Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plates 2.39-2.40: Font in Winchester Cathedral

Plates:  Plates 2.39 and 2.40 depict five different views of the Tournai font at Winchester Cathedral, drawn by John Carter (1748–1817) in 1784, and engraved by James Basire (1730–1802). Plate 2.39 contains two images; on top is a dead-on view of the eastern side of the Winchester baptismal font. The bottom image is a view into the bowl of the font.

Plate 2.40 has images in three registers. These show the remaining three sides of the font: north, west, and south. The west and south contain narrative scenes and are presented in a larger scale than the north side, which is comprised of three separate animals in roundels: two birds and one quadruped.

Objects: The Winchester font is one of eight twelfth-century fonts made of Tournai marble in England. Tournai marble is actually a blue-black limestone quarried from the banks of the River Scheldt near Tournai in Belgium (in the region of Hainault, near the French border). Each font is composed of a square bowl with carved decoration and is supported by a circular central column atop a square base, with a colonette at each corner. The Winchester example features a combination of plain and spiral-incised colonettes with leafy capitals surrounding the central support, which has horizontal ridges running around it. The intersecting ribbon motif borders the bowl, and the corners are filled in with carvings of foliate decoration, birds, and vases.

The west and south sides of the font depict hagiographical scenes from the life of St. Nicholas of Myra (also known as St. Nicholas of Bari, “Saint Nick,” and Santa Claus). On the west side of the font, two miracles are depicted. On the left side, the saint saves three men from execution by axe. On the right, he reanimates a boy who had drowned as a result of his father’s greed. To the right of this is the boat on which the father and son sailed, resembling a Viking longboat with animal figures at the hull.

TThe south side reveals the saint providing a dowry to the daughters of a poor man. Behind the saint are visible both interior and exterior elements of a Romanesque church nave, arcade, triforium, and clerestory (Voragine 2012, 21-2).


Plate 2.39:

East view of the Font in the nave of Winchester Cathedral: drawn 1784
The top of the Font.
Published as the Act directs 24th Apl. 1786.

Plate 2.40:

Vol.II Pl. XL.
Three Bassorelievos on the sides of the Font in Winchester Cathedral.
North side.
West side.
South side.
(These two are drawn to a larger scale)
Published as the Act directs 24th Apl. 1786.

Original Explanatory Account: Click here to read the original explanatory account for Plates 2.39-2.40.

Commentary by Meg Bernstein: The font depicted in Vetusta Monumenta is considered the finest of a group of eight Tournai marble fonts in England. The others are elsewhere in Hampshire (St. Michael, Southampton; East Meon; St. Mary, Bourne), Lincolnshire (Lincoln Cathedral; Thornton Curtis), and Suffolk (Christchurch Museum; St. Peter, Ipswich) (King 2002). The fonts were almost certainly carved at or near the location where the stone was quarried. According to C.S. Drake, each font weighs approximately two metric tons; “thus it is self-evident that blocks of rough-quarried stone would not be carted over long distances, only for half to be thrown away as waste” (1993, 15). A number of these fonts, including the Winchester example, are thought to have been imported to England from Tournai by Bishop Henry of Blois (1099–1171). Blois was likely the first to import Tournai fonts into England. Recent scholarship has argued that the Lincoln example was commissioned by Bishop Robert de Chesney (King 2002). Tournai fonts weren’t only made for export; close to fifty Tournai fonts have been identified in Belgium and France, though some of these have been lost or destroyed since they were recorded (Drake 1993, 25-6).

Henry of Blois was the grandson of William the Conqueror and brother of King Stephen. He was born in France, and was professed as a monk of Cluny at a young age, perhaps even as a child oblate (Munns and Kynan-Wilson 2021, 5). He came to England in the 1120s and served as abbot of Glastonbury before being elevated to the bishopric of Winchester in 1129 (6). He has been described as a “leader and administrator of remarkable energy and ability” (7). In addition to his political activities, Henry of Blois was a prolific patron of the arts and architecture, a topic about which considerable ink has been spilled (see for example Kusaba 1993; West 2008; Norton 2019; Munns and Kynan-Wilson 2021). He was particularly attracted to colored stone; Blue Lias capitals survive from the monastic buildings at Glastonbury Abbey, and Tournai and Purbeck marbles were used at his palace at Wolvesey. He brought antique sculpture, Muslim-made carpets, and Byzantine objects to England and France, and commissioned books and precious objects including the Winchester Psalter (British Library, Cotton MS Nero C.iv), also known as the Psalter of Henry of Blois and the enamelled copper plaques held at the British Museum, known as the Henry of Blois plaques (West 2008, 214, 229; Kynan-Wilson 2021, 201-206). George Zarnecki has argued that that it was “the material rather than the artistry” of Tournai marble that appealed to Henry of Blois (1986, 160). Zarnecki surmised that Tournai marble bore a formal resemblance to antique sculpture, some of which Henry purchased for his palace in Winchester—a somewhat controversial décor choice for a Christian bishop.

The subject of the font, the life of St. Nicholas, is somewhat rare, though considering the saint’s longstanding role as patron saint of children, it is fitting the function it served for the baptism of infants (Kelly 2014, 126). According to Frances Altvater, only a handful of surviving examples of twelfth-century fonts depict Nicholas (2012, 77-78). Besides Winchester, these include Brighton (Sussex) and Zedelgem (Belgium). Both the Winchester and Zedelgem examples are Tournai productions. The Brighton font, not of Tournai production, is not dedicated completely to Nicholas but contains a scene similar to the Winchester font featuring two men on a boat. Considering that only one font of English manufacture survives with St. Nicholas iconography, it appears that Nicholas was not a popular saint in the country. The Vetusta Monumenta engraving of the Winchester font is very faithful to the object itself, with its dense, weighty figures whose heads occupy a full quarter of their total body heights.

The explanatory account that was published alongside the prints was written by Richard Gough (1735-1809), who was, at the time, director of the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL). In it, he proposes an explanation for the monument that was discredited not long after by John Milner in his The History and Survey of the Antiquities of Winchester of 1798. Gough’s assertion was that the font represented the life of St. Birinus, a seventh-century Italian monk-cum-saint who was the first bishop of Dorchester, credited with converting the West Saxons. Gough writes: “that this bas relief represented the history of Birinus and the conversion of King Kinigils, by him will be further confirmed if we compare it with facts of the same period on glass in the windows of the chancel at Dorchester, as well as carved in relief on the mullions of the same” (1786, 3). Here, Gough refers to the fourteenth-century east window which features a highly integrated, and highly unusual, ensemble of sculpture and glass. The Dorchester window postdates the Winchester font by more than two centuries, devaluing the comparison.

Gough erred not only in his reading of the font’s iconography, but also regarding its age. He opines in his account that the font “was probably made during the life of Birinus for his church at Dorchester, or as soon after his death as the church at Winchester was ready to receive it” (Gough 1786, 6), but this font, along with the others in its group, were products of the mid-twelfth century. Additionally, it is well understood today that the font is an import from Tournai, not made in England as Gough implies elsewhere.

It seems that between 1785 and 1798, John Milner developed a new theory for the font’s iconography, leading to the currently accepted identification of St. Nicholas. He describes the font as the “Crux Antiquariorum”—that is, the “puzzle of the antiquaries”—probably because of the debates over iconography. Milner writes that Gough’s mistake seems to have been born out a “desire of carrying up this monument to the highest antiquity possible, and of forcing it to apply to our national history” (1798, 114). Gough was invested in the font being indigenous to England and of far greater antiquity than it actually is. It remains unclear what inspired Milner’s conversion from his own earlier conviction that the iconography relates to Birinus, as expressed in his letter included in Gough’s explanatory account. Although Milner explicitly mentions Gough’s Vetusta Monumenta text in his reinterpretation, he neglects to make note of his own contribution to Gough’s way of thinking.

Gough was an enthusiastic supporter of John Carter, who drew these views of the Winchester font. From 1780, Gough had commissioned Carter’s drawings for various projects, including his own Sepulchral Monuments of Great Britain (1786-1796). Gough was likely instrumental in the decision of the Council of the SAL to commission Carter to record monuments in Winchester Cathedral in the summer of 1784 (Nurse 2011, 229-30). These were to have been the font as well as a number of funerary monuments and chantry chapels. Rosemary Sweet notes that the antiquaries were not “only interested in the exterior appearance of churches,” but also “interest[ed] in ornament and stylistic evolution extended to the interior, to fonts, painted glass and monumental brasses” (2004, 272). Fonts, she notes, “could be subjected to the same kind of visual analysis of style as architecture and ornamentation of the church structure, and dated accordingly” (272).

Carter embarked on the trip in Hampshire to record the monuments, but he was wounded by the SAL when they commissioned Samuel Hieronymus Grimm (1733-1794) to complete a drawing of the procession of Edward VI, and he afterwards refused to follow through on agreed work or attend meetings (Lewis 2007, 375). Carter did, however, submit the drawings of the Winchester font in December of 1785; James Basire delivered the proof of his engraving on December 19, 1786 (SAL Minutes III.19; Lewis 2007, 384n45; Nurse 2011, 231). Jacob Schnebbelie (1760-1792) was chosen to complete the work that Carter failed to complete in Winchester; this is evidenced in Plates 2.45-2.50 (Chantry Chapels in Winchester Cathedral) and Plate 2.53 (Monument of Henry and Elizabeth Bourchier).

In the next decade, Carter reconciled with the SAL. Among a multitude of other drawings that Carter made on the SAL’s behalf are two fonts in Suffolk parish churches, published as Plate 3.25 (Fonts at Ufford and Sudbury). This plate, also engraved by Basire, takes a distinctly different approach to the representation of fonts; the Suffolk fonts plate is composed of two discrete vertical images of fonts and their covers side-by-side. Each is shown in a single view, and they are depicted in their architectural context. These fonts were likely selected for their fine timber covers, which lend considerable visual interest. It is interesting to compare the Winchester font and the image of the Suffolk ones made less than a decade later. In Plate 2.39, the top view of the font alludes to the font’s surroundings with loosely rendered floor tiles, but no other indication of its surroundings is presented. Rather than dedicating one plate to two fonts, two plates are devoted to showing multiple angles of one font. The decontextualization of the Winchester font may represent an effort to archaize it, showing it as an object of archaeological interest rather than a useful object in real space.

Works Cited:

Altvater, Frances. 2012. “Saintly Bodies, Mortal Bodies: Hagiographic Decoration on English Twelfth Century Baptismal Fonts.” Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture 3, no. 4: 45–102.

Drake, C. S. 1993. “The Distribution of Tournai Fonts.” The Antiquaries Journal 73: 12–26.

Eden, Cecil H. 1909. Black Tournai Fonts in England: The Group of Seven Late Norman Fonts from Belgium. London: Elliot Stock.

Gough, Richard. 1786. “Vol. II. Plates XXXIX. XL. The Font in Winchester Cathedral.” Vetusta Monumenta, Vol. 2.

Kelly, Joseph F. 2014. The Origins of Christmas. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

King, James. 2002. “The Tournai Marble Baptismal Font of Lincoln Cathedral.” Journal of the British Archaeological Association 155, no. 1: 1–21.

Kusaba, Yoshio. 1993 “Henry of Blois, Winchester, and the 12th-Century Renaissance.” In Winchester Cathedral: Nine Hundred Years 1093-1993, edited by John Crook, 69-80. Chichester: Dean and Chapter of Winchester Cathedral; Phillimore.

Kynan-Wilson, William, and John Munns, eds. 2021. Henry of Blois: New Interpretations. Woodbridge: Boydell.

Kynan-Wilson, William. 2021. “Henry of Blois and the Construction of Roman Identity.” In Henry of Blois: New Interpretations, edited by William Kynan-Wilson and John Munns, 185-208. Woodbridge: Boydell.

Lewis, Elizabeth. 2007. “Drawings of Antiquities in the Society’s Albums c 1750-1860.” The Antiquaries Journal 87: 365–86.

Milner, John. 1798. The History and Survey of the Antiquities of Winchester. Winchester: James Robbins.

Nurse, Bernard. 2011. “John Carter, FSA (1748-1817): ‘The Ingenious, and Very Accurate Draftsman.’” The Antiquaries Journal 91: 211–52.

Society of Antiquaries of London. 1718-. Minutes of the Society's Proceedings.

Sweet, Rosemary. 2004. Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain. London: Hambledon and London.

Voragine, Jacobus de. 2012. “Saint Nicholas.” In The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, translated by William Granger Ryan, 21–27. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

West, Jeffrey. 2008. “A Taste for the Antique? Henry of Blois and the Arts.” In Anglo-Norman Studies, 30: 213–30. Woodbridge: Boydell.

Zarnecki, George. 1986. “Henry of Blois as a Patron of Sculpture.” Society of Antiquaries of London Occasional Papers 8: 159–72.