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The Microarchitectural Stage-Management of Baptism from Lateran IV to the Counter-Reformation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 April 2020

Department of History of Arts, University of Michigan, 110 Tappan Hall, 855 South University Avenue, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1357


Although not liturgically mandated, the ostentatious microarchitectural font cover became one of the most significant ecclesiastical furnishings of the later Middle Ages. In fact, as a church fixture it survived well into the seventeenth century, not only in Catholic but also in Protestant regions, even though its eye-catching forms represented an obvious target for radical reformers and iconoclasts. Despite their enduring presence and their obvious importance to the communities that erected them, font covers remain little researched and understood. Revolving around a discussion of their intensely visual nature, this article is an attempt at a first outline of a history of this fascinating genre of church furnishing.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2020

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For A and Z. Heartfelt thanks to Robert Bork of the University of Iowa, Silvia Schlegel of the Museum Schloss Kyburg, Zürich, and the anonymous reviewer for their comments and suggestions.


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11 Bond, Fonts and font covers, 281, 284. For other examples see pp. 368–9, 600, 615, 1006, 1082.

12 For examples see Schlegel, Mittelalterliche Taufgefäße, 216–22, and Rerdam, Holger Frederik, ‘Biskop Lage Urnes Synodalstatuter’, Ny Kirkehistoriske Samlinger iii (1864–6), 262–91 at p. 274Google Scholar.

13 See Roosval, Johnny, Die Steinmeister Gottlands [sic]: eine Geschichte der führenden Taufsteinwerkstätte des schwedischen Mittelalters, Stockholm 1918, 14Google Scholar.

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15 See Reuther, Hans, ‘Architekturmodelle auf gotländischen Taufsteindeckeln’, Niederdeutsche Beiträge zur Kunstgeschichte xviii (1979), 93101Google Scholar.

16 For the Hildesheim font see now Höhl, Claudia, Das Taufbecken des Wilbernus, Regensburg 2009Google Scholar. For the font at Rostock see Holtz, Gottfried, ‘Die Erztaufe in der Marienkirche zu Rostock’, Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Universität Rostock, gesellschafts- und sprachwissenschaftliche Reihe vii (1957–8), 33–9Google Scholar.

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18 Vinken, Gerhard (ed.), Brandenburg, Munich–Berlin 2000, 133–4Google Scholar.

19 Weiss, Gerd (ed.), Bremen, Niedersachsen, Munich–Berlin 1992, 999Google Scholar.

20 Bednarz, Ute and Cremer, Folkhard (eds), Sachsen-Anhalt, I: Regierungsbezirk Magdeburg, Munich–Berlin 2002, 795–6Google Scholar.

21 The literature on Renier's font is vast and very controversial. For a revisionist account of the font and its history see Colman, Pierre and Lhoist-Colman, Berthe, Les Fonts baptismaux de Saint-Barthélemy à Liège: chef d’œuvre sans pareil et nœud de controverses, Brussels 2002Google Scholar.

22 Bangs, Jeremy Dupertuis, Church art and architecture in the Low Countries before 1566, Kirksville, Mo 1997, 25–9Google Scholar.

23 For Aert van Tricht's font and cover see especially Koldeweij, A. M. and W. Adriaanse, J. J., De doopvont van Aert van Tricht, s'Hertogenbosch 1983Google Scholar.

24 Bond, Fonts and font covers, 291.

25 For a detailed look at this genre of furnishing see Achim Timmermann, Real presence: sacrament houses and the body of Christ, Turnhout 2009.

26 All three are discussed in detail ibid. chs iii, iv.

27 Bond, Fonts and font covers, 287.

28 The dating follows Goodall, John, Parish church treasures, London–New York 2015, 122Google Scholar; brief descriptions of the cover are also given in Bettley, James and Pevsner, Nikolaus, Suffolk: East, New Haven–London 2015, 557Google Scholar, and Bond, Fonts and font covers, 287, 289, 301.

29 For Ewelme's cover see especially Goodall, John, God's house at Ewelme, Aldershot–Burlington, Vt 2001, 67–9Google Scholar; for Salle see Pevsner and Wilson, Norfolk, i. 654; cf. also Bond, Fonts and font covers, 259, 264, 285, 287, 289, 298.

30 For a detailed exploration of this work see Susanne Lehmann Heydasch, Der ‘Taufbrunnen’ in San Frediano in Lucca, Frankfurt am Main 1991. See now also Annamaria Ducci, ‘Vasche e fonte battesimali delle pievi medievali toscane’, in Ducci and Frati, Monvmenta: rinascere delle acque, 95–143 at pp. 119–21, 136.

31 The Balfour ciborium of c. 1150–75, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, provides for an especially close parallel.

32 For the Cathedral of Massa Marittima and its furnishings, including the font, see Calamini, Raffaela (ed.), Il Duomo di Massa Marittima, Ariccia 2015Google Scholar. For the font ensemble in Siena's battistero see Caglioti, Francesco, ‘Donatello e il fonte battesimale di Siena’, Prospettiva cx–cxi (2003–4), 1829Google Scholar; Beck, James H., ‘Jacopo della Quercia and Donatello: networking in the Quattrocento’, Source vi (1987), 615Google Scholar; and Lotz, Wolfgang, Der Taufbrunnen des Baptisteriums zu Siena, Berlin 1948Google Scholar.

33 For the font see especially Kreytenberg, Gert, ‘Das Taufbecken im Dom von Orvieto’, Studi di storia dell'arte xv (2004), 4370Google Scholar. The cover itself has, to my knowledge, received little scholarly attention.

34 For a detailed discussion see Timmermann, ‘Microarchitecture and mystical death’.

35 For a deep analysis see idem, ‘Das Taufziborium im Ulmer Münster’.

36 For an iconographical reading of this structure see idem, ‘A promise of paradise’. The results of a technical analysis and a subsequent restoration of the font ciborium are published in Müller, Rainer (ed.), Spätgotischer Taufstein mit Baldachin in der Erfurter Severikirche, Altenburg 2010Google Scholar.

37 See Santangelo, Enrico, Il Duomo di Atri e il Museo Capitolare, Pescara 2011, 3849Google Scholar, passim, and Brusa, Carla and Napoli, Bruno, ‘Due monumenti singolari nella cattedrale di Atri’, Atti del XIX Congresso di storia dell'architettura i (1980), 269–72Google Scholar.

38 See the introductory paragraphs to this article.

39 Pevsner and Wilson, Norfolk, i. 700.

40 This is discussed in more detail in the last section of this article.

41 Several cases of the destruction of font canopies during the Elizabethan period, though it is not clear whether these were of the turriform or the ciboriform kind, are listed in Bond, Fonts and font covers, 305.

42 Kavaler, Ethan Matt, ‘Renaissance Gothic: pictures of geometry and narratives of ornament’, Art History xxix (2006), 1–46, esp. pp. 1932Google Scholar.

43 Timmermann, ‘Microarchitecture and mystical death’.

44 See idem, Memory and redemption: public monuments and the making of late medieval landscape, Turnhout 2017, ch. ii.

45 For details see idem, ‘Das Taufziborium im Ulmer Münster’, and also ‘A promise of paradise’.

46 All three are discussed in more detail in idem, Memory and redemption, 84–6.

47 For Newcastle see now Woodman, Francis, ‘The Cathedral Church of St Nicholas, Newcastle’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association clxvii (2014), 154–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar; for Aberdeen see the relevant contributions in Geddes, Jane (ed.), King's College Chapel, Aberdeen, 1500–2000, Leeds 2014Google Scholar.

48 On Dura's baptistery see most recently Bisconti, Fabrizio, ‘L'abside piena, l'abside vuota’, in Bordi, Guilia (ed.), Il luoghi dell’ arte, l'officina dello sguardo: scritti in onore di Maria Andaloro 1, Rome 2014, 229–36Google Scholar, and Klaver, Sanne, ‘The brides of Christ’, Eastern Christian Art ix (2013), 6378Google Scholar.

49 For a comprehensive bibliography see Timmermann, ‘Microarchitecture and mystical death’, 141 n. 22. See also Bogdanović, Jelena, The framing of sacred space: the canopy and the Byzantine church, New York 2017CrossRefGoogle Scholar, passim; Jensen, Robin M., Living water: images, symbols, and settings of early Christian baptism, Leiden–Boston, 2011Google Scholar; and the relevant contributions in Foletti, Ivan and Romano, Serena (eds), Fons vitae: baptême, baptistères et rites d'initiation, Lausanne 2009Google Scholar. See also Schlegel, Mittelalterliche Taufgefäße, 218–22.

50 See Siena, Silvia Lusardi, ‘Lettura archeologica e prassi liturgica nei battisteri ambrosiani tra iv e vi secolo’, Studia Ambrosiana vi (2012), 89119Google Scholar.

51 On the Lateran Baptistery during early Christian times see especially Brandt, Olof, ‘Deer, lambs and water in the Lateran Baptistery’, Rivista di archeologia cristiana lxxxi (2005), 131–56Google Scholar, and The Lateran Baptistery and the diffusion of octagonal baptisteries from Rome to Constantinople’, in Harreither, Reinhardt (ed.), Acta Congressus Internationalis XIV Archaeologiae Christianae, Vienna 2006, 221–7Google Scholar.

52 See idem, ‘Osservazioni sull battistero paleocristiano di Nocera Superiore’, Opuscula Romana xxxi–xxxii (2006–7), 189–202.

53 On this structure, also known as the Baptistry of Patriarch Calixtus, see most recently, Chinellato, Laura, ‘Il battistero di Callisto, l'altare di Ratchis e i marmi del Museo Cristiano’, Forum Iulii xxxv (2011), 5984Google Scholar.

54 On Parma's Baptistery see Glass, Dorothy F., ‘The sculpture of the Baptistery of Parma’, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz lvii (2015), 255–91Google Scholar.

55 Kling, Manuel, Romanische Zentralbauten in Oberitalien, Hildesheim 1995, 140–9Google Scholar.

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57 Schlegel, Mittelalterliche Taufgefäße, 219–20. Still relevant for the imagery of the Sacramentary is Unterkircher, Franz, Zur Ikonographie und Liturgie des Drogo-Sakramentars, Graz 1977Google Scholar.

58 For St Gereon's baptismal chapel see Skriver, Anna, Die Taufkapelle von St. Gereon in Köln, Cologne 2001Google Scholar. For the Taufkapelle at St Kunibert see Kosch, Clemens, ‘Hochmittelalterliche Anbauten und Nebenräume von St. Kunibert’, Colonia Romanica vii (1992), 78113Google Scholar.

59 Wood, Christopher, Forgery, replica, fiction: temporalities of German Renaissance art, Chicago 2008Google Scholar.

60 Davies, The architectural setting, 91.

62 Margaret Aston gives the example of Archdeacon Higgins, who in 1641 questions the churchwardens of Derby whether their font is of stone sound and beautifull? And well covered?’: Broken idols of the English Reformation, Cambridge 2016, 598Google Scholar.

63 The entire text of the catechism can be consulted at <> (accessed 9 July 2019).

64 See Evelyn Carole Voelker, ‘Charles Borromeo's “Instructiones fabricae et supellectilis ecclesiasticae”, 1577: a translation with commentary’, unpubl. PhD diss. Syracuse, NY 1977, 247–68 (letter xix).

65 Ibid. 255.

66 Ibid. 256–7.

67 For Tibaldi's baptistery in Milan Cathedral see Repishti, Francesco, ‘Un primo progetto per il nuovo battisterio del duomo di Milano’, Studia borromaica xi (1997), 179–92Google Scholar. See also the relevant contributions in Carlo Borromeo, Pellegrino Tibaldi e la trasformazione interna del Duomo di Milano, Milan 2011.

68 For archival evidence see Bond, Fonts and font covers, 305–6.

69 Pevsner and Wilson, Norfolk, ii. 695, 764.

70 At Terrington the shutters reveal a broad painted panorama of the Holy Land centring on the baptism of Christ. The individual scenes and figures are briefly described in Goodall, Parish church treasures, 179, with figure.

71 Pevsner and Wilson, Norfolk, ii. 117, 695.

72 Bentley, James and Pevsner, Nikolaus, Suffolk West, New Haven–London 2015, 403Google Scholar, with figure.

73 Still largely unstudied, the work is briefly mentioned in Orde, Anne, ‘From the Restoration to the founding of the university, 1600–1832’, in Brown, David (ed.), Durham Cathedral: history, fabric and culture, New Haven–London 2015, 97109 at p. 100Google Scholar. See also Bond, Fonts and font covers, 301.

74 Aston, Broken idols, 603.

75 For details see ibid. 600–4.

76 Ibid. 595, 600–1.

77 Vinken, Brandenburg, 124.

78 Habich, Johannes (ed.), Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein, Berlin–Munich 2009, 509Google Scholar.

79 Mathies, Ulrike, Die protestantischen Taufbecken Niedersachsens von der Reformation bis zur Mitte des 17. Jahrhunderts, Regensburg 1998, 116Google Scholar.

80 For a detailed description of this work see Lehmann, Edgar and Schubert, Ernst, Dom und Severikirche Erfurt, Stuttgart 1988, 176–7Google Scholar.

81 Ibid. 176.

82 Vasseur, Roland, L’Église de Magny-en-Vexin, Magny-en-Vexin 1993, 24–9Google Scholar.

83 The architectural database of the Ministry of Culture at Palissy lists twenty-six surviving ciboria dating to before 1700: <>.

84 Perrin, Joël and Rocca, Sandra Vasca (eds), Thésaurus des objets religieux, Paris 1999, 56Google Scholar.

85 On the sixteenth-century church towers of Brittany see Bonnet, Philippe and Rioult, Jean-Jacques, ‘La Tour-Clocher dans les églises bretonnes’, in Châtenet, Monique and others (eds), Le Gothique de la Renaissance, Paris 2011, 217–40Google Scholar.

86 Couffon, René, ‘Notre-Dame de Bodilis’, Bulletin monumental cxvi (1958), 121–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar: the ciborium is briefly described at p. 133.

87 See Castel, Yves-Pascal, Roland Doré et les enclos paroissiaux, Morlaix 1988Google Scholar.

88 Davies provides a list of the figures showcased by the architectural elements of the drum: The architectural setting, 117.

89 For a detailed account, see Restif, Bruno, La Révolution des paroisses, Rennes 2006Google Scholar. See also Tingle, Elizabeth, ‘The Counter-Reformation and the parish church in Western Brittany’, in Spicer, Andrew (ed.), Parish churches in the early modern world, London 2015, 7784Google Scholar, and Purgatory and piety in Brittany, 1480–1720, Farnham 2012, ch. ii.

90 Tingle, Purgatory and piety, 28.