This summer I visited the city of Speyer, primarily because I wanted to see its cathedral. Speyer cathedral is the largest Romanesque church in Germany, one of three great cathedrals of this type (the other two are at Worms and Mainz). It was originally built in 1030, and its long history has included expansion, destruction, and rebuilding. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Speyer Cathedral is a majestic church, home to a vibrant diocesan community which my husband and I were pleased to worship with on a Sunday while we were there. Here is a picture of the nave of the church.
I was particularly interested to see what sort of baptismal font this church would have. The baptismal chapel is located in a prominent spot in the south transept. The chunky modern pedestal font [see picture below] has a certain gravitas about it, and is certainly immovable—set one step down from the chapel floor. The paschal candle too was hefty. There was a strong sense that these two liturgical items: font and candle, define the space and give it a distinctive character.
I am not a fan of pedestal fonts, because they can’t be used for the immersion of adults. This font seemed large enough to immerse an infant however, so it was not as bad as what liturgists call, derisively, a “birdbath” font. Still, it seems a missed opportunity especially for a church of such size and grandeur, and one which has taken care to create a space for baptism.
There was room enough for a modest-sized assembly to gather around the font, standing. For a celebration of infant baptism, involving several families and a portion of the parish, it seemed adequate. Everyone could be close to the action, and the stone would provide a live acoustic. The room is brightly lit with natural light from an atrium above as well as artificial lighting.
After checking this out, I thought we were finished with fonts. But no. In the crypt chapel, under the apse, there was another font. When I discovered this one, I knew we were in the presence of something far more compelling and worthy than what we had just seen upstairs. It was the old font, the ancient font, built in the days when immersion of adults was the norm. It’s the oldest font north of the Alps.
In a sense the font is cross-shaped, yet that is too simple a description. It is deep as the vault of a tomb, yet the four rounded lobes suggest a circular or womb-like shape, or perhaps the perfect geometry of a flower. It’s not eight-sided, but count the protuberances: four lobes plus four points equals eight. It is weighty, yet graceful, a masterpiece of design. To me, it evoked the paschal mystery.
I imagined all the people who must have been baptized in this font. I thought about how it survived through so many centuries—almost a millennium! It even survived the burning down of the building. The stone is patched and repaired, smooth to the touch. I touched it as one touches the relics of the saints.
I inquired of a friend who knows the diocese: Is this the font used at the Easter Vigil, for the baptism of adults? Sadly, the answer came back: No. They take out a portable font and put it in the sanctuary. “Some little thing” my friend reports. Clearly, he is as disappointed as I am.
Still, the old font stands there. “Enough water to die in,” as my mentor, Aidan Kavanagh, OSB, would have said. It remains a witness, proclaiming resurrection as it has for almost a thousand years. What a pity that it isn’t used.
We need to rediscover the meaning of baptism. Dying and rising, not only a symbolic washing, is what the reformed rites of initiation call us to. In far too many churches, we still try to symbolize this fullness with signs and symbols that are just too small.