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The religious significance of the holy water font

Entering a Catholic church must be accompanied by the sign of the cross made with the holy water contained inside the holy water font. It is a gesture that is part of the rite that every Christian learns as a child.

Generally, this container of holy water is placed at the entrance of the church or not far away to allow the faithful to purify themselves and get in touch with the Lord in the most fitting way. Sometimes it is fixed to the wall, as in the case of the “lip” font, or it is isolated, resting on a support, such as a column, a pillar, or a pedestal. In the latter case, we speak of a stacked holy water font. Its origin is very ancient. Let’s find out its religious significance together!

What is the font used in a Catholic church?

The use of water for cleansing and atonement was introduced into Christian Catholic communities in the 4th century. One cleanses temples with water before they are adopted for the Christian rite. Indeed, they drank holy water against diseases and evil spirits. So, the water was consecrated to distinguish this user from any magic.

In Catholic churches, the Holy Water font is a small basin of holy water at the entrance used by the Catholics to dip their fingers in this holy water and then cross themselves and pray with a few drops as they enter the church. 

Dipping your fingers in holy water and making the cross sign on entering the church is an excellent Catholic custom. It commemorates the reception of baptism.

Representation of the holy water font

holy water font

Source: Wikipedia

The origin of the holy water fonts

One of the most famous fountains was the bronze pine cone, dating from the first century. It was almost 4 meters high and originally stood near the Pantheon and the temple of Isis in Rome. Later it was moved to the courtyard of the original St. Peter’s Church. During the construction of the new church in 1608, it was moved to its current position. Therefore, even today, we can admire it in the “Cortile della Pigna” inside the Vatican Museums.

The tradition of placing the holy water fonts at the entrance to the church originates from the early Christian custom of washing their hands in a fountain located in the church’s atrium and called cantharus or vial before entering a basilica. This custom not only had a practical purpose but was also a way to purify hearts and get closer to God sincerely and transparently.

Indeed, over time, the structure of the churches begins to change. Therefore, the atrium is often reduced to an entrance or narthex. So, the cantharus made way for smaller basins at the church entrance. This change led to the disappearance of the practical use of water, leaving room exclusively for religious significance as a symbol of baptism and purification. Although the practice existed in some locations, Pope Leo IV required priests to bless. And also to sprinkle the faithful with holy water before mass every Sunday. In some places, the priest performed this task as the faithful entered the church. 

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The history of the holy water font

Originally the holy water fonts were made of marble or stone. They had an almost flat basin or basin shape. They were generally supported by a vertical pillar or column support or recessed into a wall shelf. Since the 8th century, the sprinkling of holy water on the faithful at the beginning of the Sunday service has also been a reminder of baptism. After the opening words of the psalm that is sung, this blessing is called “Asperges” (Latin: sprinkle me). Therefore, rarely common today. Legends of saints reported miracle waters (Ignatius water). 

Going deeper to explore the history of the holy water font, we know that it originated from the fountains, which is the typical basin located in the center of the four-sided entrance of the Roman Domus and, subsequently, of the early Christian basilicas, where it was traditionally used for the ablutions of the faithful.

During the Gothic period, the holy water fonts began to take on larger dimensions and more articulated shapes, often decorated with iconic figures. Between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the affirmation of the Baroque and Rococo, the holy water fonts took on increasingly lively and exuberant shapes, just like the rest of the architectural figures of the period, with predominantly curvilinear models, often enriched by ornaments of angels, drapes, scrolls, and also scrolls. Polychrome marbles were usually used. 

The ancient holy water fonts

Today we have few examples of holy water fonts before the 11th century, although numerous finds date back centuries earlier. An example is a 9th-century basin contained in Aachen’s Domschatz (Treasury). Since the first moments, the religious community began to use this sacred furniture; universal rules have yet to be defined on the size, shape, and model of the holy water fonts. This is why even today, we can find all types of them in churches. 

The ancient Holy Waters fonts can be traced back to ancient Greece and are, therefore, not a purely Christian invention. Such a basin was placed there for symbolic purification before entering a sanctuary or temple. In the Catholic tradition, the first holy water fonts can already be found in churches from the Romanesque period.

San Carlo Borromeo greatly influenced the use of the holy water font. So he wrote: “The utensil conceived for holy water must be of marble or solid stone, neither porous nor with cracks. It will be placed on a suitably decorated pillar which will not be outside the church but inside and, as far as possible, to the right of those entering. There will be one next to the door through which the men enter and one for the entrance of the women. They should not be fixed to the wall but separated from it according to convenience. They will be supported by a column or a pedestal, which must not represent anything profane. “

Why is holy water used when entering the church?

The question many faithful ask themselves concerns the motivation that explains why when one enters and leaves the church; it is necessary to mark oneself with holy water. The cross sign is a gesture that accompanies prayer, both individual and community, and allows us to enter into full connection with Jesus. Originally the holy water was traced with the thumb on the forehead or other body parts. In the following centuries, it extended from the head to the chest and from the left to the right shoulder, symbolically enveloping the whole body.

The holy water is used when entering the church to dip your fingers in it to qualify for the cross sign. It is also a reminder of your baptism. Many, having been baptized as young children, have no memory of their baptism. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, the crossing of the cross can be a reminder and affirmation of the baptism that has taken place. 

When we enter the church, we always find the baptismal font or the pile of blessed water that allows us to remember the sacramental reality of our baptism. That we have that allowed us to enter the community of the Lord. Holy water helps us to remember the moment of baptism. And also envelops our body with the sign of the cross: it is a way to relive the sacramental grace of being reborn in the Lord, and it awakens our awareness of being part of the church by having become children of God fully, to become aware of the great gift of love we have received. We live in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit

Primary Takeaways

  1. Generally, the holy water font can be set on the wall. In this case, we speak of a “lip” holy water font, or it can be isolated, for example, placed on a support such as a column, a pillar, or a pedestal; in this case, we speak of a stacked holy water font. In some cases, it can also be portable. In this case, the basin is quite deep, made of metal, and inserted on removable support in beaten metal.
  2. Holy fonts are usually wide and shallow. They are made using rugged materials, often cut stone, while marble or alabaster is used for the interior. The style of a holy water font decoration often reflects the style of the church itself.
  3. The holy water fonts are not confused with the baptismal font or the large container of holy water (lustral water) used for baptisms.

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Every Catholic church will have a small basin with holy water at the entrance. Therefore, upon entering the church, Catholics dip their fingers in and cross themselves with a few drops. In doing so, they profess the threefold God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The crucifixion prepares them for prayer and worship. The holy water also commemorates baptism and acceptance into Christianity.

Incidentally, holy water can have any origin. Mostly it comes from the pipe, but sometimes from a spring or a lake. For ordinary water to become holy water, the pastor must bless it. This often happens during the Easter Vigil.

Therefore, the Holy water font is a receptacle intended to contain holy water; it can be in the form of a basin supported by a column, stone, or marble and variously decorated, placed as an architectural element in its own right at the entrance to the church, or in the form of a basin, shell and similar, affixed to the wall, even in houses or chapels private. There are also portable holy water fonts, generally consisting of a bucket of brass, silver, ivory, and jasper.

Quizlet about the Holy Water Font

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