Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Tournai Marble Font, Winchester Cathedral

The Tournai Marble Font, situated within Winchester Cathedral, is one of its great treasures. It is believed to date back from the second half of the 12th century. Henry III (Henry of Winchester), the son of King John, was baptised in this font in 1207. It remains the only font in the cathedral, used till this day. 
The stone used is often described as Tournai Marble; however it is not a marble in the modern sense, but the term was used in medieval times for a stone that took a polish. The Winchester font is one of seven of its type, with its square upper section, to be found in England. 

The visual imagery in the stone, glass and wood of medieval churches were major media for communicating with the largely illiterate population. The carvings on the font are part of this tradition, which in Eastern Christianity is evident through the icons, considered to be the books of the illiterate. On two panels of the font are depicted legends associated with St. Nicholas, who is venerated in both East and West.
The picture here illustrates probably the earliest story associated with the Saint. An impoverished nobleman had three daughters for whom he was unable to provide dowries, and whom he was about to abandon to a life of prostitution. They were saved from this fate by the Saint's secretive gifts of three bags of gold, which he said to have thrown through the window of the nobleman's house at night. Due to this story Saint Nicholas is identified as Santa Clause in Western Christianity. 

In the other two panels symbolism is evident through the depiction of animals, such as the dove and the salamander symbolising the Holy Spirit, as was promised in the Gospels, "He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire", (St. Luke 3, 16). 

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