Monday, July 2, 2012
Gateway to the Duomo
Whether you've ever noticed it or not, usually the first thing you stumble into upon entering a Catholic church is the baptistery. Eight-sided in ancient days (everything at that time was intentional – the octagon walls symbolized the eighth day, the day beyond the normal week, the day that would not end, but was joined forever to resurrected glory). I've pictured the octagonal dome of the Duomo's baptistery here.
At the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame, you literally trip over the font when walking through the front door. (It actually didn't start out there; for a while it was in one of the western apsidal chapels). But it didn't take long for the priorities, and the furniture, to be moved to its proper place.
The parish church we attend (when we're not at the Basilica), St. Pius X in Granger, is much the same way. You walk into the Vestibule, and there it is, right next to the entrance of the Church. For those of you who've been to Saint Mary's College across the street from Notre Dame, you see that the font is actually on an axis with the altar of the chapel.
Even if all this weren't the case, there is this profound baptismal font which everyone knows of (but maybe never made the connection). It is the little bowl of holy water that is placed next to each entrance of a church. What do you do when you pass by it? You put your fingers in and make the sign of the cross – recalling the very gestures of your own baptism.
In olden days of the church, many baptistries were separated from the main church. Partly this was because initiation rites were long and complicated, involving full immersion of the candidate, and being robed in a new, white garment.
And partly, I think, they were built this way to give the sacrament its due – then as now, it is a radical call to conversion.
The Duomo in Firenze is a stunning example of a baptistery... It stands, literally, just down the steps from the Cathedral's front door, and in the heart of the plaza (named for John the Baptist, who is the patron saint of Florence).
The doors, pictured here, are copies of the original bronze doors created by Ghiberti in the 1400's. As portals, they illustrated the life of Christ (if you zoom in, you can see images of Jesus calming the angry sea, and chasing merchants from the Temple). These doors led the candidate for baptism into the sacramental mystery about to take place.
And were you to be baptized there, after you emerged from the waters, you would look up to what I've pictured here: a dazzling ceiling of Christ and all the angels, looking down and blessing what just took place.
The catechetical literature on this beautiful site concludes their description with a quote from the twelfth chapter from the Book of Hebrews: "with so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us, we too then... keep running steadily in the race we have started, our gaze fixed on Jesus."
Hmmm. Reminds me of some lyrics sung by my favorite choir back at Notre Dame (whom I miss very much!)
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