2. The Tournai Font

THE TOURNAI FONT

This font was made by the famous sculptors of Tournai in Flanders in about 1150 from the local marble.  It was transported 500 miles down the Scheldt river, across the North Sea and English Channel, and then finally up the River Itchen and laboriously overland to East Meon.

Almost certainly the font was a magnificent gift from the Bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois.  A grandson of William the Conqueror and brother of King Stephen, he exercised considerable authority both in Church and State.  A contemporary observer described him as being “most earnest in the beautifying of our churches”.  As lord of the manor he would have had a particular interest in East Meon church. 

The sides of the font are about 100cm x 47cm, and the bowl is 67cm in diameter and 37-40cm deep.  In medieval times babies were usually dipped in the font, hence the size.  At that period also, water with oil and salt in it was blessed once a year at Easter and left in the font all year.  This meant that the font had to be secured with a lid and lock to prevent theft for black magic purposes.  An iron bracket in the top of the font is all that remains of this medieval arrangement.  The modern practice is to bless fresh water on each occasion.

The South Face (stand with your back to the door) depicts the flat earth on its pillars with a graphic scene of the doves of peace being pursued by the dogs of war.  This is intended to represent the eternal struggle between good and evil and the dangers facing the Christian in the world.

The West Face (move clockwise) is once again symbolic and shows the flat earth surmounted by four mythical beasts which combine elements of mammals, fish, birds and reptiles.  Notice the dragon heads which recall the Norse origin of the Norman people and are reminiscent of the famous dragon-prowed warships of the Vikings.

The North Face should be read from right to left.  It shows God creating Adam and then creating Eve from the rib of the sleeping  Adam.   Eve is tempted by the serpent and then Adam eats the apple.  Notice that the serpent appears once more as a dragon rather than a naturalistic snake.  Medieval modesty dictates that Eve should have her fig leaf in place even before her ‘fall’.

The East Face shows Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden by a sword-carrying angel.  Eden is depicted as a great medieval church and there is obviously a heavy hint to the viewers that just as Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, so they would be excommunicated from the Church if they misbehaved.  The final scene depicts the angel teaching Adam to dig and Eve to spin.  We have here a glimpse of the sort of implements used by the medieval peasant.

The Bowl is a perfect circle, symbolising eternal life.  It is a late 17th century replacement for the original which disappeared in March 1644 when General Waller’s Parliamentary troops were billeted here before the Battle of Cheriton in the Civil War.  Lead was taken to make bullets, and it is interesting to speculate whether the damage to one of the corners happened at the same time.

The Top is decorated with vine fruit and doves drinking from the water of life.  Symbolic tongues of fire on two corners represent the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and in Baptism and Confirmation.