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

(... continued) The peoples font

The shriving pew in the Reconciliation / Penance scene (below) has miniscule remains of red and green paint just a tiny glimpse of the glory the font would once have had when fresh and new. Kneeling in the pew and being shriven by the priest is a woman in a butterfly headdress. Behind her, a devil (decapitated by the reformers) clings fiercely to the shoulders of a penitent waiting for confession.

reconciliation/penance scene

An unusual feature on the Eucharist panel is the houseling cloth (from Old English housel, Eucharist), held by two communicants, to prevent any scrap of the consecrated bread and wine falling to the ground. A houseling cup (chalice) stands on the altar. The delicate decoration of church furniture and clergy robes here and in other panels is especially lovely.

The most badly damaged panel is the Crucifixion; the figure of Christ was seen as idolatrous and was obliterated by the reformers accordingly. Not much better is the Ordination scene, where the bishop has lost much of his mitre and the ordinand his head! The Matrimony panel is sadly lacking a bride, little of her left except the edge of her headdress; interestingly there are no witnesses, not a legal requirement for marriage in medieval times. Still in good condition and cleverly presented, Extreme Unction shows a gaunt man in bed, tipped up for us to see his face, the outline of his legs showing through the coverlet; the priest anoints his breast, while a cleric stands at one side, holding an open chrismatory.

A final footnote why is a font usually near the church door? Because Baptism is the time when a new Christian is brought into the church and made part of the Christian community.

So next time youre present at a baptism in our church, think of the history of the font and how it was battered and yet survived against the odds, just like the Church itself. And remember the generations of people from other centuries in the fashions of the day (from butterfly headdresses to crinolines and mini-skirts), as they gathered round the font with innumerable babies, linked with us down the ages in a wonderful unbroken chain through their Christian faith and desire to bring their children for baptism in church.

Further reading: A E Nichols: Seeable signs: The iconography of the Seven Sacraments 1350-1544 (Boydell Press, 1997)