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Shere (Surrey)

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The Research of Mary Curtis Webb

A couple of years ago I received a copy of  “Ideas and Images in Twelfth Century Sculpture” by the late Mary Curtis Webb who died in 1987 . Mary Webb’s daughter, Gillian Greenwood, delighted to have discovered my website with its photographs of Norfolk fonts, contacted me and sent me the last copy of her mother’s book as a gift. As you might expect, I have read innumerable books about church architecture and furnishings but none made the impact on me that this book made. The truth is that in church architecture, as in most fields of study I suppose, much of what you see is just a slightly different version of what someone else has already written. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it makes really original research-based work all the more admirable.

This book was never published in bookshops and deserves a wider audience. With the permission of Mary’s daughter you can read or download all of it at the from this page for FREE! Just navigate to the bottom of the page. If you cherish Norman imagery or have an interest in early church history this is an amazing “freebie” for you.

“Ideas and Images in Twelfth Century Sculpture” is an astonishingly scholarly work which explores the meaning of some of the imagery we see in and on our Norman churches. The three main focuses of her attention were:

  • The font from HAMPSTEAD NORREYS (Buckinghamshire) -   now in St John the Baptist Church, Stone.
  • The tympanum of PITSFORD Church in Northamptonshire.
  • The tympanum and door lintel of SS Peter and Paul, DINTON in Buckinghamshire which is very close to Stone and where we see depicted the winged and laughing Christ.

I don’t think it would be unfair to say that most people regard most Romanesque carving as impenetrable to the modern mind (as I largely do myself!). The genius of Mary Webb’s work was to scrutinise carvings in minute detail and then to search the libraries and museums of Europe for material that would explain them. In doing so she gave remarkable insights into the intellectual tensions felt by the academic elite of the twelfth century Church.

I am going to start with the area of her study that has most fired my own (and, I suspect, her own) imagination - the decorations on Hampstead Norreys font which, as we will see, are repeated elsewhere in England. 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 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. As Gillian says herself: 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”.

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When you look at the complexity of the geometric designs here it is pretty obvious that they must mean something - but what? 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 twelfth century manuscripts, came to realise that they are not mere fancies of the carvers, intended as 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 (picture top right) 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. As Mary Webb herself said:

“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 (see picture top left), 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)”

It would be pointless for me to even try to paraphrase Mary Webb’s research here when you can now read it for yourself. The key point is simply that the Church was trying as late as the twelfth century to reconcile the Christian view of the world and its Creation with centuries-old Greek philosophy. The evidence for Mary Webb’s findings is overwhelming. If you are a sceptic, however, you can be forgiven for wondering if this imagery is so profound would we not expect to see it elsewhere? The answer is “yes” and that we can!

Stottesden Font

Circles with Interlaced Arcs (Cosmic Harmony) symbolism on fonts at : Above Left: Sculthorpe (Norfolk)  Above Right: Bagthorpe (Norfolk)  Below Left: Rock (Worcestershire)  Below Right: Stottesden (Shropshire)

Sculthorpe and Bagthorpe are two of a cluster of Norfolk churches whose fonts have this design. The others are Toftrees and Shernborne. Stottesden and Rock are both carved by the Herefordshire School of carvers. There is another cluster in Northamptonshire that encompasses Braybrooke, Thornby, Aston-le-Walls and Mears Ashby in Northamptonshire. It is interesting that the Bagthorpe font has only this one carving: the other three sides are blank. It is quite obvious, therefore, that this was not regarded as a piece of simple decoration: someone was determined that it should be there. There is another example of this design - not, for once, on a font but on a door capital - in Dearham (Cumbria). Again, someone went to some trouble to carve it on an otherwise undecorated church.

Left: Dearham south doorway with circle-interlaced-with-arcs (there really should be a more succinct name for this design!)   Right: Greetham (Rutland)

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. I include this as another example of Norman imagery not always being as it would seem - in the great tradition of Mary Webb.

Stoke Canon Font, Devon

Stoke Canon Church is not one that you would regard as unmissable although it is re-establishing itself as a community centre in a way that I thoroughly approve of.  I went simply because it has a Norman font. It is a font, however, that strikes you immediately as being very much in the style of those that Mary Webb researched so thoroughly.

Stoke Canon Web028
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All four sides are variations on a theme. Each has a diagonal cross with three or four strands to each arm with variations in the way the arms of the cross intersect at the centre. Each arm of each cross has curled designs at each end. Two of the sides have a circle within the cross. One (top left) has two circles and one (top right) has none. Mary Webb’s daughter (who arranged her mother’s papers and actually produced the book) is as certain as I am that all four are also intended to be representations of the Greek view of the Cosmos. As she says herself “What a pity she (her mother) isn't here to tell us what she thinks”. After reading Mary Webb’s work it seems inconceivable that she would not have regarded this font as part of the same decorative and symbolic tradition.

Lewis 2 Lewis Chess

Mary Webb also saw the circle with interlaces arcs imagery on some of the celebrated Isle of Lewis Chessmen. Above are images of a king and a bishop. There are others but it is something of a nightmare to find sideways-on images of the pieces. They are, like the fonts, of twelfth century origin. They are also - and this is the interesting bit - believed to have been carved not in Britain but in Norway. Mary Webb’s research found many examples of this image throughout Europe, but perhaps its use here is one of the most iconic. Finally, she also found the imagery on the fonts at: East Dean (Sussex), Preston (Suffolk) and          Bisley (Glos)

The Euclidian “Flower”

Mary Webb’s work is extremely convincing and is backed by an awesome body 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 designs, 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.

Left: Egleton Font Right: Egleton Tympanum

Until surprisingly recently there were those that would argue that monks and clerics had a great deal to do with the design and development of English churches. That notion is now completely discredited. We know the stonemasons and not the clergy were the principal players. The argument for clerical oversight is the same one which denies the humble origins of William Shakespeare (“The Earl of Oxford”, “Sir Francis Bacon” forsooth) - a rather “English contempt, frankly, for the abilities of those humbly born. Yet it is certainly true that our masons were unread. They had mastery of the important proportions and ratios needed for sound and elegant buildings, mastery that no priest would ever have had. With measuring stick, a pair of compasses and a set square they could build you a church that would stand for two thousand years. They did not, however, have any notion of Plato!  

Mary Webb therefore deduced that the carvings were executed by “monastic carvers” who had education that exceeded their skills. I am not sure that I agree. The Hampstead Norreys font, is extremely well-executed. The work of the Herefordshire School is a by-word for excellence. Yet the work on  the Northamptonshire fonts varies from the exquisite at Braybrooke to the crude at Thornby. The North Norfolk fonts are quite fine, except at Bagthorpe. Some of these do not look like the work of men who were abbey craftsmen.  I believe it to be more probable that the masons carving  these fonts were doing so under instruction. That instruction, of course, must have come from the monks who alone would have had access to these concepts.

Mary Webb was of the view that Reading Abbey was the source for the Buckinghamshire fonts and has seen similarities in the carving styles on abbey and fonts. But we have two other hotspots - in Northamptonshire and Norfolk. From whence did those masons get their instruction? By the way: don’t run away with the notion that we are talking here of two or three masons wandering around the countryside decorating fonts in this sophisticated style; worse still, that these designs were in some way just a decorative fancy around which Mary Webb has built some sort of fiction. Palpably these fonts were all carved by different men. Someone was telling them what to carve even if the carvers didn’t have a clue what it all meant.

That challenges us to identify the abbeys or priories which influenced the carvers in Norfolk and Northamptonshire - an issue that Mary Webb did not address apparently. Although England was peppered with monasteries by the time of the Dissolution, here we are looking for places that were established before or during the Norman period. For the Norfolk group there are two possibilities: Kings Lynn and Binham. Kings Lynn Priory, however, was a very small establishment with just four monks seconded from Norwich. Binham, on the other hand, was a full-blown Benedictine Monastery that was established in 1091 just four miles from Toftrees and eleven miles from Sculthorpe. I think we can be nearly sure that Binham’s monks were behind this group of fonts. For the Northampton group we must surely look towards Northampton Abbey itself. It was founded between 1093 and 1100 by the Cluniacs. Northampton Abbey has been completely obliterated by the modern town but Binham Priory’s Church and the remains of its monastery is an extremely rewarding visit.

We have the two Herefordshire School fonts - Rock and Stottesden and, as you would expect, this school of carving is indelibly associated with Hereford Cathedral so here too, we have a clear line of sight to a source of intellectual capital. Finally,  with Stoke Canon the clue is in the name. The manor is still owned by Exeter Cathedral and it is known that in 1148 the then Bishop designated the church for use by the canons of the Cathedral although they may well have, in turn, appointed a vicar to serve the church.

f we believe as we surely must that Greek philosophy was way beyond the knowledge of a mason then why use these symbols at all when the common peasant would be even more ignorant? It is not a question that, as far as I can see, was addressed in Mary Webb’s book.

I have argued frequently on these pages that the “educational” role of graphic symbolism - apart from wall painting - in our churches is significantly over-egged. I believe that the monks lived in a quite rarified world communicating with their own kind. Their role was not to educate the common herd. Their monasteries were increasingly self-contained. The mass was in Latin as was the Bible. Education, such as it was, was the job of the parish priest. These images of the Cosmos were there not for the benefit of the laity but part of the inside knowledge of the monastic intellect.

For a long time I had believed (oh vanity!) that this was my own pet theory. Recently, however, I read a 2006 essay by Jean-Claude Schmitt an eminent French  mediaevalist. Schmitt focused first upon unorthodox and often satirical images -  the so-called “drolleries“  - in many mediaeval texts; texts that would never be read by any other than similarly-informed readers. Schmitt says “at any rate they were addressed to a literate public, first and foremost the clergy”. He talks also of the misericords with their wild, worldly, occasionally profane imagery that resided only in the closed world of the choir of the monastic church. He says “This is an iconography of the initiated, billeted in a reserved space and carefully close to the choir” . For those intent on seeing religious meaning within the grotesque carvings of the mediaeval carving on the grounds that the Church would not tolerate quasi-pagan fancies, Schmitt observes:-

“The debate between orthodoxy and heterodoxy is played out in language, not in images. In mediaeval Christendom, completely centred on faith in the Word that has become flesh, words count first and foremost. Words are therefore watched over for heresy. Although there were heretical words in the Middle Ages there were no heretical images”

Is this difficult to understand? I think not. The book from which I read this essay “The unorthodox imagination in late mediaeval Britain” (Manchester University Press 2006) is, to say the least, obscure in its words and requires a considerable degree of pre-knowledge. In other words, it too follows the ancient impulse for intellectuals to influence and seek approval from fellow intellectuals. Because, dear reader, nobody else is listening! So too, the monks of our abbeys. “Who are you trying to impress?” one monk might say to another. “Why, you, of course” might come the reply! Because, who else would he be talking to? Their Latin masses meant little or nothing to the laity and they physically separated themselves from the common herd as a matter of policy. The common people were required to attend mass, believe in God and keep the Commandments. They would have been familiar with the basic tenets of their faith, have known the great Bible stories (especially those relating to their own sin), understood the significance of the main Christian festivals and not much beyond that.

With all that in mind, it’s time to move on to two other particular focuses of Mary Webb’s attention: the tympana  at Pitsford (Northants) and Dinton (Bucks).

Pitsford tympanum

Pitsford Tympanum

Dinton Tympanum
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Dinton Tympanum and Lintel

Mary Webb was so struck by the parallel symbolism on these two tympanums that she goes so far as to propose the possibility of a common artist. At best, some of us might be able to draw some meaning from these two designs. Mary Webb, however, was able to understand the significance of every single element. Nothing was beyond interpretation, nothing that the carver did was random or invented. She traces the whole lot to “Moralia in Job” a work by Pope Gregory the Great derived from the biblical Book of Job. You have available to you from this page, the whole of Mary Webb’s text so it would be absurd to try to paraphrase it all here. Please refer to Chapter 2.

The Winged and Laughing Christ
It is worth mentioning here, however, the depiction on the right hand side of the lintel below Dinton tympanum of what Mary called a “Winged and Laughing Christ”. We might all be forgiven for thinking this sword-wielding figure is the Archangel Michael. If you were to look on these pages at earlier depictions of Christ you will not see him sporting wings and you will have seen no images of Christ smiling! Anglo-Saxon iconography liked to emphasise His supremacy and majesty. Normans liked to depict Him in a pose of benediction, with or without angels and apostles in attendance. As we all know, latter images focused almost exclusively on His suffering on the cross. The winged Christ is, however, an Action Man taking on the Devil and his work. You can see similar militant imagery on the font at Eardisley in Herefordshire which depicts the Harrowing of Hell. Christ smiling is very unusual indeed and Mary Webb found the imagery in several locations. One is the tympanum preserved in Southwell Mister in Nottinghamshire.

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Southwell Minster

Mary Webb explains that this image is, again, from Gregory the Great in his “Moralia in Job”. Gregory talks of Christ in the form of a bird and, surprisingly to our modern eyes, as a Vulture who “while remaining in the loftiness of His divine nature, marked as from a flight on high, the carcass of our mortal being down below, and let Himself drop from the region of the heaven to the lowest places...He found death among us who was deathless Himself. Now the eye of the Vulture was actually aiming at our resurrection, because He Himself being dead three days, set us free from everlasting death”. At Dinton, Southwell and elsewhere this winged Christ is smiling in mockery as he slays the Devil in the form of Leviathan. We can see other examples at Ault Hucknall in Derbyshire, at Hoveringham in Nottinghamshire and at St Bee’s in Cumbria.

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Tympanum, Hoveringham

St Bee’s Church, Cumbria

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St Bees (named after St Bega) was not a place that Mary Webb discovered during her research. In July 2016 I visited myself and found no fewer than three of the images that had so preoccupied her. A door lintel is preserved outside the west end of the church and (top left) Christ is fighting with Leviathan. This is a particularly Scandinavian looking monster in keeping with the location that was under heavy Viking influence. Christ’s head and sword can just be seen to the left of Leviathan’s gaping mouth. On the same lintel (lower left) we see a “square on square” image. Compare this with the examples on Sculthorpe and Hampstead Norreys fonts above. The loops that weave amongst the sides of the main square leave little room at the middle for another square to be formed but the imagery is quite unmistakable. Mary Webb describes as representing the “perfection of number: a cube represented as two superimposed squares”. Within the church is an impressive collection of ancient grave slabs and other carvings, many of them pre-Conquest. I found this one amongst them (right) with the unmistakable design of the circle interlaced with arcs. Is this England’s only example of a Platonic theme preserved on a grave slab?

St Bees was a monastic church. Finding three such images here emphasises that the monks were the repositories of this arcane knowledge. It is a racing certainty that it was the monks of St Bees that influenced the circle with arcs image at Dearham above twenty miles away.

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 to the words of Gillian Greenwood: “ 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.

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 candidates 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 Anselm’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 that continued to be depicted on murals and wall paintings.

“Solomon’s Knot”

Finally, I turn to the most ubiquitous of the designs discussed in Mary Webb’s book - the so-called “Solomon’s Knot” of two interlaced loops. It isn’t a knot (you couldn’t tie it!) and it has little or nothing to do with Solomon other than it came to be seen as a symbol of his knowledge and his proverbial wisdom. It appears all over the world, however, and certainly pre-dates Christianity. So let us acknowledge immediately that this symbol is not exclusively Christian and, moreover, its appearance on English (and other churches) might be merely decorative. If you have been reading the rest of this article, however, and definitely if you read Mary’s book you will surely be wondering if maybe the knot has deeper significance.

Mary Webb addressed the issue in Chaper 9 of her book, almost in passing. Referring to its presence in the centre of the Cross of Enion (in the Museum of Wales) she says it is the symbol of Cosmic Harmony in the World Soul. “In Platonic terms it represented the crossing of the celestial equator with the ecliptic. In Christian terms, Justin Martyr (AD100-165) remarked that “God has laid a Cross upon the world in the shape of the Greek letter Chi (or X)”. Of course, its existence in so many cultures is the more plausible when we track it back to the Greeks both in terms of antiquity and in the influence of their thinking across the known world.”

If you are unable to visit any of the sites mentioned by Mary Webb then Solomon’s Knot is the one motif discussed in her work that you are likely to come across on your church-crawling travels.

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Plato’s Cosmic Harmony Left: Kirkburn Font, Yorkshire   Right: Sculthorpe Font, Norfolk

Interestingly, the article reproduced below appeared in “The Times” on 31 October 2016. Note that date. Heritage England (what was wrong with “English Heritage”, by the way and how much did the name change cost?) obviously wanted some headline-grabbing PR on Hallowe’en. It suggests our old friends Solomon’s Knot and the Euclidian Flower as being “apotropaic” symbols. Now when I hear that rather pretentious word I usually reach for my gun because it is habitually used by armchair anthropologists to explain any and every church carving that they see. Carved friezes, sheela-na-gigs, gargoyles? All apotropaic, Old Boy they say loftily, pointing to similar carvings in Polynesia, darkest Africa and the more obscure corners of South America.

HE, characteristically, show no evidence for their conclusions. Yet, HE are not idiots and if these symbols are indeed ubiquitous on the outsides of mediaeval England then there must be a reason and I have to say that their claim seems eminently plausible. Indeed, it’s emotionally attractive. Does this challenge any of what I have already written here? No, not really.

Mary Webb was talking of an era centuries before Englishmen started living in stone houses. By the time these carvings were appearing on secular houses in England the influence of Plato and his pals on English religious thought was long gone. Mary Webb quite clearly acknowledged the appearance of Solomon’s Knot (which is no more than a name of convenience) in many cultures and with many possible meanings before and after the spread of Christianity. It is a great pity that Heritage England (or the Times) in their use of a picture of an unspecified church conflate the use of the symbols on secular buildings with their use at churches and thereby imply that neither date nor context are an issue..

It is worth mentioning that the connection between witchcraft and the Devil’s work was always a complex and changing one. Witches were regarded not as the embodiment of the Devil but as having been seduced (often physically and mentally) by him. Witchcraft, indeed, was not usually, as is popularly believed, punishable by burning. More generally it was punishable by hanging for it was seen as a crime and not as a religious offence, despite its associations with the Devil. Ambivalence is created by popular history such as, for example, the burning of Joan of Arc - the so-called “Witch of Orleans”. You don’t have to be particularly cute to deduce that politics often came into some of this. Ask Henry VIII.

This implies that we cannot treat popular mediaeval superstition and Christian apotropaia as being one and the same.

Turning to the Euclidian Flower, it is myself who has suggested the possibility that it is part of the Platonic symbolism researched by Mary Webb. Sim Ayers postulates a link with Euclidian geometry - a theory complementary to Mary Webb’s work. At a more prosaic level, Bob Trubshaw speculates that it is no more than a decorative design easily drawn with the use of compasses. The picture shown in the Times article reinforces that. All of those theories are possible and with such an easily reproduced design we should not be surprised if it has been used in many ways over many centuries.

That, indeed, is the only possible conclusion to this whole question. Symbols are timeless but their meanings are not and context is everything. A symbol that is apotropaic in tenth century Polynesia is not necessarily so in eleventh century England or fifteenth century France, for example. Nor, Heritage England, does a symbol on the side of Egleton’s twelfth century font necessarily have the same meaning as on the outside of Shakespeare’s sixteenth century birthplace!



What can we learn from all of this? Firstly that there were monastic influences on some church carving during the Romanesque period and that we should not assume that imagery and decoration that we do not understand is necessarily random or simply decorative. Secondly, that the intellectuals of the Church - the monks - were not forever seeking to educate the peasantry about the esoteric details of Christian doctrine; but they were anxious to display their intellectual inside knowledge of quite obscure theology. Thirdly, that the educated elite of the first millennium west saw Greek notions of the Cosmos as being matters to be reconciled with and reinforced by Christianity not as matters to be discredited. Fourthly, we see the enduring influence of men such as Pope Gregory whose written works were still informing Christian thinking centuries after they were written. Christianity was a religion of evolution of thought at that time, not of revolutionary thought

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 have loved to have had time to study them.

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.

You can read the whole of Mary Webb’s work right here (permission has been granted by Mary Curtis Webb’s daughter. You have the option to download it - a 20Mb file in.pdf format. The book itself is out of print.

You can also download it free from here: