I make frequent reference in these web pages to the work of the late Mary Curtis Webb (d.1987). In her remarkable and sadly unpublished work “Ideas and Images in Twelfth Century Sculpture” she proved beyond any reasonable doubt that many images, especially on Norman-era fonts and typmana, that have traditionally been dismissed as “abstract”, “geometric” or - worst of all - “Celtic” had deep theological meaning .
It is beyond both the scope of this website and my own limited understanding to precis this deeply scholarly work that was many years in the writing so I can only speak in generalisations. If you want to understand more you really should purchase your own copy from her daughter, Gillian Greenwood, whose contact details are below.
Mary focused on three pieces of Norman carvings:
- The font at Hampstead Norreys in Berkshire, now housed in the nearby church of Stone.
- The tympanum and lintel of the doorway of Dinton Church in Buckinghamshire.
- The tympanum at Pitsford Church in Northamptonshire.
Through extensive research she showed that this group of carvings between them showed two bedrocks of first millennium Christian thinking:
- Reconciliation of the Biblical Creation with the Greek philosophical analysis of the nature of the Cosmos.
- The “Ransom Theory” (discredited by the end of C12) of Man’s redemption through the action of Christ..
At present I have been unable to visit Stone and Dinton Churches and, sadly, Pitsford Church is one that resolutely and shamelessly turns its face away from the casual visitor. Whilst using these three pieces of mediaeval art as her starting point, however, Mary Webb identified several other examples of tympana and fonts that show the same themes. One “cluster” is in Northamptonshire. Apart from the regrettably inaccessible Pitsford tympanum that illustrates the Ransom Theory, there are no fewer than four fonts that have symbolic representations of Plato’s view of the Macrocosm. On this page you will see three of them: at Braybrooke, Thornby and Aston-le-Walls churches. I have been unable thus far to get access to the fourth at Mears Ashby but I hope to do so in due course.
So what the heck is Plato’s Macrocosm? Well first we need to understand that at this point in history the Greek philosophy that the world was composed of four elements - earth, wind, fire and water - was still unchallenged. Plato in his “Timaeus” said “A suitable shape for a living being that was to contain all living beings would be a figure that contains all possible figures within itself. Therefore He (God) turned it into a rounded spherical shape, with extremes equidistant in all directions from the centre. It was designed to supply its own nourishment from its own decay, and to comprise and cause all processes”.
From this and other utterances by Plato a geometric representation of the Cosmos was devised and it is this - the so-called “circle with interlaced arcs” - that we see at this group of Northamptonshire churches. The first known reproduction is in Isidore of Seville’s c8 “De Natura Rerum” but Mary Webb shows that the design was probably considerably older and, more importantly, that the concepts would have been known to most scholars and theologians in the twelfth century.
So, this page is about the four representations of the Cosmos on Northamptonshire fonts. Please see also these other pages on this website:
North West Norfolk “School” of Fonts
The Research of Mary Curtis Webb
Beckford Church (Worcestershire) - where you will see a tympanum showing the Ransom Theory
Dearham Church (Cumbria)