By Hillary Asbury –
My favorite thing about studying in Italy was getting the chance to travel and see religious art and architecture around the country.
The history was so rich, and I absolutely relished being surrounded by it. Everywhere I traveled there was a main cathedral, usually at the city center, always referred to as the “Duomo,” not for the often domed architecture but for the Latin word for “house.” As the city’s main dwelling place of God, it was often built imposingly large, made to be visible (and the campanile, or bell tower, heard) from any point in the city. It was a beacon, the center of daily life.
What fascinated me most about the duomos were their baptistries, which were built as separate structures.
It was forbidden at the time to enter a cathedral unbaptized which, as I understand it, was symbolic of the idea that we must be baptized to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In order to accommodate this, baptistries were built outside of the cathedral, resulting in some of the richest imagery and symbolism I saw during my travels.
Almost every baptistry I visited was built as an octagon.
I’ve been told this symbolizes new life and resurrection, either by adding one to the Hebrew number of completion (seven) to represent a complete life cycle and new birth or by referencing the eight souls God saved in sparing Noah and his family from the flood. Some baptistries are small, intimate spaces with limited standing room around a central font. Some are large and built like stand alone chapels, with rows of pews facing an altar. Some contain modest frescoes depicting the Baptism of our Lord. Some glitter with opulent gold mosaics, arranged in imagery which tells the entire Gospel story. Many are lined with symbolic artwork, showing floods of water and the new life of budding plants.
Big or small, ornate or humble, with each baptistry I visited, the feeling that overwhelmed me was one of comfort.
Every aspect of the architecture revealed the purpose of the structure. Every image reminded me of who I am in the waters of my Baptism. Living in a foreign country, I often felt out of place. As much as I loved Italy and its culture, it was sometimes quite clear that I was an outsider. At the same time, I didn’t quite feel able to connect with life back home either. My experiences and ideas were changing so rapidly that it was sometimes hard to tell who I was at all. But then I would step into one of these beautiful baptistries and immediately know that the only identity that mattered was the one given to me by my God. I was baptized. Saved. Set apart.
As I stood in buildings dedicated to the saving of souls, I was moved by artwork which told me in no uncertain terms that I was a child of God.
This is why liturgical art can be so important. I had found myself in a peculiar situation where I had no one speaking my identity to me in terms that I could understand. I was isolated from the comfort of my home church, with limited alternatives. I often felt lost. But I was surrounded by artwork which transcended language and cultural barriers, artwork which spoke the Gospel and pointed me straight to Christ.