710–85)—who obviously found them quite distressing:

“The Baptist pours water from a small vessel upon Christ’s head...But what monstrous notions do such representations convey! Was Christ the Lord baptized by aspersion? So far is this from the truth that nothing can be more contrary to it. This thing ought to be contributed to the error and ignorance of the artisans, who, either because they are often ignorant of history, or because they deem themselves at liberty to be presumptuous in any respect they please, sometimes wonderfully misrepresent what they depict...One follows the example of another, and the latter shuns not by proper correction the mistake of the former.” (James Chrystal, A History of the Modes of Christian Baptism, [Philadelphia. PA: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1861], 231.)

[xxxviii] Josef Strzygowski, Iconographie der Taufe Christi, (Munich, Germany: Verlaf von Theodor Riedel, 1885), 10. English translation, E. Dodge; J.R. Baumes, ed, The Baptist Quarterly Review, (Cincinnati, OH: J.R. Baumes, 1887), 9:402.)

[xxxix] Earl B. Smith, Early Christian Iconography, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1918), 82.

[xl] Sermons, 137; William B. Palardy, The Fathers of the Church [Vol. 3]: St. Peter Chrysologus; Selected Sermons, (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005), 21o

[xli] Sermons, 90; W. Palardy, St. Peter Chrysologus; Selected Sermons, 82.

[xlii] Sermons, 113; W. Palardy, St. Peter Chrysologus; Selected Sermons, 148.

[xliii] See; C. F. Rogers, Baptism and Christian Archaeology, 52 [fig. 39].

[xliv] Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:21–22; John 1:32.

[xlv] Against the Donatists, 4.7; Maxwell E. Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007), 188.

[xlvi] Sermons, 160; The Bibliotheca Sacra, G. Frederick Wright, Z. Swift Holbrook, eds., (Oberlin, OH: Bibliotheca Sacra Co., 1898), 55:24.

[xlvii] For a detailed case for such an interpretation, see Howard Osgood’s (1831–1911; Baptist) article in, The Bibliotheca Sacra (1898), 55:14–28.

[xlviii] The traditional anointing with oil could either precede and/or follow the actual baptism with water. Cf; Tertullian, The Chaplet (or, The Crown), 3.4, On Baptism, 7; Hippolytus, Fragments: On Susannah, 18; Origen, Homilies on Leviticus, 8.11; Cyprian of Carthage, Letters, 69, 73 (or 74); Apostolic Constitutions, 3.17; Synod of Laodicea (c.381 AD), Canons, 48; Athanasius, Against the Arians, 1.12.2; Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 3.4, 17.14, 21.1, 3, 5, 6; Basil, On the Holy Spirit, 27; Gregory Nazianzen, Orations, 40.15, 16; Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit, 2.14.96; Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans, 1.1; Augustine, On the Trinity, 15.26.46; Theodore of Mopsuestia, Baptismal Homilies, 3.14; et al. Also see, E. Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church, 855.

[xlix] C. F. Rogers, Baptism and Christian Archaeology, 5; cf., B. B. Warfield, Studies in Theology, 366f.

[l] Cf. E. Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church, 124f.

[li] The remarks given here are also in line with those Schaff made in his most famous work, A History of the Christian Church (1:70).

[lii] P. Schaff, Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, 42.



The following segment contains artistic depictions of the 2nd and 3rd Persons of the Trinity (as well as nudity). Such portrayals are believed by some Christians to be a breach of the 2nd Commandment. Generally, I have some strong predilections along these same lines myself. However, I would respectfully suggest that there is an allowable difference between viewing such artifacts for the purpose of trying to understand, and thus be informed by their historical significance, as opposed to using them as articles of religious devotion, to draw personal inspiration from, or out of gratuitous curiosity. In this regard it may be pointed out that a number of full-confessionalists (e.g. Warfield) have evidently viewed some of the same pictures that are shown here for the same purposes of discussion that I have suggested. Still, others will undoubtedly disagree with even making such exceptions as these. Viewers are encouraged to act in accordance with their own, biblically-informed conscience in this matter.

[Note: The identity and dating of these specimens are based on E. Ferguson's, Baptism in the Early Church.]

Fig. 1. This picture of Jesus’ baptism is on a tomb in the Catacomb of San Callisto, Rome (Room 1; c. early 3rd century). It is believed by many scholars to be the oldest surviving example of early Christian art with a baptismal theme. The upper picture is how it now exists, while the lower one is an artists' enhancement of what it may have originally looked like.

Fig. 2. Another portrayal of Jesus' baptism in the Catacomb of San Callisto (Room 21; c. 3rd century). The first rendering shows the entire specimen, while the second is a close-up of the baptismal figures under more intense, specialized lighting. The figure on the far left is most likely a personification of the “River Jordan,” as it is consistent with the traditional Latin style of representing that suject by an old man holding a river rush. (cf. figs. 5 & 6.) Also note the (now very faint) dove to the right of John's head.

Fig. 3. A third picture of Jesus' baptism in the Catacomb of San Callisto (Room 12; c. 3rd century). There is a somewhat difficult to make out, greyish dove immediately above and very slightly to the right of the head of the infantile Christ.

Fig. 4. Baptism of Christ, Catacomb of SS. Pietro e Marcellino (Room 43; c. 4th century). Note the administrator's hand on the recipient's head.

Fig. 5. Orthodox Baptistery at Ravenna, Italy (c. 451 AD). Note the lighter background tiles in the upper-central portion of the mosaic, which shows the main area that has been affected by later restorations.

Fig. 6.

Arian Baptistery at Ravenna (c. 495-500 AD).