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Conversion and Political Expedience: Imperial Themes in the Early Christian Baptistery

Author(s): Temple Nicholas

Journal: Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas
ISSN 0185-1276

Volume: XXIV;
Issue: 80;
Start page: 5;
Date: 2002;
Original page

This paper explores the political background to Early Christian baptism, as it pertains to the symbolic meanings of urban topography and ceremonial practice. It argues that the changing relationship between imperium and sacerdotium in Early Christianity took on a particular political dimension that played an important role in the shaping of baptismal symbolism. This initially finds expression in the new political landscape of Rome under Constantine, where conversion constituted as much an entry into a new “legal religion” as a recognition, formalised in ritual, of the legitimacy of Christian imperial rulership. Accordingly, the paper examines the impact of the imperial cult on baptism from Constantine to Byzantine rule, highlighting the way in which the increasing political emphasis on monotheism and concordance between imperium and sacerdotium gave credence in the Eastern Empire to the principle of “caesaro-papal” symbolism. This was to culminate in the ritual practices of the Byzantine emperors, in particular the quasi-baptismal ablution of the emperor that took place annually at Blachernae. In the West, on the other hand, the dissenting voice of St. Ambrose, against the increasingly politicised monotheism of Theodosius I, emphasised the specifically personal redemptive meaning of baptism, rather than any allusion to collective imperial alliance. Hence, the changing symbolic meanings of baptism in Early Christianity will provide a framework for redefining wider cultural and political divisions between the Eastern and Western empires.
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