Scanning the Baptistery - A Tale of Wonder
January 4, 2018 Day One
“Jet lagged, but determined”
What a day we had.
The ritual of baptism was a crucial feature of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Florence. This symbolic practice carried both a spiritual and social weight integral for full participation in the fabric of Florentine society. Baptism was not only a means of defense against hellfire, but an introduction to civic society and a foundational moment in each individual’s life. While some of the finer details of the practice are unclear to contemporary scholars, we now know that by 1128 the ritual was performed at the octagonal Baptistery of San Giovanni, located directly across from the cathedral.
Christian baptism was first practiced by John the Baptist—patron saint of the city of Florence—as evidenced in the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In these narratives, Jesus sees John baptizing his followers and walks into the River Jordan to participate, thus cementing the ritual as one of the sacraments of the Christian church. In keeping with this tradition, the ritual originally consisted of the individual being immersed in water, signifying the washing away of sin and marking one as both a child of God and a member of the Church, but with the practice changing over time to center on infant baptisms, the ritual cleansing was changed from full immersion to a mere sprinkling of water on the top of the newborn’s head, probably to avoid the embarrassing possibility of accidentally drowning the child who had been brought before the font. Originally, adult baptisms were performed only on Holy Saturday (between Good Friday and Easter Sunday) and the Pentecost vigil, but this changed as the city’s population grew during the late Middle Ages – and as the specter of infant mortality reared its ugly head. As parents sought to preserve the souls of their children and spare them from eternal punishment, babies were often baptized within days of their birth. These doctrinal fears were only exacerbated as the Black Death swept through Europe during the mid-14th century, killing tens of thousands in Florence alone and underscoring the prevailing notion that the only hope lay in the promise of an afterlife – but a promise that could only be sealed through baptism.
The ritual itself began with the parents (usually just the father) and godparents processing through the streets, carrying the child, to the south doors of the baptistery where they would be met by the priest (“Baptism, Movement” 134). After performing a few initial rituals, prayers, and blessings to cleanse the child of unclean spirits, the priest then invited the parent and godparents to bring the child into the baptistery (136-7). Once inside, more prayers were spoken over the child, it was anointed with oil, and finally received the baptism by having water sprinkled or poured on its head while the priest recited the words of Christ from Matthew 28:19 “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (143-9).
The rise of this practice of infant baptism necessarily increased the volume of individuals seeking baptism at San Giovanni, and so by the late 13th century baptisms were held daily instead of only a handful of times a year (“The Two Fonts” 87). The practice of infant baptism also paved the way for the social impact of the ritual; as baptisms were public events, the baptism of a child was her or his introduction to the Florentine community (78). The child publicly received a name during the ritual, while newly appointed godparents stood in attendance, the latter of which were particularly instrumental in the child’s socioeconomic advancement. These godparents were often selected by parents for their communal connections, and could result in the creation or strengthening of financial or political alliances, in much the same way that such connections could be formed through advantageous marriages for children (Haas).
The social importance of baptism was emphasized in the creation of the public fresco of the Abandonment of Children and the Reunification of Families by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini and Ambrogio di Baldese in 1386. Painted on the wall of the Bigallo immediately opposite the south doors of the baptistery, this fresco was displayed to “the most important zone of the piazza” (Bent 95). Portraying members of the Confraterntiy of the Misericordia accepting children into their orphanage and then returning those children to their families, the Abandonment of Children and the Reunification of Families served to remind the caregivers of newly baptized infants of their parental responsibilities, and of the aid offered by the Confraternity should those responsibilities become too burdensome (96). This fresco is one image among many which testifies to the centrality of proper parenting in Florentine society.
Taking place daily, in the center of the city, in front of the greatest church in Florence, the ritual of baptism was a fixture of Renaissance Florence whose practice greatly influenced both the communal and familial spheres of life.
Bent, George. Public Painting and Visual Culture in Early Republican Florence. Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Bloch, Amy R. “Baptism and the frame of the south door of the Baptistery, Florence.” Sculpture Journal, vol. 18, no. 1, 2009, 24-37.
———-. “Baptism, Movement, and Imagery at the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence.” Meaning in Motion: The Semantics of Movement in Medieval Art. Edited by Giovanni Freni and Nino Zchomelidse, Princeton, 2011, 131-60.
———-. “The Two Fonts of the Florence Baptistery and the Evolution of the Baptismal Rite in Florence, ca. 1200-1500.” The Visual Culture of Baptism in the Middle Ages: Essays on Medieval Fonts, Settings and Beliefs. Edited by Harriet M. Sonne de Torrens and Miguel A. Torrens, Ashgate, 2013, 73-104.
Haas, Louis. “Il Mio Buono Compare: Choosing Godparents and the Uses of Baptismal Kinship in Renaissance Florence.” Journal of Social History, vol. 29, no. 2, 1995, 341-56.