The Tournai Marble Font
The font in this church is one of the seven
(and a broken, lower half of another) in this
country, four of which are in Hampshire. The
other Hampshire fonts are in Winchester Cathedral;
St Michael's, Southampton and All Saints, East
Meon. There are some 49 others in northern France
and Belgium. Although loosely described as "marble",
they are in fact a dense black/blue schistose
limestone of the carboniferous age, capable
of being polished like marble. When first cut,
the stone is relatively soft and easily worked.
There are thin seams of the stone running from
Boulogne to Aachen, and the fonts come from
Tournai, near the Frenchborder, on the river
Scheldt in Belgium. Tournai was a lively medieval
town and it seems that font production flourished
in the second half of the twelfth century. The
fonts were quarried and carved in Tournai making
them lighter to export by road and water. The
Hampshire group was possibly imported by the
then Bishop of Winchester, Henri de Blois (1129-1174)
a notable art-lover. However, there is no strong
link as yet shown between this Norman Bishop
and St Mary Bourne, then merely a chapel of
ease of Hurstbourne Priors.
Tournai fonts typically stand a metre high
on a thick central column with four separate
thinner pillars at each corner. Surviving original
bases (also square) often have masks or animal
heads on the corners. The original base and
pillars of this font are lost. Indeed, the font
shows the marks of rough usage, especially on
the north-west corner, and it is at least possible
that it suffered the zeal of reformers, as did
some other parts of the church. For many years
the font stood on single sandstone pillar, now
outside the church on the north side of the
tower. The present base was commissioned from
the Tournai quarries and brought over, not without
incident, in 1927.
The carving on this font is relatively abstract
and symbolic, certainly compared with the Winchester
Cathedral font, which follows the story of St
Nicholas: it lacks the allegorical beasts and
figures of so many other Tournai fonts.
Description of the Font
West Side (facing the bell
Six Norman arches and seven double pillars are
surmounted by four doves in two symmetrical
pairs (the souls of the faithful?), drinking
thirstily out of two small cups, with what appear
to be two large drops of water overflowing from
them. This is apparently unusual for Norman
carving and is symbolic of the living water,
overflowing, abundant life (see John 4.14).
North Side (facing the "Bank of England"
A further six Norman arches, with seven double
pillars are decorated with seven fleur-de-lys.
The flower symbolises purity and the Blessed
Virgin Mary. Over the extreme left arch is a
smaller plain and flat fleur-de-lys, the symbolic
or artistic purpose of which is opaque: it might
possibly be a craftsman's mark.
East Side (facing the High Altar)
Two stylised vines on this side are less prolific
in their fruiting than the final side, no doubt
another symbolic touch, perhaps alluding to
the pruning of the branches to bear greater
fruit in John 15.2.
South Side (facing the vestry and main door)
Two stylised vines, each with four tendrils,
have bunches of grapes and conventional leaves
hanging from them. The prolific fruiting recalls
the words of Jesus in John 15.1- 5, "I
am the vine, you are the branches. Those who
abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because
apart from me you can do nothing." Also
the vine is a recurring metaphor in the Old
Testament for the people of God (see Psalm 80.8-14;
Isaiah 5.1ff; Ezekiel 17.5-6; Hosea 10.1).The
Tournai font in St Pierre, Montdidier in France
has a very similar face, except that in between
the two rather more compressed vines is an image
of Christ blessing.
A band of a scrolling vine branch and leaves
surrounds the bowl of the font, binding the
baptised into the people of God. The corners
are filled with a pair of doves sipping from
a vase (SE and NW) and a conventional wheat
sheaf, bound at the stalk, with its head of
grain above (NE). The SW corner has two symmetrical
stems and leaves bound together with a tall
cross between them, clasped by a design like
an open metal bracelet (not a phoenix, as imagined
by Dr Stevens!). All together, the reference
is again to Holy Communion, this time to both
bread and wine, and to the Holy Cross.
The artist, I believe, carefully chose the
symbolism of the decoration to tell a story.
Although the symbolism has been interpreted
by others in a number of different ways, there
is general agreement that the intention is to
point beyond the font's role in the sacrament
of infant baptism towards the mature Christian
This can be seen more clearly if we imagine
the font realigned so that the cross on the
top of the south-west corner faces along the
length of the church towards the high altar.
Anyone entering the church from the main, south
entrance, would then see the two arcaded sides,
the aisles of a church leading up to the high
altar. The worshipper is reminded of Christ's
offer of abundant life through the living water
(the present west side) and of the need for
purity (the fleur-de-lys of the north side)
and the incarnation of Christ is alluded to
through the Blessed Virgin Mary - also very
appropriate in a village dedicated to her. The
initiate thus passes through the waters of baptism
and is bound into the people of God (the vine
band around the bowl).
The depiction of the increasingly abundantly
fruiting vines of the final two sides suggests
the fruitful life in Christ entered through
the ministry of the font itself, the cross being
the guide to the spiritual life received in
the Eucharist at the High Altar.
The artist, on this interpretation, therefore
depicts images of growth and nourishment through
Holy Communion and encourages spiritual maturity
through the basic sacraments of the Church.
Although execution of the carvings has been
criticised as somewhat crude, the font in fact
tells a subtle and symbolic story to those with
the time and understanding to meditate upon
The sides vary between 1.092 and 1.100. The
diagonal (SW-NE) measures 1.540: the bowl's
diameter is 0.808. The depth of the font is
Joseph Stevens, A Parochial History of St Mary
Bourne (London, 1888).
Joseph Stevens, 'The Font at St Mary Bourne',
letter of 17th June 1876 in the Newbury Weekly
Cecil H.Eden, Black Tournai Fonts in England
C.S.Drake, 'The Distribution of Tournai Fonts'
in The Antiquaries Journal, Vol. LXXIII, 1993,
Notes of a lecture given by C.S.Drake in Southampton
on 26th February 1995.