|There are only seven Norman Fonts of this type in the whole of England and four of them are in Hampshire. The best known one is at Winchester Cathedral while the other three are at, St Michael's Southampton, East Meon and St Mary Bourne. These 12th Century fonts, are all made of polished black marble and were made in the Tournai district of Belgium. The common features of these fonts are that they are all square on the outside and round on the inside, they are supported by a main central column with four smaller detached columns at each of the corners and the bowls are magnificently carved with elaborate scenes and motifs. We do not have a description of the Steventon font but it may well have been of this type.|
|Coincidentally the main subject of the carvings on this font are of legends associated with St Nicholas whom Steventon Church is dedicated to. A further coincidence is that the font at Winchester is situated in close proximity to the grave of Jane Austen. If you visit Winchester Cathedral it is well worth taking a good look at the font. Jane herself was baptised at Steventon Rectory by her father within a few days of her birth. Here is birth and death in close proximity to each other.
Each side of the font is carved with different motifs, and scenes depicting the legends associated with St Nicholas, or Santa Claus, as he is rather better known. Viewed from the North aisle of the cathedral, facing the font, the north side is carved with three circular medallions.
The North Side of the Font
|The centre medallion shows a beast, possibly a lion, with its head turned backwards and showing a ferocious set of teeth. On either side of this central medallion are two further medallions, each one showing a dove, again with its head bent backwards and its wings and tail feathers spread.
Moving round to the west side of the font, there are two separate scenes depicted, although they are slightly mixed up. The two figures on the extreme left of a boy holding a cup and St Nicholas in his mitre, really belong with the ship on the right and the horizonatal boy with the cup.
The West Side of the Font
|The two storys depicted are "How St Nicholas became the patron saint of children", and "The Legend of the Golden Cup".|
|The left hand part of the panel shows the legend of how St Nicholas became the patron saint of children, and a rather gruesome tale it is. The panel shows St Nicholas with a child standing beside him. To his left is a pork butcher holding an axe, and behind him is the butchers wife. On the right, and arranged vertically, are three dead boys in a brine barrel.
The legend tells how three lost boys sought shelter for the night from a butcher. He welcomed them into his house, fed them and gave them beds for the night. However when they had gone to sleep, he killed them, cut off their heads, and put their bodies in a brine barrel to use as meat in his sausages (shades of Sweeny Todd the Barber). Just as he was finishing his task, St Nicholas came along also seeking shelter, and he told the butcher he would like to sup off the three little boys in the brine barrel. Completely surprised and stricken with concience the butcher made a full confession whereupon the Saint restored the boys to life and became the guardian of the boys and all children everywhere.
|The right hand section shows "The Legend of the Golden Cup". In this story a childless nobleman (sitting at the front of the boat), vows to present a gold cup to St Nicholas if a son and heir is born to him. This duly happens and the nobleman has a fine gold cup made. However the cup is so fine that he decides to keep it for himself and has a second cup made for St. Nicholas. He then sets off with his son (the centre figure in the boat), over the seas, to present the cup. The figure at the rear of the boat, holding the tiller, is the captain of the boat. While on the voyage they run into a storm and the nobleman's son, holding the first cup, is swept overboard and drowned. Grief stricken, the nobleman goes on to the church of St. Nicholas and presents him with the second, lesser, cup. However, when it is placed on the altar the cup is cast down. The nobleman keeps placing it on the altar but each time it is cast down. Eventually the nobleman's son appears, bearing the first cup, and relates how St. Nicholas rescued him from the deep and delivered him to dry land. In gratitude the nobleman presents both the cups to St. Nicholas.|
|Moving on round to the south side of the font "The Legend of the Dowry" is depicted.|
The South Side of the Font
|This tells the tale of a poor nobleman, here shown kneeling before St. Nicholas outside his church. The nobleman leads a life of shame because he cannot afford to give his three daughters a dowry. St. Nicholas saves him, by giving him a purse of gold coins, which he recieves in his left hand and then passes it on to the first daughter with his right hand. The other two daughters hold hands sympathetically. On the extreme left of the picture is a young man, holding a hawk on his wrist, waiting to marry one of the nobleman's daughters, for whom St. Nicholas has provided a suitable dowry.|
|The final, east side of the font, has three medallions on it. The centre medallion shows a pair of doves eating a bunch of grapes, while the outer two medallions each show a pair of doves with their heads bent backwards touching their wings.|
The East Side of the Font
|Doves in early christian art are usually shown in pairs facing each other. They symbolise not only Noah's dove, but also, and more importantly, they symbolise The Holy Ghost and therefore in another sense, the souls of the departed.|