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News and views from St. Mary's Woodbridge
Issue 6 Summer 2008

The peoples font

One of the loveliest services in our church is Baptism, the joyful parents and godparents gathering round the font, often with young children watching wide-eyed near by, the Rector firmly holding the baby and will the baby wail, or not, as the water is sprinkled? And so the baby is blessed and received into the Church, made part of our Christian family.

What is so amazing is that our particular font has seen this ceremony on countless occasions over the centuries since c1485, when the present church was built. Baptismal records began later, the first entry being for a boy, William (his surname indecipherable), baptised on 6 October 1545.

The font, like many others, has eight sides but why eight? Originating in the early Church, it may reflect the Jewish precursor to baptism the rite of circumcision, which took place on the eighth day. The craftsmen who made our fine font used the eight panels to depict the Crucifixion and each of the seven sacraments of the pre-Reformation Church (this helps us to date it, as Protestants recognise only two). Our font is in fact rather special, one of just 38 Seven Sacraments Fonts in England: 14 in Suffolk, the rest in Norfolk. It is most similar to those at Great Glemham and Denston, probably produced by the marvellously skilled craftsmen of the same workshop.

Its fascinating to look closely at the finely crafted sculpture relief scene on each panel, though most are badly defaced and difficult at first to decipher.baptism panel Exactly when this damage occurred is uncertain, but it may not have been the work of Cromwells man, William Dowsing, who nowhere in his detailed journal of destruction lists a Suffolk font. The reformers of Edward VIs reign a century earlier, particularly zealous in East Anglia, may well have been responsible. But at some time it is clear that local reformers plastered over the already defaced reliefs in the cause of comeliness, incidentally preserving them for us today.

The Baptism panel (left) shows a hexagonal font, with realistic ripples on the water that fills it to the brim. The godmother wears a butterfly headdress, dating it to c1483, and holds the baby (what the reformers have left of it!) The priest stands behind the font, one hand on the rim, the other on an open book held by a cleric. A similar panel, Confirmation, depicts a child in a short gown, being presented by its godfather to the bishop; with them stands a cleric, holding a chrismatory (from chrism, anointing oil).

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