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Dearham (Cumbria)

Bridekirk (Cumbria)

Castle Rising (Norfolk)

Coates-by-Stow (Lincolnshire)

Walsoken (Norfolk)

Studland (Dorset)

Nassington (Northants)

East Brent (Somerset)

Great Gonerby (Lincolnshire)

The Research of Mary Curtis Webb

Recently I received a copy of a work called “Ideas and Images in Twelfth Century Sculpture” by the late Mary Curtis Webb who died in 1987 . Mary Webb’s daughter, delighted to have had discovered my website with its photographs of Norfolk fonts, contacted me and sent me a copy of her mother’s book as a gift.

I find this book to be an astonishingly scholarly work which explores the meaning of geometric designs which are carved on some of England’s Norman fonts .  Mary Webb, having spent much time in the British Museum Reading Room (as it then was) studying photographs of drawings of similar geometric designs in 12th century manuscripts, came to realise that the  geometric patterns carved on 12th c. fonts , such as a square- on- a square, a circle interlaced with its arcs, a rhomb- on- an oblong , are not mere fancies of the carvers , intended as mere decoration , but have deep meaning. She explains that these geometric designs illustrate the cosmology derived from Plato’s “Timaeus and the Theory of Number”  written by the Pythagorean mathematician Nicomachus of Gerasa (Gerasa is known today as Jerash in modern Jordan) who died c. 120 AD. The work of Nicomachus was translated into Latin by Boethius (died c. 524 AD) and this arithmetical primer supplied the Middle Ages with the sole text book available on the subject in the schools!

The early philosophers placed much emphasis on mathematics in their view of the universe. They believed that the universe must be in a harmony that was created by God. This harmony was evident through mathematical relationships. Unsurprisingly, it was none other than Pythagoras who first expounded this theory, and Plato developed it in his “Timaeus”. Thus to these philosophers, for example, the “square-on-a-square” motif represented the “perfection of numbers” .

These ancient cosmological theories came to be adopted by the Church to provide a ‘scientific basis’ for Christian theories on the Creation. Mary Webb shows that a wonderful example of this is to be seen in the geometric carvings on the famous 12th century font in the church of Stone, Buckinghamshire and believed that these intriguing geometric carvings depict God’s Foundation or Creation of the world.

It was Mary Webb’s first encounter with this font that triggered off her many years of research. She did not intend at first to write a book but only to discover for herself the meaning of the geometric designs which are carved on one side of this font together with the meaning of the pictorial carvings which are carved on the other side. However, over the years her research ballooned into a book. At the time of her death she still had not finished her work and it fell to her daughter, years later, to try to sort her papers and print them as a book. This was completed in 2010 and so the risk of her work being lost altogether was thankfully avoided.

The Norfolk fonts of Toftrees, Shemborne and Sculthorpe (all shown on my website) and Braybrooke in Northants are also wonderfully carved with meaningful geometric designs that echo those on the font at Stone. There are several other ancient fonts in different parts of England carved with meaningful geometric designs.  Here I include a note written by  Mary’s daughter:

Many twelfth century fonts are carved with geometric designs similar to these. These designs were not carved as mere decoration, but have deep meaning, the circular designs interlaced by their arcs being of particular interest since these are a representation of Cosmic Harmony, going back ultimately to Plato’s description of the World Soul in his “Timaeus” dialogue. The Church Fathers, notably Origen in the third century adopted this figure as a reference to God’s Creation of the Universe.

In manuscripts going back at least to the seventh century, such figures often contain the four elements from which according to Plato, the world is formed , earth, fire, air and water (the Macrocosm) and alternatively the four humours of man,  blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy  (the Microcosm).

Since the middle ages the significance of these designs has been largely forgotten. It would be a great loss to our artistic heritage and our understanding of the medieval mind, if we fail to understand and conserve precious carvings such as these.”

It is startling to see imagery reflecting Greek philosophy dating back nearly 1500 years carved on fonts and elswhere. Reading Mary Webb’s book one is struck by the depth of thinking that went into the evolution of Greek philosophies, the work of Euclid, Archimedes, Pythagoras. To those of us who love to study geometric carvings on fonts, it is clear that there are other designs still waiting to be explained and understood and I feel sure that Mary Webb would love to have had time to study them.

The fonts at (left) Sculthorpe in Norfolk and (right) Rock in Worcestershire, both showing circles with interlaced arcs.

More Interlaced Arcs. Left: Bagthorpe Font, Norfolk. Right: South door capital, Dearham, Cumbria.

So far, nay-sayers might still suggest that the Greek motifs are simply some part of a decorative schema; that amongst the mass of Norman decoration in England these images are somehow random. My riposte to that argument would the interlaced arcs symbols on the font at Bagthorpe and on the door capitals in Dearham (pictures above). The Bagthorpe font is plain on all its three other sides. The Dearham symbol appears on capitals otherwise decorated only with repeated spiral motifs. Surely nobody could suggest that these too were random doodles in stone? One surmises they were not particularly easy to carve. Why go to all of this trouble - and at locations more than 200 miles apart and on artifacts otherwise having little or no other adornments - if they were of no significance?

The Euclidian “Flower”

Mary Webb’s work is extremely convincing and is backed by an awesome nexus of ancient manuscripts and philosophical documents. Once you have “bought into” her arguments, they provoke a whole new mindset when looking at Romanesque carvings.

When we look at Sculthorpe font (picture above), one side has a trio of large geometric carvings. As we have seen Mary Webb had explanations for both the  the central “square on a square” and the right hand “Circle with Interlaced Arcs” motifs. They are found on other Norman fonts in England, including at Rock in Worcestershire pictured above. So what then are we to make of the left hand flower-shaped motif? Mary Webb does not discuss this but, having read her work, it seems inconceivable that the carver just thought he would complement the other designs with a pretty doodle. Yet it is a common enough design in Romanesque sculpture as we shall see. So does it owe anything to Greek philosophy in the way that the other designs do?

Well, a website written by the American Sim Ayers attributes this design to Euclidian geometry - see http://www.sbebuilders.com/tools/geometry/treatise/Applied-Geometry.html. Nobody seems quite sure what it means. Sim Ayers himself writes:

“The six petal flower design may also be a signature, left behind during the passage of an apprentice geometer or apprentice mason, one who knows the road to Euclid. When you see the Euclidean six point geometric drawing on the Knights Templar tombstone at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, is it a six petal flower design, daisy wheel or a religious sex symbol, or the seed of life symbol or just six point geometric construction?”

A fellow church historian, Bob Trubshaw, points out very reasonably that this design is ubiquitous possibly because it was relatively simple for a carver to draw with compasses. When you see it on Sculthorpe font alongside two other Greek-inspired deisgns, though, I think it is reasonable to conclude that it too had some more intellectual significance. There are other examples shown on my website: a Norman door at Bredwardine; a stone relocated to serve as a window sill in Eardisley; and on the font at Egleton in Rutland. Geometric they may be, draw-able with compasses they may be, but the carvers at Sculthorpe, Bredwardine and Eardisley did not stop at that. The six “petals” were decorated with veins to make sure we knew they were indeed leaves or petals. The carvers also included circles between the petals. Again, it is hard to see that there was no significance to this.

Note also that both the Toftrees carving and that at Bredwardine have a pair of concentric circles at their perimeters . This is surely not a coincidence either but has some deeper significance.  What is fascinating is that once you accept Mary Webb’s assertion that some of the designs are not random patterns but have religio-philosophical meaning you quickly realise that other designs may also have such significance.

Egleton Font and Tympanum

Egleton font in Rutland, unlike the others here, has a Euclidian design that is not adorned to look like a flower motif. We can see that this one has probably not been drawn with compasses: it lacks any geometric precision. Indeed this font is crudely decorated all round. Someone has gone to some trouble to carve it though. Is it just a doodle or does it have meaning? Why six petals? Egleton’s tympanum also has a six-petalled motif. We can be sure that this was NOT drawn with compasses. A pretty design or a meaningful motif?

We still haven’t finished with Sculthorpe font, however! When we look at it - and indeed all of the churches that comprise the so-called “North West Norfolk School” - we see all four corners decorated with a head. This is possibly the most recurrent feature (although not ever-present by any means) on rectangular-profile Norman fonts in England. I quote Bob Trubshaw:

“...the heads in the four corners...for once we do have a fairly reliable idea of what they were intended to denote. They were the four rivers of Paradise...the rite of the purification for the water to be used for baptism is based on Genesis 2:10 which refers to the four rivers of Paradise (viz. Phison, Gehon, Tigris and Euphrates). More specifically, it refers to the sources of these rivers - their headwaters...It would be easy to “explain” the heads of the fonts as devils being cast out by the rite of baptism. Indeed, baptism is to all intents and purposes a rite of exorcism, and several mediaeval illustrations show devils emerging from the mouths of those being baptised. But clearly, not all the heads on fonts are “devilish” - most look benign, at least in a stern sort of manner.”

When we look at the picture of the font at Greetham in Rutland (below) we can even see the possibility that the flow of water has been represented. Certainly this font which has only these heads and simple (although beautifully-executed) decoration has no sense of representing the casting out of devils.

Greetham Font

Mary Webb was able to inform us of the Greek origins of some of the font decorations in North West Norfolk and elsewhere. In my own modest way I have speculated that the “Euclidian Flower” is complementary to Mary Webb’s thesis. Bob Trubshaw, quite independently, has an explanation for the four corner heads. Put all that together and there is a compelling case that at least some of our Romanesque fonts were decorated in accordance with the received l religio-philosophical wisdom of the day. We might go as far as to classify our Norman fonts thus:

  • The Vulgar: Covering those fonts (perhaps the majority) that as far as we can see were decorated according to the whims and limitations of the carver, himself probably a humble and uneducated man. Look at Crick in Northamptonshire.
  • The Scriptural: Those that were out-and-out representations of scenes from the Bible. Look at West Haddon in Northamptonshire.
  • The Secular: Those that show scenes from the lifestyle of the time - for example, “Labours of the Months” fonts. Look at Burnham Deepdale in Norfolk.
  • The Symbolic: Those such as Shernborne, Toftrees and Sculthorpe that reflected the thinking of the intellectual elite of their time.

Of course, not every font would fit easily into one of these categories and sometimes what might appear “vulgar” could indeed be “symbolic”. Still, it’s discussion point.

The Ransom Theory of the Salvation of the World

So far, this page has used as its premise Mary Webb’s theories on the Creation of the World as seen by the Greeks. She also, however, identified at several of our churches the depiction of a long-superseded ancient theory of the Salvation of the World - the so called “Ransom Theory”. The principal basis for her research was Hampstead Norreys Church font in Berkshire - now housed in Stone Church in the same county -  upon which both the Creation and Salvation theories are depicted.

Left: The tympanum above the north door at Beckford Church in Worcestershire, illustrating the Ransom Theory. Christ is spearing Satan with his cross. He holds a cord in his left hand with which to bind Satan. Adam is being released. Right: One of the capitals on the north doorway. Note the geometric design. Given that all Mary Webb discovered and its proximity to the “Ransom Theory” tympanum we are entitled to ask “what does this mean?”

I return again to the words of Mary’s daughter: “ Mary Webb came to see that the carvings on the two sides of the (Hampstead Norreys) font have to be considered, not separately, but as a whole, because they in fact depict the Two Works of God – the Work of the Creation of the World and  the Work of the Salvation of the World.

In contrasting the two sides of the font the elaborate geometric carvings which had apparently been dismissed as mere decoration are shown to illustrate the cosmology derived from Plato’s Timaeus and the theory of Number to be found in Boethius’ Arithmetic . These carvings depict the Creation of the World.

(Boethius ’ Latin translation of the 2nd century Pythagorean Nicomachus of Gerasa’s  Arithmetical Primer supplied the Middle Ages with the sole text book available on the subject in the schools ! ) .

The source of the pictorial carvings (depicting the Salvation of the World ) on the other side of the font is the ancient Alexandrian Ransom Theory as expounded by Pope Gregory the Great in his lengthy commentary on the Book of Job, “The Moralia in Job”,  and to a lesser extent in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. Mary Webb shows how the carvers followed their two source books in exact detail.

“The Ransom Theory was based on an assumption that a deception had been practised by the Devil upon Adam and Eve into committing the sin of disobedience to God’s command, in consequence of which the human race fell under the absolute power of the Devil. God’s love for his creatures determined that their ransom must be paid but the price of that ransom required by the Devil was nothing less than the blood and soul of the Son of God. Since Divine Justice must allow this claim it must also allow a method of quid pro quo in the form of its payment. Thus by a divine stratagem the Deceiver himself was deceived and brought upon himself his own destruction. God being the fisherman with Jesus as bait, the Devil, unaware that the human flesh offered was divine was caught like a fish on the “hook of Divinity”.

The Ransom Theory was the first attempt by the growing church to explain why God became incarnate in a man and it is to be found in the C3 writings of Origen, Master of the school for baptismal candidiates in Alexandria.

The theory seems to have had scant scriptural evidence to support it. Even though it was asked how it could be that God became bound by a debt of honour to the Devil it nevertheless spread widely across the Christian world. It survived for nearly 1000 years until superseded in C12 by Amselm’s “Doctrine of the Atonement”.

After this time these carved motifs were no longer produced but the tympanum at Beckford and the stunning Norman font at Eardisley (also contained within Mary Curtis Webb’s discourse) still testified to the related old belief in the “Harrowing of Hell” which supposedly explained what happened in the three days between Christ’s crucifixion and His resurrection. It seems that the Normans were rather taken with the martial overtones of this idea.

If you imagined that Christian belief was all based upon the unadorned word of the Bible, then Mary Webb’s book could be a bit of a shock. She shows that for the first millennium Christianity was being pushed and pulled to fit in with the long-standing cosmic, mathematical and philosophical beliefs promoted by the Greeks and still nurtured by England’s intellectual elite. What we see on our fonts and tympani is not just the synthesis of Christian and pagan symbolism as many of us assumed but also of centuries-old Greek symbolism.

Should we be surprised at this? Only, perhaps, if we never delve into the rather murky evolution of Christian doctrine. Today we are used to “Protestant” and “Roman Catholic” beliefs co-existing relatively peacefully. We all know that this co-existence was forged in centuries of blood and fire. What is less obvious is that there has been 2000 years of disagreement and internecine warfare within the Christian “family” created by four less-than-definitive Gospels written sixty years after Christ’s crucifixion - in Greek - by men who “weren’t there” and by the extraordinary facility of some religious zealots to dance on - and fight on - the head of a theological pin!

One such man was Augustine of Hippo (not to be confused with the St Augustine who was despatched to England by Pope Gregory). Augustine was born in Algeria and lived from 354-430AD. From him came the now-discredited doctrine of Predestination and the far-from-discredited but bleak (to put it mildly) doctrine of Original Sin. Peter Berresford Ellis, a noted writer on the early church described him thus: `”He has become generally recognised as the greatest Christian theologian of this early period, fusing the religion of the early Christians with the Platonic tradition of Greek philosophy.” My italics.

The book,  “Ideas and Images in 12th century Sculpture” by Mary Curtis Webb, although unpublished and not for sale in bookshops or on Amazon,  is available in CD format from her daughter on

gillyflower123@googlemail .com

Or you can download it free from here: http://search.ugent.be/meercat/x/view/rug01/001879684

It can also be seen in some Public (and other) Libraries.  List available on request.