CHURCH ARCHITECTURE by Edward Wyatt
The river was the earliest source of water for baptism. Christianity spread after its recognition by Constantine in AD 312 and baptism was often performed indoors by a bishop using a small bath. As time passed it was far more convenient for the rite to be carried out within the parish. It is possible that before the creation of stone fonts wood was used; remains of an oak font are at Marks Tey, Essex. Saxon fonts date from the late 9th century. That at Deerhurst is one of the oldest in the country. Most fonts were carved from a single block of stone; granite, marble or for the majority limestone. Many older fonts were lined with lead to protect the stone from the effects of water. Post-Reformation fonts were not lined since they were usually made from marble and it was no longer the practice for water to be retained in the font. Today the font is often the oldest part of a church and many fonts retain their original structure.
The earliest fonts were rounded, tub-shaped and decorated with cable moulding. Square fonts were also produced, cut from rough blocks of stone to provide four panels which could be carved. In some parts of the country, eg Purbeck, the rock only occurred in a shallow bed and so necessitated the addition of a separate pedestal. Sometimes shafts were built at the corners, often in clusters and decorated. Decoration in early fonts included pagan symbols (green man), circles and stars, legends and folklore and naturalistic designs. Norman fonts (about sixty still remain) are usually square or circular and generally have fine carvings. That at Southrop has fine figures of the virtues trampling on the vices, the names of the vices are written backwards. During the 12th and 13th centuries the decoration on fonts became more elaborate. Some fonts were made from moulded lead panels. One quarter of all lead fonts (nine) are in Gloucestershire.
By the 14th and 15th centuries font design became more uniform in both design and the material used. Most fonts were made locally, sometimes by itinerant craftsmen. An octagonal font (occasionally hexagonal) came into fashion, carved from limestone, and remained so until the Reformation. This was mounted on an octagonal pedestal which in turn was set on an octagonal base. Frequently all was placed on steps to bestow dignity. Some square fonts were changed by having their corners removed. Designs on the panels included trefoil and quatrefoil patterns, scenes from the lives of the four evangelists and the Seven Sacraments (the last panel of eight showed a religious scene). All but two of the fonts showing the Seven Sacraments are in East Anglia. Even the underside of the bowl was decorated. This was the time when font design was at its grandest. During rebuilding many churches threw out their earlier font.
During the Reformation many fonts were mutilated by having their superstitious symbols and representations chiselled away, especially those depicting the Seven Sacraments. Many damaged fonts were replaced by new ones. Several old fonts have been recovered from farmyards and gardens. Nearly one quarter of all fonts were made after the Reformation, many for new churches. They have a much smaller bowl and a classical design with finely turned pedestals. During the Oxford Movement a return was made to Gothic forms. They are readily distinguished by their excessive decoration, no lead lining and no evidence of hinges for covers.
Variations in Norman fonts:
Canon law required the holy water to be changed each week. Often it was stolen for sorcery and other rites. During the 13th century the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered fonts to be covered to reduce theft. In 1287 Bishop Quivel of Exeter ordered the cover to be locked in place. Much damage was done to the stonework of fonts in positioning hinges, in cases portions of the rim broke away. The hinges rusted, expanded and again pieces of the font broke away. There are some elaborate font covers still in existence, a few reach into the roof. The covers in Tewkesbury Abbey and Westbury-on-Severn needed a pulley to move them. Imagine how amazing they would have looked with their colour and gilt decoration.
Some churches have a small entrance in their north wall. This would be left open at baptism to allow the child's evil spirits to leave. It was also used for processions.
The Parochial Church Council of the Ecclesiastical Parish of St Mary and St Nicolas Prestbury Cheltenham - Registered Charity No 1130933
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