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Drury Professor Dives Into History of European Baptismal Fonts

Dr. Tom Russo measures the stem of a baptismal font at the Saints Peter and Paul church in Market Overton in the county of

A baptismal font is a piece of furniture that has been used throughout the ages in churches for the sacred rite of baptism. Baptismal fonts often take the form of a pedestal with a basin of water at the top. An Art History professor at Drury University has received a grant to research a previously unknown group of baptismal fonts that date back to the Middle Ages. KSMU’s Rebekah Clark reports.

You’re not going to find many millennium-old baptismal fonts on this continent. As history played out, the establishment and growth of any type of Christian religion in North America came well into the Renaissance era.

But you'll certainly find some in Europe. Dr. Tom Russo, professor of art history at Drury University, has traveled there many times.

“I’ve been involved in a project with the British Academy in London for the past twenty-one years called the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland. My role in that project is to document sculpture that was created in the middle ages in the county of Lincolnshire in England from the years 1066 – 1200.”  

Through his research, Russo ran across numerous baptismal fonts from that specific period, the 11thand 12thcenturies. He says those discoveries piqued his interest; he wanted to know more about the object and why baptismal fonts suddenly started appearing at that time in history (he later found out this was due, in part, to a tremendous population boom in Europe).

To help him with his research, Russo received a $4,500 grant from Yale University and Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London.

Just a few quick facts about the history of baptismal fonts: the earliest ones were designed for full-body immersion, usually of an adult. Later, it became more common for children and infants to take part in baptism, so a lot of the “later” fonts are smaller.

They were constructed in marble, wood and metal, and they varied in shape and size. Often, they had three sides, representing the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

“The Christian church very much dominated the culture of the European Middle Ages. These fonts were basically the doorway into the Christian religion. It established baptism as a ritual then established close ties amongst the people in the village with their parish church priest.”

Russo says he believes he has discovered a group of nine fonts that appear to come from the same medieval quarry workshop in England. Many of these fonts are still used today in services at the same small churches throughout the English county of Lincolnshire.

“The really exciting thing is when you see a baptismal font like this that’s 800 years old actually being used for a baptism of a child recently born in these villages in the 21stcentury. It brings home the continuity of the past and the present for me, and I find that terribly exciting.”

So far, Russo has been to over 300 churches to study their use of these fonts.

“The best part for me, I would say, is actually meeting the people that live in these villages today, and talking to them. They are walking libraries themselves. That’s very exciting. I often get to meet them over tea, they invite me in for tea because they’re equally fascinated with what an American is doing in their countryside looking at their church.”

Russo plans to visit again this summer to continue his studies, as well as spend a lot of time doing research in libraries across London.

For KSMU News, I’m Rebekah Clark.