1902 Encyclopedia > Font


FONT (Lat. fons, Tt. fonie, Fr. fonts), the vessel used ir. churches to hold the water for Christian baptism. The modes of administering baptism have varied at differenS periods of the existence of the Christian churches, causing corresponding changes in the forms and auxiliaries of the receptacle of the consecrated water. There is reason to believe that in the times of the apostles and early mission-aries the rite was administered by sprinkling, as whole multitudes of people, and even whole kingdoms were baptized in one day. But a very general method in early times was no doubt that of total immersion, th? catechumens being received by the priest in the water. As Christianity became more general of course fewer adults would present themselves for baptism, and consequently the size of the vessel would not need to be beyond what would allow of the total immersion of an infant. In fact down to the time of the Beformation fonts continued to be made quite large enough to allow of the total immersion of infants, and there is little doubt that down to that date the method was occasionally employed. Baptism by infusion and by aspersion followed this method, though they were no doubt used concurrently, and in a sense combined, for in certain representations of the rite in illuminations and stained glass the infant is represented as seated naked in the font, while from a vessel the priest pours the water upon the head. Originally used only for sick or infirm persons, the method of baptism by infusion became gradually the established practice, and all doubts as to its validity were removed by appeal to papal and other high authority.

In early times the font was placed in the baptistery, a structure often entirely separate from the body of the church, of which the celebrated Baptistery at Florence is the finest example. In these the well or basin for con-taining the water was usually reached by descending steps. The baptisteries were round, square, octagonal, or cross-like in form, and in design bear the impress of the period to which tb»y belong. Few are found of late date, and the only existing structure at all recalling them in English churches is found at Luton in Bedfordshire. The font at Luton belongs to the Decorated style of English art, and is inclosed in an octagonal structure of freestone, consisting of eight pillars about 25 feet in height, supporting a canopy. The space around the font is large enough to hold comfort-ably half a dozen people. At the top of the canopy is a vessel for containing the consecrated water, which when required was let clown into the font by means of a pipe. The space around the font in the ancient baptisteries was of size to admit several catechumens at the same time; and not only was the whole rite of baptism performed within them, but that of the holy eucharist likewise, and even the baptism of infants. As baptism was administered in early times by bishops only, baptisteries were rare except at the principal church of the diocese. Easter, Whitsuntide, and Epiphany were the principal seasons of its administration. In the 9th century fonts became general in all churches, and baptism was performed at all times by priests of all ranks.

Of fonts still in existence few are older than the 11th century. The material in the Western Church was generally stone, and the outsides and accessories are frequently orna mented with some of the loveliest and most characteristic of the national arts of the Middle Ages. In the Eastern Church it was different. " The font, KoXv/xB-ijOpa,' says Neale (Eastern Church, i. 214), "in the Eastern Church is a far less conspicuous object than it is in the west. Baptism by immersion has been retained; but the font seldom or never possessed any beauty. The material is usually either metal or wood. In Russia the columbethra is movable, and only brought out when wanted." The proper material for fonts in the Western Church was hard stone, as marble, porphyry, or granite. Fonts of bronze and lead are, however, sometimes found, and the basins of many stone fonts were lined with lead to prevent the absorption of the water by the porous stone. A font shaped from one block of oak is in the church at Evenechtyd, Denbighshire. Continental fonts bear distinctly the im-press of the time to which they belong. They appear very early, ornamented with bas-reliefs, columns, and arches, as well as with the characteristic details of _ the ornamentation of their period. Representations of St John the Baptist are very common. At Pont-a-Mousson on the Moselle, one bears bas-reliefs of that saint preaching in the wilderness, and of the baptism of Christ, executed with that simple sincerity which is more valuable than the highest re-finement and finish in design and execution. In the 11th and 12th centuries cup-shaped and cylindrical forms were most common, either as simple cylinders and truncated cones or supported by one or more pillars. Frequently the basin is hollowed out of one large square or oblong slab, supported at the centre by a broad column, with auxiliary columns at the corners, all bearing the mouldings and ornaments charac-teristic of the period. Caryatids sometimes take the place of the pillars, and sculptured animals and other grotesques of curious design sometimes form the bases. Octagonal forms are not altogether absent from this period, and even hexagons have been occasionally found. Pentagons are very rare. The font, however, at Cabourg, on the north coast of France, is formed of a pentagonal block rather bare of ornamentation, and supported by a group of columns. In the 13th century octagonal forms became more prevalent, although the earlier kinds were not discontinued.

The very remarkable font at Hildesheim in Hanover belongs to the 13 th century, and is in complete preservation. The basin rests upon the shoulders of four kneel-ing figures, each bearing a vase from which water is running, emblematic of the four rivers of Paradise. Above is an inscription which explains the connexion of these rivers with the virtues temperance, courage, justice, and prudence. On the sides of the cup itself are bas-reliefs representing the Passage of the Jordan, the Passage of the Bed Sea, the Baptism of Christ, and the Virgin and Child. These are separated by columns, by scrolls bearing inscrip-tions, and by medallions with figurative heads of the ab-stract virtues named above, and with heads of the prophets. The font has a conical lid, similarly ornamented, and bear-ing also four bas-reliefs. A cast of this font is now in the South Kensington Museum. At Mayence the font, which belongs to about the year 1328, is of lead, and bears images of the Saviour, the Virgin, St Martin, and the Twelve Apostles.

Cylindrical fonts become much more rare in the 14th century, the almost universal shape being the octagon. In the 15th and 16th centuries the most elaborate and remark-able of Continental fonts were produced, and some are indeed works of the highest art in sculpture. This superiority is probably more due to increased delicacy and moderation of design, than to any great change in the shape or in the mode of attaching ornament. In early fonts, though the exterior is polygonal, the cup itself is generally circular; but it is characteristic of the 15th century fonts that the octagonal form is carried out even in the cup. The fonts at Strasburg, Freiburg, and Basel are examples of this. Few if any English fonts date from before the Conquest, but a great number of Norman fonts, perhaps more than of any ether period before the Reforma-tion, are still in existence, and form some of the most characteristic of the architectural remains of the time. In form circular or square, they are generally supported on one or more columns, and are ornamented with bas-reliefs, net-work of columns and arches, grotesques, rude foliage, niches with figures, and many other forms. Good ex-amples of Norman fonts may be seen at Lincoln Cathedral; Iffley, Oxon ; Newenden, Kent; Coleshill, Warwickshire; East Meon, Hants; and Castle Frome, Herefordshire. In the Late Norman and Early English periods, octagonal fonts became common, and with few exceptions this form continued in use until the Reformation. Early English fonts are comparatively rare. They bear the moulding, foliage, and tooth ornament in the usual style of the period. A good example of an Early English font is at All Saints, Leicester; others may be seen at St Giles, Oxford, and at Lackford, Suffolk. Fonts of the Decorated period are also less common than those of the precedent Norman or subsequent Perpendicular periods, but are superior in de-tail and execution to those of any other stage of our art. Fonts of the Perpendicular period are very common, and are generally raised upon steps, which, together with the body of the font, are frequently richly ornamented with panneling. It was also the custom during this period to ornament the font with shields and coats of arms, and other heraldic insignia, as at Heme, Kent.

Leaden fonts of Norman date are found at Dorchester, Oxon, at Avebury, Wilts, and other places. In Holyrood Chapel there was a brazen font in which the royal children of Scotland were baptized. It was carried off in 1544 by Sir R. Lea, and given by him to the church at St Alban's, and was afterwards destroyed by the Puritans. A silver font was at Canterbury, which was sometimes brought to Westminster on the occasion of a royal baptism. At Chobham, Surrey, there is a leaden font covered with oaken panels of the 16th century.
In 1236 it was ordered by Edmund, archbishop of Canterbury, that baptismal fonts should be kept under lock and key, as a precaution against sorcery : "Fontes baptis-males sub sera clausi teneantur propter sortilegia." The lids appear at first to have been quite simple and flat. They gradually, however, partook of the ornamentation of the font itself, and are often of pyramidal and conical forms, highly decorated with finials, crockets, mouldings, and grotesques. Some very rich font covers may be seen at Ewelme, Oxon ; St Gregory, Sudbury; North Walsingham, Norfolk; Worlingworth, Suffolk. The ordinary position of the font in the church was near the entrance, usually to the left of the south door.

See Caumont, Cours d'antiquités monumentales, Paris, 1830; Simpson, Series of Antient Baptismal Fonts; Paley, Ancient Fonts ; Viollet-le-Duc, Dict. de l'Architecture, vol. v.; Parker's Glossary of Architecture. (W. HE.)

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