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Northants Fonts and Plato’s Cosmos

Ellerburn (Yorkshire)

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Dearham (Cumbria)

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Northants Fonts and Plato's Cosmos

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 In her remarkable and sadly unpublished work “Ideas and Images in Twelfth Century Sculpture” she proved beyond any reasonable doubt that many images, especially on Norman-era fonts and typmana, that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:

  1. The font at Hampstead Norreys in Berkshire, now housed in the nearby church of Stone.
  2. The tympanum and lintel of the doorway of Dinton Church in Buckinghamshire.
  3. 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)

Braybrooke: All Saints

Braybrooke Church, just outside Market Harborough, is a quintessential English country church. It took about three hundred years for today’s structure to evolve but to all intents and purposes it is a Perpendicular church. Its south chapel is described by Pevsner, with characteristic understatement, as “ambitious”. Its grey dressed stone is in harsh contrast to the mellow orange ironstone of the nave and chancel. It is a triumph of mediaeval pride over good taste. This is not a church likely to long detain the casual visitor. Its font, however, is another matter. This webpage is about those Northamptonshire fonts mentioned by Mary Curtis Webb in her book. Of these fonts, however, Braybrooke’s is perhaps the only one of a quality that would make us sit up even if there was no such association. In the picture above right is the circle with interlaced arcs motif. It is perhaps the best example of its kind in England. It is finely executed and it is hardly surprising, therefore, that this is, as Mary Webb has proved, far from being just some fancy of the sculptor. Pevsner describes them as “rosettes”!

Top Left: One of the sides has this fine carving of two intertwined monsters.

Top Right: A large leaf pattern. Are those grapes that fill in the space at the top of the design?

Above: This also is an enigmatic design. There is a merman - Pevsner saw it only as a “figure”, surely incorrectly - about to eat a fish, tail first! What can this mean? The mermaid was seen as an example of a “syren”. The syrens wre represented in Greek mythology, most famously in Homer’s “Odyssey” as luring hapless sailors onto rocks. The Christian church adopted this as an allegory for being lured from the path of righteousness and on this font it is a reasonable assumption that the fish about to be consumed represents a Christian who succumbed and is about to be devoured. Mary Webb was, however, intrigued by the “stepped cross” design to its right. She believed that the ascending steps of the cross were meant to contrast with the descent of the merman with its victim.

Thornby: St Helen

Both internally and externally, Thornby Church is an unassuming place. Pevsner dismisses of as “of little architectural interest” and it would be hard to disagree. It’s the usual hotchpotch of Gothic and Tudor styles with a c14 tower and some Victorian rebuilding. It’s a pleasant enough little church, though, both inside and out and there is something about that warm Northamptonshire ironstone (above left) that warms the heart. The use of contrasting stones in the north arcade of 1870 (above right) is a pleasant decorative device.

The Norman font is pleasant enough but without Mary Webb’s insights it would be one strictly for the Norman font “trainspotters” rather than being worth a detour. Pevsner has nothing interesting to say about it. Yet it has, indisputably and uniquely, not one “circle with interlaced arcs” motifv but two.  The rest of the decoration is also geometric. It is rather crude and muddled - a far cry from Braybrooke’s fine work - yet the carver took the trouble to represent Plato’s view of the Cosmos and must surely have been doing so under instruction from a clergyman or monk with a much wider education than his own.

The font seems to have incurred some damage with both the top and the bottom of the circular bowl appearing to have sustained some loss. If you focus on the floral device to the top left of the left picture and then look to the picture on the right you will see that the two interlaced arcs designs are actually contiguous and, what is more, one of the arcs from each font is interlinked with the other. This might explain something that has been perplexing me: each of the circles has not four interlaced arcs but five. Since the four arcs are supposed to represent the four elements - earth, wind, fire and water how can this be? We could speculate that the use of the design here was indeed purely decorative - that the carver had no idea of its philosophical significance. That seems unlikely when other decorations on this font are so anodyne. Why stretch his limited talent in this way? Perhaps he misunderstood his brief? More likely in my view is that the fifth arc on each circle is there purely because he wanted to link the two. That link might be simply a freelance decorative frippery or it could be that his instructor had some obscure symbolism of his own in mind that required two linked cosmic designs. Well we can’t know the answer but Thornby does represent something of a mystery.

Left: This side of the font shows the strongest signs of damage. Here too we see the poverty of the carver’s techniques most exposed. Right: The final part of the font shows little improvement!

Aston-le-Walls: St Leonard

Like the other churches on this page, Aston-le-Walls Church has not attracted much attention from the historians. Leaving aside the Norman fonts, Aston Church has the clearest signs of Norman architecture. The lowest part of its tower with round-headed arches and deeply-splayed windows is clearly of this period. The blocked north door has a pointed arch but its capitals tell us that it is probably Transitional, possibly Early English. So it has an ancient core but c19 restoration has left little of interest. The font, like that at Braybrooke, is square in plan and, like that at Thornby, poorly executed. The circle interlaced with arcs motif (I really must find a shorter name for it!) is shown above right. What distinguishes this font from Braybrooke’s - apart from its poor quality - is that each corner has a carved face. Amongst others, most of the North Norfolk School of Norman fonts have this feature. Bob Trubshaw very plausibly ascribes such designs as representing the four rivers of paradise.

Left: One side of the font shows a Tree of Life motif. Right: The last refuge of the Norman font carver who was fresh out of ideas was, it seems, a length of “blind arcading” that became such a fashionable device throughout the late Norman and Early English periods. The problem was that our carver, like so many of his contemporaries, found that the draughtsmanship required rather outstripped his abilities! Some of the lengths of blind arcading adorning the outsides of churches especially in the Early English period were exquisitely executed. Take a look, for example at the west end of Felmersham Church in Bedfordshire. Some Norman fonts are amongst the finest artistic work of the Mediaeval period but it is clear that font carving was sometimes delegated to the odd job man!

Left: Like the man who carved the Thornby font, our carver decided to use a kind of saltire cross design to pad out his design. Oddly, though, he seems to have been determined to keep it as a 6x6 square rather than using all of the rectangular space available to him, thus leaving an awkward blank space. Given the significance of the interlaced arcs did his patron (surely an educated monk?) intend this panel also to have symbolic significance? It’s hard to believe that the carver would choose otherwise to leave empty space that he could so easily have filled. Note also the heads at each corner of the font. Right: The view to the east of the church.

Left: One of the corner heads. Note the zig-zag pattern below. Centre: The north door with its pointed arch but Romanesque-type proportions is probably Transitional. Right: The tower is part of the original Norman structure.