Ravenna, Elvira, Baptism, and Shells

One of the reasons Baptismal fonts and holy water fonts were sometimes called ‘concha’, was because they had a sea shell design. For example, in the 19th century, archaeologists uncovered the Hamman Lif (Naro) Baptistery in Tunisia. Tunisia, and all of North Africa, in fact, had been heavily Orthodox Christian, and Christianity only receded with the time of Islam and its centuries of domination. According to Robin Jensen in “Living Water: Images, Symbols, and Settings of Early Christian Baptism“:

“The font was about 4 m. [meters] across (including surround), and its well was 1. 6 meters wide and 1.25 m. deep. It had seven lobes (on them square in shape). Each lobe had a single step down into a large circular basin. Scallopshell designs covered six of the surfaces of these steps while the seventh had a fish design.”

Baptismal font from Carthage. It was certainly deep enough for immersion.

In connection with this, I would like to make a number of points in regard to the issue of immersion in Baptism, and some controversy around the Canons of Elvira, but also some more general remarks:

1) The dispute in the 500s and 600s in Spain/Portugal was not about pouring, but about the number of immersions. St. Martin of Braga [+580AD] in his book on triple immersion and Baptism, De Trina Mersione, testifies that the argument between him and his opponents was whether one should immerse once in the Name of the Trinity (in order to counter the Visigothic Arians), or thrice in the Name of the Trinity. The argument of some Orthodox in Iberia at the time was that since the Arians were claiming that triple immersion ‘proved’ Arianism (i.e. that the Godhead was composed of three essences, or that the Son and Holy Ghost were not consubstantial with the Father Who is by Essence Uncreated), that the Orthodox should adopt single immersion in the Name of the Trinity to signify the Unity of the Co-Essential Trinity. St. Martin of Braga, on the other hand, argues that the Orthodox should NOT change their practices just because of what heretics go around saying and doing. So, we still aren’t dealing with the issue of pouring at all. St. Martin in his work appeals to, first of all, the important center of Orthodoxy in the West, Old Rome, but, then he appeals to the important center of Orthodoxy in the East, Constantinople, to confirm uniformity of both East and West and states :

“To be immersed thrice in the single Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost is an ancient and apostolic tradition, which Priests in this province possess in written form on the authority of the Bishop of Rome. This same custom was observed at Pascha by the Bishop of Constantinople in the presence of delegates appointed from this Kingdom [the Suevi Kingdom in modern day Portugal] to the imperial court.” [On Triple Immersion]

2) The Letter of St. Gregory the Great to St. Leander of Seville has St. Gregory testifying that trine immersion is the ancient form and the preferable manner. However, St. Gregory Dialogist was willing to allow single immersion in the Name of the Trinity as long as it was done for the ‘right’ reasons, so to speak. I should note, however, that, in the late 8th century Alcuin of York disputed the authenticity of this letter. I don’t think it is generally disputed anymore. Nevertheless, St. Gregory in his Sacramentary states:

“Let the Priest Baptize with a triple imemrsion, but with only one invocation of the Holy Trinity, saying: I baptize thee in the Name of the Father [then let him immerse], and of the Son [then let him immerse again], and of the Holy Ghost [let him immerse a third time.”

3) The argument that pouring was employed in Spain in the 4th century derives from a) the 48th Canon of the Local Council of Elvira, and b) the word ‘shell’ (which I have also seen rendered as ‘box’). First, many studies have shown that ONLY the first 21 Canons of Elvira actually derive from the 4th century. This is important as the addition of 60 canons do not constitute part of the authentic corpus.. Secondly, the argument, assumes that ‘concha’ is shell. Well, that is true for secular purposes, however, this is not the case for liturgical purpose in liturgically used Latin; in fact, ‘concha’ means ‘holy water font’.

So, even taking the additional canons added by later Medieval writers, the medieval meaning in Latin meant something different than what we are used to. It is not acceptable, therefore, to use the supposed 48th Canon as evidence for pouring.

As for the question, however of single immersion, and why did St. Gregory Dialogist allow it, while he must have been aware of Canon 7 of the Second Ecumenical Council, I can only state that,

1) In cases of allowance, we must remember “that which is done contrary to the rule, if there be a sufficient reason for it, does not break the rule, which is injured only by refractoriness and contempt for antiquity. For although the statutes of the Fathers are to be kept with diligent observation and observant diligence, yet nevertheless for a good end to be obtained, it is allowable to relax somewhat of the rigour of the law, which the law itself would have provided for could it have foreseen it, and it would often be cruel to insist upon the fulfilment of the law, when the observance of it seems to be hurtful to the Church.” (Epistle IV of St. Symmachus, PL 62, Epistolae et Decreta)

2) The Divine Condescension when something is done in the Church is different when outside, and such Condescension, is, after all, Condescension.

3) Canon 7 was directed against Eunomian Arians who intentionally changed from triple immersion to single immersion in order to combat the Church.

  • a) They adopted single immersion in order to reject the Consubstantial Trinity, as well as the fact that
  • b) They abolished the Trinitarian invocation (i.e. they baptized into the ‘death’ of Christ or simply ‘into the Father”), as well as
  • c) They engaged in all this with pertinacious contumancy against the Church practice. In the case of St. Gregory, although we may believe he was wrong in such an allowance, we should realize that his allowance was not done for one of those reasons employed by heretics, and that once a time of dispute is over, the normalcy should return.
  • d)  Eunomiam Baptismal practice was pretty insane on many fronts. People focus on the single-immersion issue, which was important, however, they forget that a lot of authors, both Orthodox and Arian, record a lot of other crazy stuff associated with it (since Eunomians were an extreme Arian group that baptized other Arians).
    Eunomian baptismal rituals attracted particular attention, for example, by Sozomen, Historia Ecclesiatica 6.26; Philostorgius [an Arian historian], Ecclesiatical History Epitome (in Photius) 10:4; and in the Canons of the Council of Constantinople of 381. Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion, 6.76 (54:33) says that Eunomians baptize people upside down, ‘in the name of God the Uncreated, in the name of the Created Son, and in the name of the Sanctifying Spirit created by the Son.” (Ravenna in Late Antiquity, pg. 368, note 209)


In other words, there were a lot of reasons why the Church found their baptisms absolutely and completely unacceptable by even economy under any circumstances. This could explain why St. Gregory Dialogist found that a single-immersion baptism in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost acceptable inside the Church under certain circumstances, but, Eunomian baptisms were still rejected (i.e. they didn’t even mention the Persons of the Trinity, they were done ‘upside down’, etc).

Of course, the proper, normative, and canonical method of Baptism is by triple immersion, invoking each Person of Trinity at each immersion, as this is what we find enunciated in the Fathers, and in the ancient liturgical books, Eastern and Western.

Further, we discover that the uncanonical nature of pouring has profoundly affected even many areas where one might not expect to see it. For example, art restoration!

“From the fifth century come two spectacular depictions of baptism in Ravenna. Bishop Neon added the impressive mosaic decoration to the Baptistery of the Orthodox in Ravenna in the mid-fifth century. The central disc of the dome, directly above the baptismal font, represents the baptism of Jesus, Who is full sized and stands in water to His waist, flanked to the left by John on the shore and to the right by a personification of the Jordan as a river god. Unfortunately a restoration in the nineteenth century introduced questionable elements, including the heads of John and Jesus, the top of John’s staff, AND the right hand of John holding a patera over the head of Jesus. In such cases the restorer was accustomed to an aspersion and no longer understood the significance of the hand on the head.” (pg. 129, Baptism and the Early Church)

 It seems that when restoration work was done in the late 19th century, the artist hired to do this, a man name Felice Kibel, took creative license in adding things, like the patera:
” The dish that St. John is using to pour the water was added in the 19th century by a Roman artisan named Felice Kibel, who was charged with restoring the mosaics and went overboard with creative license.”

In other words, when Kibel did the restoration in the 1800s, he was mistaken in adding the patera (or baptismal dish). This was because he was used to seeing those things in RC baptisms, and super imposed the idea upon the ancient and medieval world. The first image is the Neonian image as Kibel restored it (really, he restored the top, including the head and hands). As noted,, people had forgotten that the hand was placed on the head for Baptism. I will give two additional images from the first millenial West to illustrate this practice of the hand on the head.

This is from the Benedictional of St. Aethelwold:

This additional image is from an Ottonian book of the 10th century:

The Arian Baptistry in Ravenna (which was later taken over by the Orthodox after the Lombards became Orthodox around 700), has a depiction which is undoubtedly what the original of the Neonian looked like in terms of the hand of St. John on Christ’s Head. The iconography there was never badly damaged.

The command to Baptize by Triple Immersion was oft repeated, lest by sloth or laziness the clergy ever, relying on some exception or economy [such as the so-called ‘baptism of clinics’] would state, “This is alone sufficient.”

Canon 50 of the Holy Apostles states:
“If any Bishop or Presbytery does not perform three immersion in making one Baptism, but a single immersion, that given unto the death of the Lord, let him be deposed. For the Lord did not say, ‘Baptze ye into My Death,’ but, ‘Go ye and make disciples of all nations, Baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
St. Jerome says:
“We are immersed in water that the Mystery of the Trinity may appear to be but One,a nd therefore, though we be thrice put under the water to represent the Mystery of the Trinity, yet it is reputed to be but One Baptism.” [Note from Commentary of St. Jerome on Ephesians 4:5, 6)
St. Leo the Great, whose Tome St. Sophronius of Jerusalem in his Synodical Letter rightly calls ‘the pillar of Orthodoxy’, states:
“For in the Baptismal Office death ensues through the slaying of sin, and three-fold immersion imitates the lying in the Tomb three days, and the raising out of the waters is like Him that Rose Again from the Tomb.” [Letter of St. Leo to the Bishops of Sicily, Letter 16, Sec. 4]
Pope Pelagius [+561] in the 6th century, says in his letter the Bishop of Volterra:
“There are many who say that they Baptize i the Name of Christ Alone and by a single immersion. But the Gospel command, which was given by God Himself and Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, reminds us that we should administer Holy Baptism to every one in the Name of the Trinity and by triple immersion, for Our Lord said to His Disciples. ‘Go ye, Baptize all nations in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”  [Letter of Pope Pelagius to Gaudentius]
The 816 Synod of Calcuith [near London] in England, explicitly states:
“Let presbyters also know that when they administer Baptism they ought not to pour the consecrated water upon the infants’ heads, but let them always be immersed in the font; as the Son of God Himself afforded an example unto all believers when He was three times immersed in the River Jordan.”” [11th Canon of the Second Synod of Calcuith, England, AD 816]
The Frankish Archbishop of Rheims, Hincmar [+882], in the latter part of the 9th century, in his admonition to his Presbyters, states:
“He is Baptized by Trine Immersion in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, that just as the inner man, which is made after the Image of the Holy Trinity, through Invocation of the Holy Trinity, is restored to the same image, and as that which fell under subjection to death by three grades of transgression, being thrice raised out of the font, rises by Grace to life; and as the inner man in the Faith of the Holy Trinity is to be created anew after the Image of its Creator, so also the exterior man ought to be washed by Trine Immersion. Sot hat what the Spirit works invisibly in the soul, this the priest should imitate visibly in the waters. For the original transgression was committed by three circumstances–by delight, by consent, and by the act; and so every sin is effected either by thought, word, or deed. Wherefore the Trine Ablution seems to answer to the three clauses of sin. Or, if you choose, it should be used on account of original sin, which in infants avails to their destruction, or on account of those sins which in the case of men of more advanced age are added by the will, word, or deed. And because, according to the Holy Scriptures, there is One God, One Faith, and One Baptism, the candidate for Baptism is Thrice Immerse in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, that the Trinity may appear to be One Sacrament [Mystery]; and he is not Baptized in the names of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, but in one name, which is God, according to an Apostle. Therefore, One God, One Faith, One Baptism.” [Address by Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims to the Clergy]
The testimonies from ancient time are many and varied, but all confirm this. Any deviation is, therefore, not in strict concord with the Canons, and is, therefore, not Canonical. One can, of course, find many instances in which the Church received non-Orthodox persons who had a non-Orthodox and non-triple immersion Baptism.
Two prominent clergy examples in the 20th century would be Metropolitan Seraphim (Lade), who was Chrismated in Pre-Revolutionary Russia having come from the Lutherans [who only pour], and the Blessed Fr. Seraphim (Rose) who came from the definitely non-immersive Methodists. We can also think of others as well. And, it is true, if the issue is pressed to such an extent to say that their Chrismations were nothing [i.e. no ‘valid’ Baptism, then there can be no Chrismation], we would also be forced to say, “No ‘valid’ Baptism, then no Chrismation, then no Ordination.”  In the later case, it would place Met. Seraphim outside of the Church, as an unbaptized layman; but, this would have catastrophic consequence, since, it was Metropolitan Seraphim [who had a strange situation, being originally ordained by the Renovationist Living Church as a bishop, then received by confession of Faith in the ROCOR in the early 1930s] who ordained Metropolitan Vitaly [Fourth First Hierarch of ROCOR] as a priest. We might ask, “How could an unbaptized person ordain a man a priest?”  And, further, “If he was not a priest, then how could be ever be a bishop?” And much further, “How could anyone Metropolitan Vitaly ever ordained be what they are supposed to be?”
Of course, the answer would simply be the answer of St. Symmachus:
“that which is done contrary to the rule, if there be a sufficient reason for it, does not break the rule, which is injured only by refractoriness and contempt for antiquity. For although the statutes of the Fathers are to be kept with diligent observation and observant diligence, yet nevertheless for a good end to be obtained, it is allowable to relax somewhat of the rigour of the law, which the law itself would have provided for could it have foreseen it, and it would often be cruel to insist upon the fulfilment of the law, when the observance of it seems to be hurtful to the Church.” (Epistle IV of St. Symmachus, PL 62, Epistolae et Decreta)
On the other hand, the modern day justifications for ecumenism, which place themselves in the realm of the ecumenical ‘baptismal theology’, are based on an entirely different notion. They are not based upon the concept of the Church condescending under certain circumstances for a soul’s salvation; nor can they be said to be based on all the thoughts and presuppositions of various figures they try to misuse (for example, St. Vincent of Lerins’ statements in his Commonitory), but, upon an ecclesiology that is antithetical to the Orthodox Christian profession that only Orthodoxy is the Church, and that it alone is the Ark of Salvation, and that common services and prayers are not only contrary to Canons in some ‘abstract’ way, but, contrary to the very heart of Faith, which is that there is no salvation outside the Church.