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The Walesby Tank

The Walesby Tank

from Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500
by Charles Thomas, Badford London, pp. 221 - 225.

with commentary by John Wijngaards

This, unhappily fragmentary, object was recovered in the course of ploughing — an activity which damaged the surviving part — at Walesby, near Market Rasen, Lincolnshire. Entire, it would have been about 3ft (1m) across, and about 20in (0.5m) deep. What now survives is part of the side, or wall, with a linear chi-rho, probably equidistant between upright bands of double cable-moulding.

Above the chi-rho, centred between the bands, and dependent from just below the rim, is a unique figure scene. This scene may originally have occupied three horizontal panels, all three being contained and recessed within a simple rectangular frame; these internal panels were contained and divided by representations of four architectural columns. The panel on the (viewer's) left is missing, and a gash made by a plough cuts diagonally across the lower part of the central panel.

The right-hand panel(see figure below) shows three standing figures — men in cloaks and tunics. The central panel is less clear. Jocelyn Toynbee sees it as containing a naked woman, a robe slipping from her right shoulder, and standing between two other 'thickly veiled and draped' ladies (the hair-styles alone permit these to be identified as female). 'And was there a scene of the actual baptism in the left-hand portion of the frieze that is lost?' she wondered; suggesting that the columns indicate the interior of 'perhaps a church or baptistery'.

The Walesby lead tank — reconstruction of the frieze

This is sound guidance. But it could also be suggested that what Toynbee describes as 'the naturalistic and wholly unbarbaric style', indicative of a 'competent and careful worker', might rather imply a symmetrical composition of the pattern A—B—A. The present writer regards the central panel as showing an actual baptism about to take place. The flanking figures, who may (as seen on the right) have been repeated on the missing left panel, are not necessarily either clerics or catechumens. They could represent the members of an ecclesia, attending this sacrament and forming an audience to support the baptism of a female competens, who is shown about to step into a lavacrum (it is not now possible to be sure about any of the detail at the level of the feet).

That the scene, here drawn out in the figure above, does in some fashion represent (as Toynbee of course saw) the interior of a building is certain. It seems most probable that it shows the interior of a baptistery. This need not lie further afield than Roman Britain. The use of architectural columns to frame and to punctuate a frieze is a commonplace cliche in late Roman art — in British Christianity, we need think no further than of the Lullingstone orantes — but there is a more subtle convention involved here.

Presumably the nude competens, centrally, represents the centre of the baptistery itself, where the cistern or font would stand. The three-part frieze could therefore be a 'flat' version of an interior. The four columns, which have necessarily to be portrayed in a line, two-dimensionally, represent actual columns of stone or painted wood, at the four corners of an inner area, perhaps supporting an inner roof or ciborium over the font. The viewpoint (see figure below) is that of the officiating cleric or bishop, who stands immediately by the font, opposite the candidate he is about to receive into the water, from her sponsors. In each side-scene, we view members of the congregation in support, tidily but quite normally clothed — there is no suggestion that these are clergy. We see them, as it were, the way that the bishop or officiating priest would see them; between and slightly behind the side-pairs of the four upright corner columns.

Plan of hypothetical baptistery involved, as reconstructed by Charles Thomas (the viewer's standpoint is marked A).

This flattening-out of architectural subjects, a device to overcome the difficulty experienced in showing buildings - notably the interiors of large buildings — in perspective, isogonic or three-quarters view, has appropriate parallels, particularly when (as here) the technique has to be one involving low relief. Though Roman wall paintings were able to show complex buildings in good, often shaded, perspective of a kind, from an early period (an obvious example would be the Villa Boscoreale frescoes of the first century BC), carving in stone seldom managed to portray this. The flattened conventions were repeated in mosaics, and to some extent in a later low-relief medium, the late classical schools of ivory carving. External flattening, i.e., of a building's exterior, can be seen on a well-known sarcophagus now in the Lateran Museum, Rome, where a temple or mausoleum is so treated. In Roman Britain, this occurs on the surviving part of a third-century frieze from the Temple of Jupiter Dolichenus at Corbridge. Internal flattening is a little more difficult to convey; but again there is a fourth-century sarcophagus from Aries showing the interior of a small basilica with apse and arcades, which repeats on a much grander scale the triune convention seen at Walesby. Christ as the Good Shepherd (centre, apse behind Him) hands the scroll of the Law to Peter; the two side-panels each contain two disciples, turning inwards. This interior convention is also seen on the famous fifth-century mosaic from Tabarka (Thabraca, Tunis), re-constructable as a three-quarters interior view of a large aisled basilican church.

The above reconstruction then, if we allow the limitations of the setting and the medium employed, shows how an anonymous Romano—British artist produced his own version of this convention. The lower part of the figure is simply a general idea of the model he may have had in mind. The scene is good presumptive evidence for the existence of a baptistery of this order of plan in late Roman Britain. Since it appears on this tank, it supports the idea that the Walesby cistern in particular, and therefore probably the whole class, is connected with the sacrament of baptism.

There is also a broad correspondence in size, as far as width and depth both go, between the dimensions of some of these tanks (taking only those with Christian ornament) and the dimensions of the fixed cisterns at Richborough, Icklingham and Witham. One might point out that any such tank could have been accommodated nicely by the central tiled base at Silchester. Clearly none of these containers would measure up to the 'plunge-bath' cisterns found in certain European baptisteries of the fifth and sixth centuries. Against this, all the putative examples from Roman Britain, with an average depth of about 1ft 6in (0.5m), could easily accommodate one standing figure, perhaps two figures, the filled water-level being a little below knee-height.

Charles Thomas


The Walesby tank is of great importance because it shows that women were involved in the baptism of female catechumens in Britain during the 5th century. It confirms other data we have about women ministering among British/Irish Christians.

The tank is one of ca. 20 Roman Christian lead tanks that have been found in Britain. They are unique to Britain. Many carry distinct Christian symbols - like a cross, or a chi-ro (first two letters of Christ's name).

Let us remember what happened at the baptism of women. We know that it was precisely to safeguard women from ‘a public view’ that (a) the baptism took place in a screened off place and (b) was conducted by women. As the Didascalia (3rd cent.) states: “where a woman is available, and especially a deaconess, it is not fitting that women should be seen (naked) by men”. In the East it was the woman deacon who anointed the naked body of the female catechumen and immersed her in the baptismal water. Among the Romano-Bristish these ministers were probably known as Bean-Tighe.

Therefore I cannot agree with the reconstruction of the scene depicted on the Walesby tank as proposed by Charles Thomas. The reason is simple. In his plan, the congregation of the faithful (mainly men!) are watching the baptism of the naked female catechumen. Would this be acceptable in Britain?

I prefer either of two other possible reconstructions.

1. It is possible that the men stand with their backs to the screen that surrounds the baptism font. This is also the position they take up according to the natural curve of the font: the men look outwards.

2. It is also conceivable, in fact more likely, that we are looking at a flat scene. In a wealthy Roman’s mansion, the middle of the house was a small courtyard (the atrium) surrounded by galleries. One had access from the galleries to rooms on the sides, which were screened off by a curtain. Perhaps we are viewing one such gallery from the centre of the courtyard. Through the middle columns we are looking straight into a room where the baptism took place, in privacy. The congregation on the right and the left are waiting in the corridor.

John Wijngaards

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