Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Minstead, Hampshire

B and I were both truly appalled by the outcome of the referendum, and hoped that our long-awaited trip out would soften the blow a bit. I decided we would go a bit further afield than normal and see something really good. So we made it over the border into Hampshire and found ourselves among the massive oaktrees and soothing greenness of the New Forest.

Naturally I'd not packed the right map, and it didn't help that at the edge of Minstead the road was unaccountably shut. We took a pleasant but fruitless walk into the village and spent our lunch ranting about the referendum on the picturesque green. A detouring drive later we finally made it to the church (Minstead is much longer than you expect when you've not got an OS map).

The church presents a very strange higgledy-piggledy prospect.

Minstead church, CC image by Trish Steel
In retrospect I think it also looked strange to me because it's brick, and we're used to our quarry being in older-looking stone churches. Once inside we found there was even another added room to the south. But I didn't even explore, because the font had been spotted. And It Was Good.

The Minstead font is chunky and four-sided and replete with excellently bold carving. As you'd expect, there was some explanation in the church about what the carvings are, and what they represent.

CC image by Maigheach-gheal
  But I like to prevent brain contamination, and try to have a look and a think before finding out how others have interpreted them. We've seen a lot of fonts now (though not enough as intriguing as this) and it's interesting to see if there are any familiar patterns or motifs.

That doesn't necessarily help interpretation I suppose, as I don't share the cultural environment of a Norman stone carver (fonts our speciality. ask for our latest offers). But I can recognise a few things - like the lovely Lamb of God. It's always so jauntily portrayed in the Norman era. And despite some suggestions in the church that this font is Saxon... don't be deceived. Victorians used to say stuff like that because they thought such carving was "primitive" and so must be earlier. Maybe it was the influence of Darwin's theory of evolution. But we know Saxon carvings aren't like this at all - they're twirly and knotworked. Never mind.

I liked the lamb's long body, stretched out a bit to match the shape of the font. But the animal's identity was instantly recognisable by its bent back foreleg.

Perhaps it's surprising that we haven't seen more LoGs on fonts, because they're very apt. It seems that the phrase "LAMB OF GOD" appears only twice in the bible, both in ch.1 of St John's gospel. This seems a shame as it's got a ring to it (though symbolic lambs do appear elsewhere). John is baptising people and he spots and recognises Jesus because he's got a pigeon on his head. Or at least, it does say he saw "the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon [Jesus]." And so John goes, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world".

Likewise, and according to this amusingly-written blog, Life in the Middle Ages,  baptism washed away your own sins. People tended to get baptised when they were adults, because it meant you could get the maximum number of sins dealt with in one go, rather than doing it young and then having to confess a lot. But note that you had to get it done or you'd be going to HELL. No-one wants that.

But onto the other sides. Which are considerably more peculiar to the modern eye.

Well the blurb in the church suggested this side had eagles and a tree, and related it to OT Ezekiel 17. Well, maybe. The text has two eagles in it, they've planted a plant and they're hoping it's going to grow. It's a riddle, an allegory for something that's happening (it says this at the start of the chapter). But it doesn't seem to have anything to do with baptism. It seems a bit of a random passage. I feel very sceptical.

What's more, I am quite sure that these birds have two heads. This doesn't help much because the double-headed bird / eagle is a very old symbol and a scout about the internet doesn't help at all about its meaning or origins. But there we are. That's what I saw. The thing in the middle could be anything. It's not particularly planty. You could even see it as a figure. I dunno.

Next up, the Cheshire Cat. With not one, but two un-catlike headless bodies below. Not convincingly attached to the catface in any way. There are no cats in the bible apparently. But we've definitely seen enough Norman catfaces to know a catface when we see one. We saw a lovely cat on the font at Stottesdon. Cats have gained a bit of a reputation for consorting with witches and being a bit evil. (When I catch the pair that have been crapping on our lawn there is going to be trouble). Who wants something evil looking at you when you're getting baptised? It seems a bit weird.  Lullington has cats on its amazing font and also carvings of creatures with two bodies and a shared head. The one at Avening is also strikingly similar. But the latter are on corners, to make a bit of an optical illusion. The carving on the Minstead font is flat and rather different. (The suggestion in the church, relating it to Isaiah 11.6 is, I'm afraid, first class piffle, and I think you'll agree). The animals have got lovely poised legs though, and fit nicely into the shape available.

Finally the side that faces you on entering the church. The suggestion in the church says 'Our Lord's Baptism'. Although you will recall John wrote about the pigeon etc, he somehow forgot to mention Jesus's baptism. But the other evangelists fill in. (It amused me that the Wikipedia page about this says 'This article is about the historical event. For other uses, please see...'). As you may read  it's a similar story though - a dove descends and a loud voice (God, that is) says 'You are my Son'. There's an excellent illustration in this 14th century psalter. John the Baptist is applying talcum powder I assume.

Disgracefully borrowed from the Morgan Library. I apologise.

Now does that fit with what we can see... I don't think it does. I'm not even convinced that's a person being dunked. You can see wiggly lines that could be water. But there's only four wiggly lines - shouldn't they be limbs? Jesus wasn't a baby when he was baptised. And that middle figure would have to be holding the poor child by its ear. It is without doubt, confusing. I wonder if he's just pouring water out of a vessel. Hm.

The figure on the left could be wearing a gown with floppy sleeves (not unlike those on the font at Chirton). Or is it an angel with wings? The one in the centre holds a staff with a cross. And the one on the right.. is that a towel? (Here, have a towel. thanks). It's a funny shape whatever it is. And is that a wing? Or a shield?

I'm none the wiser. Perhaps it doesn't matter.

The church leaflet says the Rector's gardener, Henry Abbott, was doing a bit of digging in the late 19th century, when he found the font buried in the shrub bed. Perhaps it was buried to protect it from the idiotic iconoclasts of the reformation. But it has returned victorious! And was given a new pedestal in 1893. Hoorah.

1 comment:

  1. Food for thought! That psalter is similar, with towel and powder/bucket. It is hard to know what is going on with much of it but as usual, drawing seems to help in the analysis...