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Some Fonts: Historical and Beautiful

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In the days of Old England, birth, baptism and confirmation completed, in rapid succession, the entrance of a new little body and soul into the religious life of the community. Believing, as they did, that the souls of infants who died unbaptized would be cast into hell, it was natural that our ancestors should administer the sacrament of baptism at the earliest possible opportunity, and it was customary for a child to be initiated the day after its birth.

Historically considered, the Baptism of Our Lord was only a continuance of Jewish practice; the Christian Sacrament had its beginning at Pentecost. When, in time, Christian ceremonial became more or less formulated, the rite of Confirmation followed within three years, although it was unusual for children to receive the Eucharist (or Communion) before the age of twelve. Of the two great ceremonies of initiation, it was for the latter, rather than for the former rite that the presence of a bishop was, in the early Church, established as indispensable. When the Christian ceremony came into being, it is clear that for some time baptism was confined mainly, if not wholly, to adults, that is, to converts. The methods of adminis tration varied; there was the open-air ceremony, or that employed in a baptistery or a church. As Christianity spread far and wide, holy wells - perhaps venerated as sacred in pagan times - would be requisitioned. Holy wells near churches are especially frequent in Wales and Cornwall; at Llangelynin (Carnarvon shire), for example, there is an ancient well, and the font in the church is certainly not older than the fourteenth century. But baptism in "running water" is beyond any question, for, in a letter of Pope Gregory the Great, S. Augustine is said to have baptized 10,000 per sons on Christmas Day, a.d. 597, at the confluence of the Medway with the Swale, which divides the Isle of Sheppey from Kent.

Whether primitive and early baptism meant total, or only part, immersion is a subject of controversy. It affects the history of fonts from only one point of view, that of their obvious, but gradual, decrease in size through the ages. In any case, the stages are clear; first, open air in river, pool or well; then, as parishes were formed, the closing in of the well by a structure. Thus, then, originated the baptistery as a separate building apart from the church. But, apparently, the baptistery did not become common to Britain. It is known that Cuthbert built a church to serve as a baptistery, close to Canterbury Cathedral, about 750 a.d., dedicated, as usual, to S. John the Baptist. But, strange to say, the custom died away with us. The only genuine baptistery in England (says Sir Stephen Glynne, in his notes on Kentish churches) is at Cranbrook, Kent; but it is of comparatively recent date - 1725.

Affusion gradually supplanted immersion, preceded by an anointing with oil. But into the details of the ceremony, which became very complex during the age of S. Cyril, there is no need to enter; infant baptism slowly took the place of adult baptism; the bath superseded the well, the baptistery enclosed the bath, a tank or tub-shaped vessel followed; then came pedestal fonts on four or five shafts; later, pewter; then earthenware bowls - the Audlem (Cheshire) christening-bowl is an example of the latter; a few wooden fonts survive; such is the appendage-font found at Dinas M a w d d w y (Merioneth), there is another at Efenechtyd (Denbigh-shire); and there is a fine oak font, c. 1500, at Marks Tey (Essex), and another exists at Ash (near Aldershot), the history of which is not known. At L o n g d o n, Worcester, a wooden font, once in use there, now does duty as a bookstand, and carries an old Bible and Jewell's "Apology." At Ashby (Suffolk) is a thirteenth century font with wooden legs.

At the other end of the scale it is recorded that Queen Elizabeth gave two golden fonts, one to Mary Queen of Scots, the other to Charles IX of France, each costing 1,000. At High Wycombe (Bucks) is a silver-gilt font, bearing date 1729. At Canterbury there was once a font of silver, which used to be requisitioned when royal children were about to be baptised.

At Holyrood was a font of brass or copper in which the children of the Kings of Scotland used to be christened; it was carried off by Sir Richard Lea in 1544 and presented to St. Albans. The Roundheads destroyed it. At Little Sidding (Huntingdon) is a brass font presented by Nicholas Ferrar, in 1626, for the little, desecrated church which he had restored for a community numbering with their servants some forty persons, and known far and wide as the "Protestant Nunnery." His manor house was destroyed during the Civil War. The chapel, restored in 1848, has the most interesting interior of Post-Reformation date in England; it is minutely described in Shorthouse's "John Ingle sant," published in 1881.

Coming to simple brick, there is a fine example at Potter Heigham (Norfolk), which seems to have been covered with concrete; there are also brick fonts at Stratford and Chignal Smealey (Essex); the absence of stone in that county is an obvious cause of much brick architecture, and at Chignal Smealey the font stands on the original brick floor.

Lead fonts are mostly late twelfth or early thirteenth century, but there is no period at which they do not occur. Many have doubtless been melted down; some thirty remain, of which number no less than eight are in Gloucestershire, and of these six are made from the same mould; there is a beautiful example at Frampton-on-Severn, in that county. Of foreign workmanship and material is the very interesting, elaborately carved, Italian marble font at Lea, near Micheldean (Glos). It was apparently designed as a holy-water stoup. And there is one iron font, at Blaenavon (Mon) in the church built by the proprietors of the local ironworks, 1805.

There is strong evidence that many of the very early fonts were only wooden tubs, and that the type was preserved when the original one was replaced by a stone font. That at Little Billing (Northants), on account of its palaeological inscription, is considered among the oldest at present known. It bears an unfinished Latin inscription in characters exactly conforming with those on the great seal of William the Conqueror.

Just as the Anglo-Saxon church gave way to the Norman church, so the Norman font would replace the Saxon font. The old font may have been discarded, but not necessarily destroyed; Mr. Bond found a font in a Durham church, and then discovered three more in the vicar's coach-house, two of them of archaic character. Many venerable Anglo-Saxon fonts may be awaiting discovery. At Rotherfield (Sussex) an archaic font, so recovered, has by the pious care of the vicar been replaced in the church. Pre-Norman date is claimed for the font at Patricio (Brecon), on the rim of which is inscribed: "Menhir me fecit in tempore Genellin," "Menhir made me in the time of Genellin." Characteristically pre-Conquest is the fine font at Deerhurst (Glos). Notable among tub-shaped fonts are Orleton (Herefordshire), richly adorned with Norman period figure-sculpture; at Stone (Bucks) the font is remarkable for its elaborate interlacing.

Of the beautiful Norman fonts so widely distributed over our land, Winchester (Cathedral) is remarkable for its symbolism of "vine and branches," as well as for its carvings setting forth well-known incidents in the career of the famous S. Nicholas ("Santa Claus"), the chopping-off by the wicked innkeeper of the schoolboys' heads, the tale of the nobleman, his son, and gold cup, and so on. S. Nicholas appears again at his namesake-church (Brighton), as well as (it is conjectured) Diana, whose temple at Myra was destroyed at the instigation of the good Nicholas. Where a row of figures are shown, the probability is that they are the Apostles; sometimes they can be identified by their symbols. The " Twelve " are on the lead fonts at Ashover (Derbyshire) and Dorchester. At Brookland (Kent) not only the months of the year, but the signs of the Zodiac appear. Twelfth-century sculpture is surprisingly rich and abundant. At Fincham (Norfolk) the Nativity is reduced to its simplest elements, manger, Babe, heads only of the ox and ass; while above is seen a star.

At Cowlam (Yorks) the Virgin is seated, crowned; she nurses a very large Babe, also crowned; and a king offers a gift. At Castle Frome (Herefordshire) the Baptist is baptizing a boy Christ. At WTest Haddon (Northamptonshire) Christ does not stand in the Jordan, but (this is remarkable) in a square font; the Baptist holds a service-book, and an angel holds a large tunic. On another part of the same font Christ rides into Jerusalem. Kirkburn (Yorks) is singular in depicting the deliverance of the keys to S. Peter.

A beautiful example of symbolic art is seen in the font at Stanton Fitzwarren (Wilts), which is richly ornamented by ten arched panels filled with figures; all - excepting number two - are trampling on crouched figures. The inscriptions show that the figures are: (1) Ecclesia, and (2) Cherubim; then the Virtues, (3) Largitas trampling on Avarice, (4) Humilitas on Superbia, (5) Pietas on Discordia, (6) Misericordia on Invidia, (7) Modestia on Ebriatus, (8) Temperantia on Luxuria, (9) Pacienca on Ira, and (10) Pudicia on Libido. A variant of this font is at Southrop (Glos), not far away, where the name of each vice is written backwards and vertically. Favourite symbolic animals are the lion (Stafford, Castle Frome, Hereford, Eardisley, for examples), a centaur with a bow and arrow shooting at a man (West Rounton, Bishop Wilton, Darenth, Kencott); there is a centaur with a spear facing some fearsome beasts at Luppitt (Devon); at Cowlam (Yorks) a beast has a human head in his mouth; at Ham (Staffordshire) he grips another in his claw. At East Haddon (North-ants) a man grips a huge goose-like creature. A salamander, inverted, appears beneath the dripping appendage of Youlgreave font (Derbyshire), and at Salehurst (Sussex), Norton (Derbyshire) and Sculthorpe (Norfolk).

Wild men with hairy skins and bearing clubs, together with figures of lions, are peculiar to a group of East Anglian fonts (Acle, Dickleburgh, Happisburgh, Ludham, New Buckenham and Wymondham, all Norfolk; and Chediston, Halesworth, Saxmundham, Walberswick, Wissett, Suffolk; with Staple, in Kent); but these are fifteenth century work, and the "wild man" is said to be an armorial bearing of a knight who fought at Agincourt.

It is agreed that the finest design in Norman fonts appears in the north-west Norfolk group, comprising Shernborne, Toftrees, Sculthorpe and South Wootton, "the work of a great, unknown, original genius," characterised by the contrast of the circular basin and the square rim, fine shadow effects, richness and beauty of the interlacings, and especially at Sculthorpe - the admirable figure sculpture. It is claimed that this group is unsurpassed in Europe.

Then, there is a group of twelfth to fifteenth century fonts in Cornwall (St. Cuby, Launceston, Bodmin, Altarnun) with non-constructional shafts and other characteristics peculiar to them - masks at the angles of the bowl being one. The beautiful Norman font at S. Petroc's (Bodmin) should be compared with the sister-font at Roche.

To the latter half of the twelfth century belongs a remarkable group of imported fonts, all of great size and richly ornamented, of Tournai marble. The river provided easy carriage down to Ghent, Antwerp and the open sea. Examples are - Winchester Cathedral, East Meon, S. Michael's (Southampton), S. Mary Bourne, all in Hampshire. These are ascribed to the wealthy and generous Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester 1129-1171. Two more are in Lincolnshire - at the cathedral and at Thornton Curtis, near the Humber. Another is at S. Peter's, Ipswich. At Ringmore (Hants) is one apparently copied by local workmen from the four Tournai fonts in the county.

The shell-marble font became very popular during the thirteenth century - there was a great "marble factory" at Purbeck - and a large supply of ready-made shafts, moulded and floriated capitals and vases. "Shop-made" fonts appear, and the elaborate interlacings of the preceding age give way to the dazzle of polished marble, plainly designed.

In the fourteenth century the font designers tended towards one common goal. Shafts - detached or engaged - were discarded, so were the circular or square bowls. Burford (Oxon) with its round bowl, is an exception. The shape of the bowl, it was decided by public opinion, must be a polygon, usually it is an octagon. Either it is a polygon on a polygonal pedestal, or it is a polygon unmounted; the former predominates. Lavish ornament comes into favour again; there is profusion everywhere. Of these ornate designs three may be mentioned: Hull, Hitchin (Herts) and Fishlake (Yorks). Some of this superb design overlaps into the fifteenth century. One extraordinary font is at Lostwithiel, Cornwall. The supports and mouldings point to early fourteenth century, but the mixture of sacred and profane subjects indicates a later date - a Rood with its Mary and John, a huntsman blowing his horn, attended by a dog, and a mitred bishop or abbot with foliage issuing from ears and mouth. On another panel a head with snakes appears.

From the latter part of the fourteenth century up to the dissolution a vast number of fonts were remade. A fifteenth century font - Stoke-by-Nayland (Suffolk) - is one of the finest we possess, with its encircling band of angels; it bears, also, the rose en soleil badge assumed by Edward the Fourth after the battle of Mortimer's Cross, 1461. Then the "Seven Sacraments" fonts become the vogue. The pedestal font is the accepted type, and the octagonal bowl again becomes normal. S. James (Taunton) shows the typical designing of the rectangular panels of the bowl, the Crucifixion being one subject. Then the "Seven Sacraments" form a prominent East Anglian group, sixteen in Norfolk, twelve in Suffolk. The round-turban hat in the Badingham (Suffolk) example points to a date c. 1485. Hardly two fonts exhibit the Sacraments in the normal order.

At Norwich Cathedral is a particularly fine example. At Gresham (Norfolk) the Baptist is pouring water over the head of Our Lord, who stands up to His knees in water. Confirmation is, on all these fonts, Confirmation of infants; it had been ordered by the Synod of Exeter (1287) that children should be confirmed within three years of their birth.

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Pictures for Some Fonts: Historical and Beautiful

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