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Kirchengeschichte: Alte Kirche, Christliche Archäologie


Jensen, Robin M.


Living Water. Images, Symbols, and Settings of Early Christian Baptism.


Leiden/Boston: Brill 2010. XXV, 305 S. m. Abb. 24,0 x 16,0 cm = Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae, 105. Geb. EUR 119,00. ISBN 978-90-04-18898-3.


Olof Brandt

This book by Robin M. Jensen is a largely successful attempt to combine the study of textual evidence with that of visual art and physical environments connected to the liturgical theology and ritual practice of baptism in the early Church. J. is a well-known scholar in the field of Early Christian Iconography, where she has investigated how art and texts, patristic and liturgical sources should best be stud­ied together, for example in »Understanding Early Christian Art« (2000). This book is an edited and updated version of her doc­toral dissertation (1991). Her declared aim is to produce an interdisci­plinary analysis of the Christian baptismal ritual from the third through the sixth century C. E. During the last century, a great number of studies have been dedicated to depictions of baptism in Early Christian art and to Early Christian baptisteries. The originality of the approach in this book is that J. examines all this material to­-gether as a source for the history of theology and liturgy. J. treats the works of art prior to the texts, intending in this way to »counter the text historian’s tendency to explain religiously inspired iconography by immediate recourse to literary evidence.« The book is richly il­-lus­trated in black-and-white, mostly with photos made by J.
In the first chapter, J. examines catacomb paintings of baptism from the third and fourth centuries (Chapter one. Baptismal Iconography in Catacomb Painting). Her detailed discussion of how all details of these paintings should be interpreted leads her to the conclusion, that these paintings neither illustrate the scriptural accounts of the baptism of Jesus, nor depicts contemporary prac­-tice. »The images had a two-fold purpose: to remind the viewer of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism and to associate that foun­dational moment with the subsequent baptism of new Christians […] conflating a foundational event with a timeless liturgical action«.
The following chapter (Chapter two. Baptismal Iconography on Sarcophagus and Grave Reliefs) examines sarcophagi, mainly from Arles and Rome, from the late third to the early fifth century, and concludes that it is possible to see an evolution: elements with philosophical associations in the earlier examples show »a concern with the salvation of the individual soul – and baptism’s guarantee of that salvation«, while later sarcophagi with depictions of baptism also feature Jesus’ foot washing and Pilate’s hand washing, associating baptism with Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection.
In the next chapter (Chapter three. Baptismal Iconography in Ivory, Glass, and Mosaic), J. discusses how, in the mid-fifth century, the baptismal theme finds its way into glass mosaics and ivory carvings. These later images seem to be more closely related to the biblical narratives of Christ’s baptism. The examples span from the famous ivory casket from Samagher to the dome mosaics in the baptisteries of the Orthodox and the Arians in Ravenna. Particular questions treated separately include the dove, representing the Holy Spirit, from the beak of which a liquid is pouring over Jesus, angels, and the personification of the Jordan river.
This reviewer finds that the fourth chapter (Chapter four. As­pects of Baptismal Images in Light of Early Liturgical Documents) is the most interesting in the entire book, because with a highly original approach, she discusses how the material evidence can be used as a source for the study of the liturgy, not only as an illustration of detailed liturgical texts which usually are much later. She rightly stresses that the pictures are not simply documentation of contemporary ritual practice. For example, in the fourth century, baptism had moved indoors, but the iconography continued to depict baptism as an outdoor event. J. discusses what the images can tell not only about how water was used in the rite, but also how it was viewed and sanctified, and makes interesting comparisons with Jewish purificatory baths, which she knows well. The images suggest that water was poured upon recipients while they stood in the font, but the differences between images and texts show that there must have been different ways of performing baptism. Interesting­ly, J. concludes this chapter stating that »the amount of correspondence between iconography of baptism and references to ceremo­nial actions or contexts in documentary sources is relatively small.« This confirms of course the importance of studying both materials together and the validity of the approach used in this study.
The last category of material which J. discusses are baptisteries (Chapter five. The Design and Decoration of Early Christian Baptis­teries). After the famous third-century baptistery in Dura Europos in today’s Syria, she presents a selection of buildings in Italy and North Africa. The baptisteries are illustrated with many photos but only few plans and no sections. Her presentation of these baptist-eries is based on an updated bibliography, although her discussion of them is rather traditional. She also accepts some interpretations which have been discarded by most scholars, like the identification of a structure in the Albenga baptistery as a basin for foot washing, although most scholars today interpret is as a relic deposit. She stresses that both the architecture and the decoration of the bap-tis­teries shaped the experience of those who were baptized there.
In the final chapter on symbolism in baptistery design and décor (Chapter six. Symbolism in Baptistery Design and Décor), J. stresses her view that the buildings can be interpreted as symbols, but also that the architecture must have been functional for the movements of the rite, and that the architectural forms must have been well suited to what the rituals meant to the participants. In a rather traditional way, she stresses that the architectural parallels with both baths and mausolea may have enriched the understanding of the meaning of the celebration, but admits that some scholars today prefer a more functional interpretation of the architecture of bap tisteries. She correctly observes that the theological reading of these buildings usually was made »after the fact«. J. shows her great familiarity with the early Christian texts in an excellent overview of the sources on the symbolism of the number 8, which was applied by St. Ambrose to the octagonal baptistery of Milan. She also pres­ents an interesting discussion of North African fonts which can be interpreted as a womb. Individual motifs from baptismal iconog­raphy are discussed in detailed, presenting an excellent and well-written survey of written sources and an updated bibliography on the iconographic and archaeological material.
It is a pity that there is no final chapter with general conclusions, but only partial conclusions at the end of each chapter.
To sum up, this book is well-written, and it is based on an up-dat­ed bibliography in many languages. This makes it a very useful book also in the sections which may be less original. Some parts are highly original and present interesting results of an innovative approach. A future edition can correct some typos especially in foreign names and titles in the bibliography.