Sunday, March 08, 2009

A Norman font

click photo to enlarge
In about 1840 the Victorians decided that church architecture should be based on Gothic forms. This was a style that had originated in northern Europe, one they saw as "Christian", as opposed to the classical styles that were derived from the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, and hence were "pagan". It was a false argument, of course, but one that persuaded the majority of churchmen and architects, and consequently most churches (and their fittings and furnishings) that were built during the rest of the century were in one or other of the Gothic styles. Thus, at a stroke, the Anglo-Saxon and Norman architecture of England was dismissed. Well, almost, because a few brave and idiosyncratic souls did build churches that used the forms of the twelfth century, but they were a distinct minority, their chosen style was seen as "crude", and it didn't achieve wide acceptance. For some the term "Romanesque", that embraces Anglo-Saxon and Norman architecture in England, became a label of abuse.

A few of these daring architects went so far as to design Norman fonts to complement their Romanesque buildings, though they usually restricted their decorative details to the rounded arches, cushion capitals, chevron moulding and great solidity of this earlier style. I know of no nineteenth century Norman fonts that sought to emulate the crude vigour of the figures of the original fonts, such as is seen in this example at St Mary Magdalene, Eardisley, Herefordshire. This wonderful font, dating from c.1150, exemplifies much that repelled the Victorians, and everything that I find fascinating about this style. The overall form is quite simple - a large bowl sits on a wide, tapered stem - but the surface is extremely complex. Encircling the top is a plaited band and around the base are knot patterns that recall the penwork of illuminated manuscripts as well as the stone preaching crosses of the C7 -C10. Between these abstract elements is a frieze. This depicts two soldiers fighting, one with a lance, the other with a sword, as well as The Harrowing of Hell, a further figure, and a large lion. These dramatic and dynamic figures have a sculptural naivety compared with Gothic work, but their greater animation draws the viewer into the depictions much more effectively than the later works. The men who carved this font revelled in the use of line: their delight in covering the surface in sinuous and interlocking pattern is very evident. In fact, the whole piece is as much a drawing as a sculpture, and tells us a lot about how a culture that worked in wood, that inscribed metal, and that valued the beauty of illuminated works, made the transition into stone sculpture and architecture.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E300
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 14mm (28mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f4.5
Shutter Speed: 1/20 seconds
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -0.3 EV
Image Stabilisation: N/A