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Vessels intended for the use of holy water are of very ancient origin, and archaeological testimony compensates, to a certain extent, for the silence which historical and liturgical documents maintain in their regard. Holy water fonts may be divided into three categories: stationary fonts, placed at the entrance to churches; portable fonts, placed for aspersions and sacramental rites; and private fonts, in which holy water is kept in private houses.
The holy water font was originally the fountain for ablutions, cantharus, or phiala, placed in the centre of the atrium of the basilica and still found in the East, especially at Mount Athos, at Djebeil in Syria, and at Haia-Napa in the Island of Cyprus. These fountains were used by the faithful who, before entering the church, washed their hands and feet in accordance with a rite probably derived from Judaism and even yet observed in Mussulman countries. When the atrium of the Christian basilica was reduced to the proportions of a narrow court or a simple porch, the cantharus gave way to a less pretentious structure. It is now only exceptionally that the cantharus is found doing service as a holy water font, mainly at Mount Athos, where the phiala of the monastery of Laura stands near the catholicon in front of the entrance and is covered by a dome resting on eight pillars. It takes the place of the ablution fountains which were indispensable in the ancient basilicas; but at present the water is missing and gushes forth only on days when it is to be blessed. The blessing of the water takes place on the eve of the Epiphany after Mass and Vespers, and is called the "grand blessing" (megas hagiasmos), so as to distinguish it from the "little blessing" (mikros hagiasmos), which is conducted with less ceremony on the first of each month, except January (on the 5th) and September (on the 14th).
In the sixth century Paulus Silentiarius, when describing the wonders of St. Sophia, about A.D. 590, mentions the presence of a phiala from which "water gushes noisily into the air, issuing from a bronze pipe with a force that banishes all evils, when in the month of golden tunies [January], during the night of the Divine initiation, the people draw in vessels an incorruptible water, as no pollution reaches it, even when, having been several years removed from its source, it is enclosed in the hollow of a pitcher and kept in their houses." At Laura the holy water does not banish evils, it enlightens souls; the faithful do not draw it for the purpose of carrying it away, but they are sanctified by the rite. In the fourth century the blessing of water was mentioned in Serapion's Ritual (see HOLY WATER). In the Byzantine Ritual the prayer used for this blessing, similar to that of the Eucharistic Epiklesis, invokes the Holy Spirit upon the waters. Like the species of bread and wine, holy water is called hagiasma. In the Barberini Euchologion of the eighth or ninth century, the title of a prayer shows us that holy water renewed the effects of baptism.
The few Greek inscriptions found on vessels intended for holy water in no wise indicate that these were destined for so high a dignity. The holy water font of Carthage and various marble urns preserved in museums or described by antiquarians merely have copies of a formula taken from Holy Scripture: "Take water joyfully for the voice of the Lord is upon the water"; or "Offer they prayer after washing thyself"; or, finally, "Wash not only thy face but thy iniquities." We have no information whatever concerning the vessels in which the faithful kept the incorruptible holy water in their homes. However, on this subject, we can always refer to a vase font found at Carthage, and preserved in the Lavigerie Museum, measuring 10 inches in height and decorated with a cross and two fishes. These details once given, we can enter more fully into the history of holy water fonts in the West.
Stationary holy water fonts, usually made of bronze, marble, granite, or any other solid stone, and also of terra-cotta, consist of a small tub or basin sometimes detached or resting on a base or pedicle, sometimes imbedded in the wall or in one of the pillars of the church. Occasionally these are under the porch. In the West there were scarcely any stationary fonts prior to the eleventh century. However, it must be observed that, up to this time, churches were few and that most of their number had been repeatedly plundered, dismantled, redecorated, and, indeed, altered in every way; therefore, in view of this fact, it is possible to admit that certain stone basins, hemispherical in form and imbedded in the piedroits of the doors of very old churches, were so placed when the church was built. Some fonts are antique objects, urns or hollowed-out capitals, made to serve a purpose other than that for which they were first intended. When the stone is porous it is lined with lead or tin, so as to prevent absorption, the same course being followed with copper fonts to guard against oxidation.
Some fonts are exterior, being fastened to the piers or jambs of the portal. They vary greatly in size, at times being as large as baptismal fonts; however, it is chiefly in Brittany that they attain such proportions. Usually they are not very large. Cavedoni announced that in a third- or fourth-century cemetery at Chiusi there was a small column which he thought must have supported a holy water font. Boldetti, who is always very cautious, claims to have found different fonts in the catacombs, some made of marble, others of terra-cotta, and still others of glass. A sort of tufa basin, which may have served the same purpose, was also found. In the cemetery of Callistus there is a truncated column which, according to J. B. de Rossi, must have held the same kind of a vessel as those containing holy water in our churches. We could enumerate other probable examples, especially in the catacomb of St. Saturninus, in the crypt of St. Cornelius, and in the basilica of St. Alexander on the Via Nomentana.
The further we withdraw from the time of their origin the more numerous the monuments appear. A magnificent vase in black marble preserved in the Kircher museum and decorated with bas-reliefs, two broken urns from Cuicul (Djemila) in Algeria, and a large marble table, the upper side of which is slightly hollowed, belong to the fourth century. A stone basin found in the vicinity of the cathedral of Bath, England, measures 7.9 inches in height, the diameter of its upper part being 1.4 inches. Stationary fonts sometimes rest on a corbel-table or a small column and, although such is rarely the case, two fonts may be communicating, one being on the outside of the church and one on the inside. Many fonts are dated or else bear the name of the sculptor or donor.
There seems to have been no rule governing the shape of the receiver and the basin. The baptisteries usually represented a cross or a circle, but here fancy is freer, and in the Roman era we find a circular basin hollowed out of a square block with the four corners carved sometimes with a trefoil, a quatrefoil, or a star, or perhaps with flutes converging towards a common centre and representing a sea-shell. Violletle-Duc, after alluding to the stone tables placed within the porch of the primitive churches of the Order of Cluny and serving as supports for the portable holy water fonts, mentions a twelfth-century font at Moutier-Saint-Jean, the basin part of which rests on a Corinthian column. In the beginning of the thirteenth century fonts were cut from stone and assumed interiorly the form of a hemisphere and exteriorly that of a polygonal prism. But from this time forward, and during a part of the Gothic period, architects, although still continuing to place the reservoirs of fonts against pillars or clusters of columns, increased their importance and surmounted them with a carved canopy, such as is seen at Villeneuve-sur-Yvonne (Yonne); in like manner the little fonts dug out of tombstones, chiefly in the cemeteries of France and the West. Many fonts are set in a niche in the wall.
It occasions no little surprise to find in the Middle Ages fonts reserved for the exclusive use of a certain class of the faithful. This is proved by the inscription on a font preserved in the museum of Angers, reading to the effect that none save clerics and nobles had the privilege of dipping their fingers therein, the bourgeoisie, the labouring classes and the poor having vessels set apart for them alone:
Clericus et miles; pergant ad cetera viles
Nam locus hic primus; decet illos vilis et imus.
In the churches of the Pyrenees are still to be seen fonts which, of old, were reserved for the use of the despised race of Cagots, while the general horror which lepers inspired, and the care with which all contact with them was avoided, sufficiently explains the existence of a special font for them at Saint-Savin (Hautes-Pyrénées) and at Milhac de Noutron (Dordogne).
In England, during the Middle Ages, fonts called "stoups", or "holy water stones", consisted of a small niche somewhat resembling a piscina and containing a stone basin partly sunk in the wall, the niche being either under the porch or inside, but always near the entrance to the church. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries fonts again became movable and generally consisted of a tub placed upon an elevated socle, the medium height being about forty inches. The decoration of these small monuments underwent a complete modification. Italy and Spain have preserved admirable sculptured fonts dating from the Renaissance; most of these are of marble, and their bulk sometimes causes them to be mistaken for baptismal fonts, from which they are mainly distinguishable because of having no lids. In Italy this style is found in the cathedral of Florence, where the font or pila d'aqua santa is ascribed to Giotto; and in the cathedral of Siena it is in the form of a beautiful tub ornamented with angels' heads, between which are strung rich garlands, and resting on a circular socle decorated with nude figures in chains, this, in its turn being placed on a lower socle, likewise embellished with angels' heads, between which are strung rich garlands, and resting on a circular socle decorated with nude figures in chains, this, in its turn being placed on a lower socle, likewise embellished with angels' heads. Later on, in the seventeenth century and down to the present day, the valves of a shell known as the tridacna gigas, a mollusc indigenous to Oceania, did service as fonts. Some shells of this species are very large and weigh as much as 500 pounds. Valves of the tridacna gigas are used as holy water stoups in the church of Saint-Sulpice at Paris, the Republic of Venice having presented them to Francis I.
The most ancient portable fonts are in the form of pails and shaped like truncated cones. Those most prized for their antiquity are of lead or bronze, sometimes even of wood covered with a sheet of wrought metal. However, if there ever existed silver of silver- gilt fonts, it is evident that they have not come down to us. The leaden pail found at Carthage, on which the raised designs seem to have been aimlessly selected, nevertheless presents a remarkable peculiarity, in that it bears a Greek inscription in which one can readily grasp the allusion to holy water: "Take water joyfully for the voice of the Lord is upon the waters." The second part of this epigraph is to be seen on a bronze holy water pail preserved in the Gaddi Museum at Florence: "The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of majesty hath spoken." These quotations are from the twenty-eighth psalm, third verse. The Vatican Museum has a bronze pail equipped with a handle and ornamented with carved sketches of the Saviour and the Twelve Apostles, each figure being designated by the name in Greek letters. A Merovingian sarcophagus, found near Abbeville, contained the ruins of a small wooden pail covered with a thin plate of bronze; and in the Dublin Museum is an Anglo-Saxon pail with a wooden surface and furnished with a handle. In our opinion, both of these pails did service as fonts.
Pails of this style remained a long time in use; they were often made of precious metals embossed, or even cut out of hard stone or from a piece of ivory. The crystal vase in the treasury of Venice is an antique vessel used for liturgical purposes, perhaps in the tenth century. But still more remarkable is the eleventh-century font preserved in the treasury of the cathedral of Milan. Slender in form and slightly funnel-shaped, it is ornamented with five arcades serving as frames for the Blessed Virgin and the Four Evangelists. On the archivolts of the arcades are five verses designating the different personages and still higher runs a frieze of foliage bearing an inscription. This ivory pail measures about 8 inches in height by 4.7 in diameter on the upper rim and 3.5 at the base. The treasury of the Lyons cathedral also has an ivory font which is the product of Italian art. But the most ancient of these pails is found in the treasury of Aachen, and it is believed to date from the ninth century. At St. Mark's, Venice, there is an antique font hewn out of a garnet.
We could not attempt to enumerate many of the metal fonts, although, in most of them, the shape and workmanship are of decided interest. The pail seems to have always prevailed but to have been varied according to fancy. Thus, in the fourteenth century, it was the custom for the donors to apply their coat-of-arms to these gifts, the product of the goldsmith's art. In the fifteenth century the fashion became even more marked and the goldsmith sought everywhere pretexts for the exercise of his ingenuity.
In the Middle Ages holy water was held in such respect that it was not even taken from the font unless by means of an aspersorium or holy water sprinkler, attached by a small chain. Thenceforth the aspersorium was the inseparable accompaniment of the font. For their aspersions the ancients used laurel branches or sometimes tufts on the end of a turned handle. The oldest representations of the Christian aspersorium show a branch that was dipped into the font. For this purpose branches of hyssop, palm, and boxwood, and wisps of straw were employed, and finally the tail of the fox was pressed into service, its long silky hair making it singularly adaptable. In Old French the fox was called goupil, hence the word goupillon, one of the expressions for holy water sprinkler. It would seem that about the thirteenth century the aspersorium assumed the modern form of a stick surmounted by a rose covered with bristles; at least such is what we infer from miniatures. Little by little the handles of the sprinklers came to be very richly ornamented. The inventory of the Duke of Anjou mentions a "square aspergillus with three knops", and the inventory of Philip the Good, "an old silver aspergillus".
In the rules prescribed by St. Charles Borromeo for the construction of fonts in the Diocese of Milan, we read the following: "Heretofore we have treated of the sacristy and several other things, let us now speak of the vessel intended for holy water. It shall be of marble or of solid stone, neither porous nor with cracks. It shall rest upon a handsomely wrought column and shall not be placed outside of the church but within it and, in so far as possible, to the right of those who enter. There shall be one at the door by which the men enter and one at the women's door. They shall not be fastened to the wall but removed from it as far as convenient. A column or a base will support them and it must represent nothing profane. A sprinkler shall be attached by a chain to the basin, the latter to be of brass, ivory, or some other suitable material artistically wrought."
Private fonts are generally smaller than the portable ones used in churches. These were very rich ones in gold and silver ornamented with pearls and enamel. In later times they have preferably been given the shape of a small round basin suspended from a plate fastened to the wall; hence they are "applied fonts." They are made of all materials, ivory, copper, porcelain, faïence, and glazed sandstone.
BARRAUD, De l'cau benite et des vases destines a la contenir in Bulletin monumental, XXXVI (1870), 392-467; ROHAULT DE FLEURY, La Messe. Etudes archeologiques, V (Paris); LECLERCQ, Benitier in Dictionnaire d'archeologie chret. et de liturgie; ENLART, Manuel d'archeologie francaise, I (Paris, 1902), 782; MILLET, Recherches au Mont-Athos in Bulletin de correspondance hellenique, XXIX (1905), 105-22.
APA citation. (1910). Holy Water Fonts. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07433a.htm
MLA citation. "Holy Water Fonts." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07433a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Thomas M. Barrett. Dedicated to Sister Pat Baxter.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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