A deer coming to a baptistery in Bir Ftouha (Carthage) Tunisia, Tunis, Late Fourth or Fifth Century. This art work features motifs of paradise. One can see the deer as well as iconographic images and fruit-bearing trees.
Return to the Waters….return to the garden…
As one who loves to play and enjoys the beauty of the garden, I most enjoyed developing a post baptismal mystagogy for adults following their Easter vigil initiation. The mystagogy would include reflection and connection to ancient imagery invoking a return to the garden of paradise and life-giving waters.
The iconography in this baptistery in Bir Ftoucha shows many of the consistent images found in early baptisteries. John the Baptist is baptizing a grown adult Jesus. John the Baptist is wearing the camel hair beneath his robe. Jesus is simply wearing a loin cloth with his hands in a prayerful pose. This baptistery imagery does not represent the immersion technique often used that is invoking the paschal imagery, rather it conveys the garden imagery. John the Baptist is sprinkling the water and there is evidence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Loc 3244) in the descent of the dove above Jesus’ head.
One can see many motifs of paradise with the deer and iconographic schemes including images of snails, lizards or rabbits and fruit-bearing trees and shrubs.
Often early baptismal fonts contained images of four fruit-bearing trees representative of the four seasons: a date palm (spring), an olive (winter), a fig (summer), and an apple (autumn) (Jensen, Loc 4253). This image has fruit bearing trees, but not of the four separate varieties that are representative of the usual four seasons or the four gospel evangelists.
Within this baptistery icon one sees the deer drinking from the waters that speaks to the image of the first line of Psalm 42: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you” (Jensen, Loc 4237).
“The imagery in this psalm 42 coincides with the iconography of deer coming to drink at flowing streams, and it reflects the desire of the candidates to drink from (or bathe in) the water of life. In his commentary on the psalm, Augustine acknowledges that while it urges all Christians to run like deer to the fountain of understanding, it has particular meaning for those who are approaching baptism. As they process to the font, they chant this text to express their longing for the fountain that remits sins in the same way that the deer longs for springs of water” (Jensen, Loc 4727).
As a mystagogical and continuing aesthetic spiritual exercise one might ask how does one continue to draw on the springs of water and remain close to the waters as seen by this deer hovering near the waters? How does one continue to bathe in the waters of life?
My preferred technique for reflection is poetry. Poetry invokes a beautifully aesthetic experience. The poems are prayerful and maybe shared. As a reflective exercise one would be invited to compose poems over the next few weeks: a diamante, acrostic, and free verse on the return to the water and the garden. This experience would help express the longing and the return. The following poems would be examples of an acrostic titled:
I seek –
As a diamante – titled:
To Be One
Seek Beauty Wonder Love
Creator Redeemer Sanctifier
Finally, Free Verse:
“Life Giving Waters”
As a deer longingly returns
To the font of life giving waters
So do I come back
Over, and over, and over
My home is one with you
My God, the still waters of life
I yearn for your love and peace
The garden of your eternal bliss…..