|A mysterious basin
To the east of the circular font,
there is a badly damaged rectangular basin, which measures about 2,2 x
1,35 m. On the south short side, there is a kind of nich with the bottom
15 cms above the bottom of the rectangular basin. What was its original
shape? Perhaps one can compare with some earlier Roman nymphaea from Pompeji
with a kind of aedicula with a nich in front of a low basin, and reconstruct
the two basins as in this drawing.
Washing of feet after baptism
The secondary, rectangular basin
may have been used for the washing of feet, imitating what Jesus did to
the Apostles in John 13. On this page, some of the evidence for
this rite will be discussed.
Some sources mention this rite as
a part of baptism after immersion and anointing. St. Ambrose in Milan wrote
in 380-390 that this part of the rite had been left out in Rome. For
this reason, the secondary basin in San Lorenzo in Lucina could be used
for the washing of feet only if the baptistery was built some time before
Ambrose wrote, in the mid fourth century.
"The Church of Rome does not have
this custom, whose character and form we follow in all things. Yet it does
not have the custom of washing the feet. perhaps on account of the multitude
this practice declined."
(De sacramentis 3,5: Sources
(The full Latin text can be read
The fourth century was a period
when the washing of the feet was left out not only in Rome but also in
Spain. Already in 305, the council of Elvira states in its canon 48 that
the rite should be abrogated.
As the fourth century seems to be the
period when this rite was suppressed, the interpretation of the secondary
basin in the baptistery of San Lorenzo in Lucina depends to a great extent
upon the date of the church and its baptistery.
|The council of Elvira states:
Emendari placuit, ut hii qui
baptidiantur, ut fieri solebat, nummos in conca non mittant, ne sacerdos
quod gratis accepti pretio distrare videatur. Neque pedes eorum lavandi
sunt a sacerdotibus vel clericis.
(Text in: Jose Vives, Concilios
Visigoticos e Hispano-Romanos, Madrid 1963, 10)
Usually, the church and the baptistery
have been dated to 432-440 through the identification with a church built
to honor the Roman martyr Laurentius (Lawrence). The washing of feet was
never reintroduced in Rome, so a 5th c basin for feet washing in Rome would
However, we may have to consider
the possibility that the church and the baptistery may be older, from the
middle of the 4th c.
The main difficulty of this
interpretation of the secondary basin is chronological: most scholars have
dated the basilica, and thus the baptistery, to the fifth and not the fourth
The advantage is that this
interpretation could explain why similar secondary basins generally are
not found in other baptisteries in the Roman parishes (tituli), which
usually are dated after the fourth century. Any other interpretation of
the basin must also explain why similar basins are not found elsewhere
|Read more about the washing
of the feet as Christian initiation in:
M. Pesce - A. Destro, "La lavanda
dei piedi di Gv 13,1-20, il Romanzo di Esopo e i Saturnalia di Macrobio",
Biblica 80, 1999, 240-249.
J. Sammer, "Why Did Jesus Wash His
Disciples Feet?", Aeon. A
Journal of Myth and Science
III, 4, 1993, 21-23.
Victor Saxer, Les rites de l'initiation
chrétienne du IIe au VIe siècle
(Centro italiano di studi sull'alto
medioevo 7), Spoleto 1988.