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View of the baptistery in the ancient city of Butrint, Albania.

Christian Symbols Hidden in Ancient Pagan Mosaics of Butrint Baptistery

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For many years Albania was an isolated country, but in recent decades it has opened to tourists and we are gradually becoming more familiar with its many spectacular heritage sites. The remarkable Baptistery of Butrint is included among the most important late Roman and early Byzantine sites anywhere in the Balkans. Today the baptistery is part of the Butrint Archaeological Site, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it is renowned for its early Christian art.

The History of the Butrint Baptistery

Butrint was originally an Illyrian settlement and was later occupied by the Romans who expanded the town into a city noted for its markets. Under the early Byzantine rulers, especially under the Emperor Anastasias (c. 431 – 518 AD), the city was expanded further. He was crucial in ensuring that the Eastern Roman Empire did not succumb to the same fate at the Western Roman Empire.

It appears the local Christian community built the baptistery at this time by repurposing the Roman hypocaust and using it for the baptism of Christians, ensuring the baptistery had a supply of hot water.  

Ruins of the ancient town of Butrint in Albania (Leonid Andronov / Adobe Stock)

Ruins of the ancient town of Butrint in Albania ( Leonid Andronov / Adobe Stock)

In the 9 th century the town was under almost constant attack from the Slavs. In the 13 th century after the Fourth Crusade , Butrint became part of the Byzantine successor state, the Despotate of Epirus, and was the site of constant conflict between the Angevins, Byzantines, and Venetians. When marshes formed in the area, Butrint declined and was eventually abandoned. The baptistery ceased to be used for baptism for the first time in centuries.

The structure was only recently discovered in 1938 by an Italian archaeologist. For many years the baptistery was neglected by the Communist dictatorship that ruled Albania from 1945 to 1989. The monument was badly damaged but has been restored in recent years.

The Symbolism of the Baptistery of Butrint

The baptistery is situated in a circular space that was once either part of a family villa or a bathhouse. The font in the center is in the form of a crucifix. Steps inside this cistern enabled the person about to be baptized to step down into the holy water. A bishop or deacon would have poured water over them from a vessel during the ceremony.

Archeologists have concluded that hot and cold water flowed into the font as the remains of a water tank, as well as the Roman era-heating system with a furnace, have been found to the east of the structure.

Detail of the baptistry's mosaic floor, depicting two peacocks eating grapes (Public Domain)

Detail of the baptistry's mosaic floor, depicting two peacocks eating grapes ( Public Domain )

At the entrance of the baptistery a small cistern possibly held holy water or could have symbolized the fountain of life. The entire structure was once covered by a wooden roof, but today is under open sky. Most of the remains of the 24 columns that once supported the roof are now only a foot or two high. The arrangement in three circles is believed to have had symbolic value. Two of the columns are intact and are among the finest that have survived from Late Antiquity.

The mosaics at the monument are among the finest specimens of Christian art that have survived from that era and Butrint baptistery has two internationally famous mosaics of Christian iconography. One displays two peacocks eating clusters of grapes from a cup to symbolize the Holy Communion, while the other features two stags drinking from a divine spring, symbolizing baptism. Two of the major sacraments of initiation to Christianity are therefore represented on the mosaic. Other mosaics feature scenes from nature. As Christians were persecuted during this time, pagan imagery often referred to a Christian message or symbol.

Ancient mosaic flooring of Butrint, Albania. UNESCO World Heritage Site (Irina / Adobe Stock)

Ancient mosaic flooring of Butrint, Albania. UNESCO World Heritage Site ( Irina / Adobe Stock)

The floor, which is surprisingly well-preserved considering its age, was adorned with decorative motifs that may have been used to demarcate areas during Christian rituals and the seven circles of mosaics that lead to the baptismal font can be interpreted as the seven sacraments of Christianity that lead to Heaven with the intertwining mosaics representing eternal life and infinity. It is theorized that the mosaics were made in a famous workshop in Epirus. To preserve the mosaics, they are kept covered with sand until a viable solution is found and they are only uncovered a few times a year.

Visit the Baptistery at Butrint and Other Ancient Ruins

The monument is located 12 miles (20 kms) south of Saranda in Vlore County in the south-west of Albania and is part of the Butrint National Park which is noted for its biodiversity. The baptistery is located near the ancient ruins of Butrint, which date from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. A fee is charged to enter the site and tour guides are available. Transport to and from the area is offered.

Top image: View of the baptistery in the ancient city of Butrint, Albania.

Source: Rostislav / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan

References

Hodges, R., Bowden, W., Gilkes, O., Lako, K., & Përzhita, L. (2001). The Butrint project . Antiquity, 75(287), 25-26

Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/butrint-project/9B79BEB3CC7919472009EE045E051B7A

Hodges, R., Saraçi, G. et al. 1997. Late-antique and Byzantine Butrint , Journal of Roman Archaeology 10: 207–34

Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-roman-archaeology/article/lateantique-and-byzantine-butrint-interim-report-on-the-port-and-its-hinterland-199495/F18F60614DFEA166D82CF5E6FFB9C9D9

Jensen, R. M. (2015). Archaeology of Christian Initiation . A Companion to the Archaeology of Religion in the Ancient World, 253-67

Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/581103?seq=1

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