The Baptistère Saint-Jean (Baptistery of St. John) in Poitiers is believed to be the oldest Christian building in France. It is conveniently located next to the cathedral and well worth a look. Originally constructed in the 4th century, the round baptistery was modified in the 6th and 7th centuries and decorated with frescoes a few centuries later.
History of the Poitiers Baptistery
In the earliest years of Christianity in Poitiers, the sacrament of baptism was administered in the River Clain, which runs about 100 meters from the baptistery. Then, around 360, a baptistery was constructed by the first bishop (St. Hilary) in what would soon become the ecclesiastical center of the city.
The construction of free-standing baptisteries was common in this early period, before baptisteries or fonts were included inside churches. Other notable examples include the Lateran Baptistery in Rome and the two famous bapisteries of Ravenna.
Over the centuries many changes were made to the original structure. A round apse and transept with square arms were added in the 6th or 7th century. The arms of the transept were transformed into the two small semi-circular apses seen today around 1000 AD; at the same time, the narthex was modified to its present polygonal form.
A baptismal tank was added in the 6th century but in the 8th century this was filled in. The walls were decorated with frescoes in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, remains of which can still be seen. Among the earlier paintings is a large depiction of the Emperor Constantine on horseback on the east wall. Frescoes depicting the life of St. John the Baptist were added in the 13th century.
The baptistery was abandoned in 1791 during the revolution, then confiscated from the Church and sold to a private citizen who used it as a warehouse. It was saved from demolition by a public subscription, which allowed it to be repurchased in 1834.
The baptistery was excavated and restored in the middle of the 20th century. Excavations uncovered the baptismal tank and led to more precise dating of the building, which in turn ruled out the theory that the baptistery first served as a pagan temple. This theory accounts for its alternative name, Temple Saint-Jean.
What to See at the Poitiers Baptistery
In addition to its interesting Early Christian architecture, the Baptistère Saint-Jean features the ancient octagonal tank, 11th, 12th, and 13th-century murals (including Christ in Majesty, the Virgin Mary, saints, and Constantine), and an impressive collection of Merovingian sarcophagi.
Outside, don't miss the comical faces on the corbels and along the roofline of the orangey-pink exterior.
Quick Facts on the Poitiers Baptistery
|Names:||Baptistère Saint-Jean · Baptistery of St. John · Poitiers Baptistery · Temple de Saint-Jean|
|Dedication:||St. John the Baptist|
|Dates:||c. 360, expanded 6th/7th C|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||46.579509° N, 0.348617° E|
|Phone:||05 49 41 21 24 (Poitiers tourism office)|
|Hours:||Jul-Aug: daily 10:30am-12:30pm and 3-6pm|
Sep-Jun: Wed-Mon 10:30am-12:30pm and 3-6pm
|Lodging:||View hotels near the Poitiers Baptistery|
- Personal visit (July 14, 2008).
- Baptistère Saint-Jean - Wikipedia (some text used under GFDL)
- David A. Hanser, Architecture of France (Greenwood, 2006), 24.
- Baptistery St-Jean: Plans and Drawings - Images of Medieval Art
- A Visitor's Guide to Carolingian France V: Aquitaine, Perigord and South
- Saint-John Baptistery Museum - Vienne Tourism
- Darwin Porter, Frommer's France 2007 (October 2006).
- Rough Guide to France 9 (April 2005).
Map of the Poitiers Baptistery
Below is a location map and aerial view of the Poitiers Baptistery. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.