Collections on church architecture: fonts

One of the many joys of working with archives is the surprising nature of the work: even the most unexpected collections can pose fascinating questions, in this instance a collection of 13 binders (the H. Sanderson Stewart Collection) filled with pictures of English church fonts, along with sometimes amusing commentary from the photographer. Taking three diverse examples, I hope to show not only the range of fonts in this collection but also how the archive collections can give rise to fascinating questions and answers.

STEWART 2 - Stone
My interest in this collection was started by the above font in Stone, Staffordshire. These images carved some 800 years ago stand as allegorical, typological, tropological, thematic and stylised pictures. How one looks at them raises questions around theology, contemporary understanding of the bestiary tradition, and local understanding and interpretation of religious events and characters. The way that secular concerns influenced the choice of decoration is particularly evident in my third example below.  These early fonts also stand as an important reminder that far from being the preserve of a religious or ‘intellectual’ elite the stories and symbology of the bestiaries were available to, and addressed, lay people and concerns.[1]  This is not to imply a literal study of decoration, but rather a rich visual and oral tradition in which the fonts and their carvings played an important role. It is important to remember throughout this brief examination of a small number of fonts is that no carving or picture of animals has one single meaning. They are filled with ambiguities and contradictions and represent a flexibility inherent in much nonrepresentational art.

The first font to consider is Stone, Buckinghamshire. This is assumed to be a 12th century work, with the carving being contemporary to the font.[2]  There have been many attempts to interpret the carvings, from Heracles’ 12 labours,[3] to Christ’s descent into hell, or the resurrection. The sequence of images surrounding the font is now thought to represent a suma illustrating the then understood essential works of God – that of foundation and restoration. This is an understanding based on Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job and the historical understand of Platonic cosmology and science [for a more in-depth account of the history of this theological idea see the book by Mary Curtis Webb cited below].

The description of the image as the “descent into hell” describes the central figure as Christ, posed with outstretched hands, one pointing towards a large fish, identifiable as a whale or leviathan (the whale signifies the devil, who deceives those he drags down to hell; those of weak faith who give in to the sweet odour of worldly desires will be swallowed up by the devil). The hand however holds a knife showing its eventual fate. Against the figure’s right leg one can see a salamander. This was a very common symbolic animal with clearly defined characteristics and a place in Christian imagery. The salamander represents righteous people, who can withstand fire, just as the Book of Daniel recounts the escape unharmed from the fiery furnace. Interestingly enough the Abbey at Reading, where this font originated, has a list of the books held there during the 12th century. These included Augustine’s City of God, as well as collections of contemporary bestiaries. So we know that the imagery and symbolism discussed here were well known to the people involved in designing, commissioning, and building the font.

The most clearly identifiable figure in this mix is the dragon on the right side of the figure. The representation of this is clear to anyone with even a passing knowledge of traditional imagery. It is here shown with its back to the central Christ figure showing its rejection of God and to further clarify the image it holds a dammed soul in its hands, as shown by the flaming haired face on the far right.

Further support for this interpretation comes via the bird pecking at the dragon, on the right of the picture. Here the bird is identified as a vulture – not a bird one normally associates with Christian imagery nowadays. However, in the writings of Isidore of Seville you can find the claim “The vulture (vultur) has its name from its slow flight (volutas), which is a result of its large body. The females do not engage in sex, but conceive without intercourse”. This is then moralised, as those who say that Christ’s birth to a virgin is impossible are to look to the example of the vulture, which gives birth without mating.

Furthermore, in Pope Gregory’s Moralia one finds “Rightly is the Mediator between God and man called a Vulture”; he writes, “Who, while remaining in the loftiness of His divine nature, marked as from a kind of flight on high the carcass of our mortal being here down below, and let Himself drop from the region of Heaven to the lowest place. On our behalf He vouchsafed to become man. While He sought the dead creature, He found death among us, Who was deathless in Himself.” One can also see similarities between the image carved here and the Cambridge bestiary.

On the left hand side of the figure there is the wolf. The wolf has a long and fascinating story attached to it from the bestiaries; from the simple “Like the wolf, the devil always sees mankind as prey and circles the sheepfold of the faithful, that is the Church” to “As the wolf cannot turn his neck, so the devil never turns towards the correction of penitence.”

There is much more to discuss about this font but there are 13 binders of pictures and two other examples to look at. However, this is a fascinating tale of how the adaptation of biblical stories, theology and late classical ideas on nature and science interacted with one another.

STEWART 10 - Ipswich

Another font of interest is that of St Peter’s, Ipswich, Suffolk. This font whilst being simpler than the other poses some very interesting questions and opportunities, firstly about how these artists decided to represent animals that they would never have seen, and secondly the question of their production. The carving of church fonts had, over time, become a large-scale enterprise and had developed into different schools and local fashions.  This font, being carved of Tournai marble (a blue-black carboniferous limestone), is readily identifiable and traceable to that region. It is most striking therefore how far the work has travelled. Fonts of this material are found throughout Europe and contain similar motifs and designs and form. They have the same dimensions and traditionally repeated images or motifs, and where they do contain figures or biblical scenes the figures are clearly done in similar fashion and are as readily identifiable as the stone on which they are carved. Considering all this, it has been established that there was a vigorous industry exporting these fonts which extended from the 12th century to the end of the 15th. You can trace them back to the Meuse valley in modern Belgium with a recognised art style called Mosan. This school of art was concentrated in the area around Liege and the Benedictine monastery of Stavelot. The art produced by the Mosan school includes architecture and sculpture from ivory carving and stone sculpture, to illuminated manuscripts and other forms of miniature painting. Mosan art has been most renowned for its metalwork, including goldsmithing, enamelwork and jewellery art. Some of the most well know medieval artists of the Mosan school include the goldsmith Godefroid de Claire (c.1100-73) and the goldsmith Nicholas of Verdun (c.1156–1232), who was also one of the leading enamellers of the Middle Ages.[4]

For this particular font the animals depicted are meant to be lions. This has some obvious connotations and some less than obvious ones. From Isidore of Seville to Bartholomaeus Anglicus it is said that the forehead and tail signify their virtue and that lions with curly manes are weak but those with straight hair are strong and violent. And so on the font we see lions with large tails and no mane. They are known for their claws and so those are emphasised, and the faces show the curiously human faces found so often in the bestiaries.

STEWART 4 - Hodnet

Other attempts at a lion can be found in the font in St Luke, Hodnet, Shropshire. Here one sees an attempt at a lion with the tail curved over the body and still lacking a mane. The peculiarities of this font can be explained by the interpolation of secular factors into church design, that being the commissioning of a new font. To begin with, one of the interesting thing to note here is that whilst the animal looks like the heraldic lion most people are familiar with, in that instance the animal is in actuality called a leopard, an animal with surprisingly negative connotations: “The leopard is the degenerate offspring of the adulterous mating of a lion (leo) and a pard”; as well as “The leopard is a beast most cruel, and is gendered in spouse-breach of a pard and of a lioness”.[5] Why then would they be on a font? The simple answer is that this attitude and connotation had shifted and evolved by the end of the 12th century as the heraldic symbol was adopted by the Plantagenet kings Richard and John, first for use in seals and later as heraldic symbols.[6]  The eagle here again is clearly heraldic rather than looking to symbolise a bestiary eagle. However the connotations of both are similar. The bird also has many clear Christian associations but, in this instance and more importantly perhaps, it appears on the family crests of the Paget family including William Paget who served as the member of parliament for Lichfield in the 16th century before being made 1st Baron Paget of Beaudesert in Shropshire. His arms included heraldic lions (leopards) and eagles.[7]

The other image is more traditional, consisting of a peacock, an animal that can be found throughout this period with recognisable connotations: “The flesh of the peacock is so hard that it does not rot, and can hardly be cooked in fire or digested by the liver”.[8]  It was also meant to shed and regrow its feathers each year symbolising immortality and rebirth.

This brief introduction to fonts and symbolism has, I hope, shown the diversity of information even simple archival collections can provide and the links that can be drawn in from a wealth of sources. This is only a small glimpse of the material readily available in the  archive. The Stewart collection on fonts is available to consult at the Church of England Record Centre.

NOTES

[1] Strickland, Debra Higgs, and Hassig, Debra. The Mark of the Beast : The Medieval Bestiary in Art, Life, and Literature. New York ; London: Garland Pub, 1999.

[2] Webb, Mary Curtis, and Greenwood, Gillian. Ideas and Images in Twelfth Century Sculpture : The Transmission of Ideas and Their Visual Images from the First to the Twelfth Centuries. 2010.

[3] Ettlinger, Ellen. “The Font at Stone” Records of Buckinghamshire, Vol 17 part 4, 1964.

[4] “Mosan Art” http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/history-of-art/mosan-school.htm

[5] Badke, David “The Medieval Bestiary”, Leopard, http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast547.htm

[6] Woodward, John. A Treatise on Heraldry, British and Foreign, with English and French Glossaries. New and Enlarged ed. Edinburgh ; London: W. & A.K. Johnston, 1896.

[7] Jack, Sybil M. “Paget, William”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/21121

[8] Badke, David “The Medieval Bestiary”, Peacock, http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast257.htm

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