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Harriet Sonne de Torrens and Miguel A. Torrens

University of Toronto - Canadá

The BAPTISTERIA SACRA INDEX is an in-process iconographic index of baptismal fonts, covering from the early Christian period to the 17th century, chiefly from Europe, but including representative samples from North Africa, the Middle East and Latin America as well.

The long-term goal of this project is to establish an exhaustive corpus of documentation destined for use by art historians, liturgists, historians and other scholars concerned with the artistic, archaeological, cultural, historical and liturgical issues contained in, and represented on, baptismal fonts. A parallel goal of the project is to create an inventory of baptismal fonts, both extant and lost, within the chronological parameters already mentioned.
The INDEX was started six years ago as a working tool for a specific research project in the medieval workshops of Gotland, Sweden, and their baptismal fonts. In its original conception it was limited in scope and never intended for public release.

The idea of a work of wider distribution originated in 1997 in a conversation with a Belgian publisher who thought that a printed sampler of baptismal fonts would be of interest. Our idea, however, from the very beginning, was to produce a multi-media object, in CD-ROM format, with the potential for periodical releases, but the publisher, at that time, had limited experience in the electronic field. Soon after, we became concerned about the limitations of the CD-ROM format itself to deal with a vast body of work that would require multiple CD's and frequent updates.

To make a long story short, we made three crucial decisions at that point:
- to expand the scope to the creation of a catalogue of European baptismal fonts

- to release the catalogue on a relational database structure

- to by-pass the established publishing environment and release the INDEX on a web-base platform for wide access and continuous update, with a functional search engine geared to research needs.

The last issue is, we think, of particular importance, and has affected many aspects of the project, as I shall point out in a few minutes.


Each baptismal font is contained in a database record. The contents of the record are controlled by a set of relational tables which link bibliographical references, iconographic and thematic subjects, etc. The database used is ACCESS, by Microsoft. It was selected for its availability and suitability, as well as for its relative ease of operation, considering our lack of technical proficiency . We are aware that any choice of software implies accepting the functional boundaries of the product, which will have consequences in the way we enter data.

The database contains now over 7,400 records. These records exist at different levels of completion and content, ranging from the fullest of entries -that being our aim and goal- to some which consist merely of a name and a bibliographical and geographical reference.

The iconographic classification of the images uses ICONCLASS, the international system, as a guideline, but we have found several limitations with its use:
I) being an independent project we cannot afford the implementation of its electronic version, while the manual version is very labour-intensive

II) ICONCLASS has not developed its coverage of Northern/Scandinavian areas well enough for our needs - it does not cover the thematic scope we have encountered on these fonts - it does not include references to the motifs and features that we record and that should be searchable iconographic items, as well as architectural and decorative motifs

III) our web interface allows for keyword searches of the database, which makes the identification and location of the data very flexible for any user unfamiliar with the formalities of ICONCLASS . Keyword search is increasingly becoming the preferred means by users, in our experience in library work .


The structure of the database and the design of the project are based on our knowledge of the object, the baptismal font. The main benefit of this fact is that, within the operational capabilities of the application (i.e., ACCESS), all decisions and applications are made by us without external considerations and delays.

Only three areas of the project have outside collaboration in its design and operability:

I) the interface with the web (Cold Fusion software and UofT's ITS assistance)

II) the housing of the data and its distribution of the end product (ITER - UofT)

III) the initial design of the INDEX was reviewed by several colleagues: its interface design, the scope of the record, etc.
For practical purposes the images reside outside the database, and it is the web interface that loads them dynamically when the user asks for a particular record or group of records. An earlier prototype that used OLE links to the images proved a "memory hog" with outrageous hardware demands and was therefore discarded. Instead, the database record contains pointers to the images;these pointers are in the form of a filename; a relational link exists to a table that has a listing of all the images in the INDEX. The images themselves can therefore reside on a separate server. Hence the size of the database is at present just over 32Mb, the size of a single high-resolution TIFF image file!


I) bibliographical references: historical font studies, doctoral dissertations, 19th-century amateur reports, especially in France and Britain (local archaeological societies, the Gentleman's Magazine, etc.). Some of these are good sources for images as well, and they provide a historical evidence (changes in the object, location, repair, etc.)

II) on-site work: selected fonts are thoroughly studied and documented in situ. The limitations of the on-site work are obvious, therefore works are selected for this treatment on the basis of their value as representatives of groups or workshops, as well as for the individual characteristics of the specific work

III) related projects: a lot of data has been gathered directly or indirectly on baptismal fonts all over the world. Much of this data may never see the light of day for an assortment of reasons. We try to integrate as much of this as we can by exchanges, collaborative endeavours and the like. We have successfully established working relationships with individual scholars as well as the Instituto Príncipe de Viana in Spain, the Bild Data Project in Stockholm, the Paradisefonten project in Lund, the Danmarks Kirker series in Copenhagen and others. We would like to extend this relationship with scholars working in related fields, like Richard Rutherford, here present, whose work on early-Christian baptisteries in Turkey we will be able to see in the next presentation today.

IV) external contributions by the public at large: there is a wealth of data being gathered and made available by non-professionals, the modern equivalent of the 19th-century aficionado, today in the guise of the ubiquitous webmaster (Peter Fairweather, aka Churchmouse, in Lincolnshire; Simon Knott in Suffolk; Antonio García Omedes in Aragón, etc.); the value of their contribution must be emphasised here for, unlike many of the established publishing and/or academic sources, they are ready to share the fruits of their hobby or passion generously without the hindrance and formalities that make the sharing of data so difficult. We have installed in our information page a "send-your-font" e-mail form to encourage and facilitate contributions.


The main issue is perhaps the in-progress characteristic of this INDEX. When the INDEX is released, in one or two-years' time -depending on how long the final editing process takes- it will be updated constantly as new information becomes available to us. This approach stems in part from an underlying personal philosophy that "a timely something is better than an eternal nothing", as well as from the possibilities offered by digital technology and web publishing. We are no longer tied to the print restrictions in format or in delivery.

The issue of copyright and intellectual property was initially a worrying factor, probably because we felt that this area of the law was much too vague to our liking and we were working with material all over the world. It is much less of a worry now. We are a project based in Canada and we adhere by Canadian copyright law. As information professionals we are aware of the regulations. As academic researchers we are mindful of the importance of establishing and respecting the intellectual rights. The protection of the copyright in our own work is mostly an issue we leave to the distributor. The contributors to the INDEX retain copyright over their own work, while the INDEX serves to distribute their work more widely.

We are conscious of the issue of the longevity of the project and its usefulness in the future. We find that the standards we have put in place are being shaken or displaced by:
I) the introduction of other related objects (holy-water stoups and baptisteries)

II) technological developments (reduced storage costs, higher resolution capacities, platform changes)

III) the influence of other projects' ideas and implementation resulting in a constant re-evaluation of the standards.

FUNDING. We have found that pursuing funding is a very labour-intensive occupation that tends to compete for our precious time with researching, documenting and organising the fonts. As independent scholars, we never find the time for it. It remains an outstanding issue.

Más detalles del proyecto BAPTISTERIA SACRA INDEX aparecen en la página informática o pueden requerirse de las direcciones electrónicas que allí aparecen

[NB: se agradecerá toda colaboración y/o crítica constructiva del proyecto, cuya publicación se anticipa para el año 2004-2005]


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