Friday 26 October 2018

Castle Rising font: bringing a light to dark places

I have a really long list of academic articles to write. I usually have three or four on the go at any one time, as well as a couple of books. Anyone who knows me also tends to know that this is how I work. I discover something new, or a new perspective on something old, and will then draft out the article. Usually in a day or two. Sometimes an evening. I wouldn't say it is the most efficient way of working, and it does create a bit of a backlog of 'nearly finished' works, but I know rather a lot of academics who work in pretty much the same way. If you can call it work obviously. So today when I nipped in to a church and made a rather interesting discovery I thought 'here we go again'. Another 90% finished article will be on my desk very shortly...

And then I decided not to. I decided I'd blog about it instead. Why not? Make the information quickly and freely available to everyone. And save me a bit of bother at the same time.

The west front, Castle Rising

The church in question was Castle Rising in west Norfolk, known as one of the Romanesque gems of the county, despite having suffered from quite extensive restoration and rebuildings. It's always a lovely place to visit, and as churches go, it has one of the finest settings I can think of. Even the rebuildings don't look too much out of place. Almost. The original church is thought to have been constructed in the mid-twelfth century, on the orders of William d'Albini, and at the same time as he built the magnificent castle just a stone's throw away from the church. The twelfth century work that survives at the church is, without question, of magnificent quality. The west front includes stunning stonecarving, a truly beautiful symmetry, and some wonderfully precise blind arcading. However, I wasn't visiting to admire the west front, but rather one of the great treasures of the interior of the church - the carved stone font.

The font is sublime. Truly fantastic. Bloody wonderful. It is one of five in west Norfolk that are generally described as belonging to the 'Norman' period, with the most detailed and elaborate decorative carving around the bowl. Words can't really do it justice - so you can look at a picture instead.

Castle Rising font

See. I told you it was a stunner. However, slightly unusually, only two sides of the bowl are carved, suggesting that the font was originally meant to sit in the corner of the church, rather than being placed centrally as it is today. This isn't actually as unusual as it sounds, and numerous medieval fonts are to be found that have one or several blank faces. What is unusual is for this to have been the case with such an early font, when most contemporary fonts have carving all around the bowl. If you feel like going and looking at a couple I can really recommend those as Toftrees and Sculthorpe. Both different, and both beautiful enough to take your breath away.

The font at Castle Rising is a bit of an enigma though. According to some early antiquarians, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, the font may not have originally belonged in the church. It has been suggested that it pre-dates the building of the current church, and was originally from an earlier church whose ruins are still to be seen in the inner bailey of the nearby castle. Exactly why these early antiquarians believed this to be the case remains a little unclear. In the most general terms they appear to believe that the style of carvings on the font better fitted an earlier period than the middle of the twelfth century. They didn't really offer a great deal of evidence to support this theory - but it is one that has been repeated, almost unchallenged, right down to the present day. It is even listed on the Norfolk Historic Environment Record as so. In fact it is a really good example of just how these historical stories get started and are then perpetuated down the centuries.

So I went to have a really good look at this font. I've seen it before, on several occasions, but this time I took with me one of the key weapons in any good church archaeologists kit. A really big torch.

Sounds daft I admit. But churches are gloomy places - in lighting terms at least (a nod to the spiritual amongst you) - and a really good torch can reveal things that you may previously have missed. That generations of antiquarians may have missed. That dozens upon dozens of church crawlers may have missed. And once again, the benefits of having a really big torch paid off.

The first thing it revealed was that the font had once been painted, and close inspection revealed fragments of the pigments in several areas. A deep red ochre was present on the bowl, with a lighter red pigment also visible in a number of places, and clear evidence of a carbon black. All these pigments were in areas that might be considered backgrounds to the main decoration, and it is unclear whether all the decoration was painted, or whether it was only the background - designed to act as a backdrop and highlight the main carved decoration.

Pigment and inscribed decoration, Castle Rising font

What was really surprising though was the pedestal. The whole of the circular pedestal was covered in a compass drawn design. Whilst such designs on fonts aren't very unusual, particularly in East Anglia, it was clear that this was a little different from the average hexfoil. Indeed, it was clear that these markings were architectural in nature, and set out a whole design of blank arcading that ran all the way around the pedestal. What is more it was clear that these inscribed lines had actually been created to act as a guide for a painted scheme; a scheme that was still visible in a number of areas across the pedestal, where lines of black pigment are still really clear to see - as long as you have a big torch.

Inscribed arcading on the font base, Castle Rising

It may not sound like much of a big deal, but this blind arcading is significant. It is the same design that features on the mid-twelfth century west front of the church. The same design that features upon the mid-twelfth century fore-building of the neighbouring castle. It is the same design found on the mid-twelfth century parish chest at Hindringham in north Norfolk. The fact that it was also clearly marked out on the base to the font also rather strongly suggests that this too belongs to the mid-twelfth century - contemporary with both castle and church - rather than having been brought from elsewhere.

All in all not a massive discovery, but another early example of inscribed decorative schemes having been used as painting guides for subsequent painted schemes. Nice. Oh, and next time you go and take a look at a church - take a torch.