Recently I received a copy of a work called “Ideas and Images in Twelfth Century Sculpture” by the late Mary Curtis Webb who died in 1987 . Mary Webb’s daughter, delighted to have had discovered my website with its photographs of Norfolk fonts, contacted me and sent me a copy of her mother’s book as a gift.
I find this book to be an astonishingly scholarly work which explores the meaning of geometric designs which are carved on some of England’s Norman fonts . Mary Webb, having spent much time in the British Museum Reading Room (as it then was) studying photographs of drawings of similar geometric designs in 12th century manuscripts, came to realise that the geometric patterns carved on 12th c. fonts , such as a square- on- a square, a circle interlaced with its arcs, a rhomb- on- an oblong , are not mere fancies of the carvers , intended as mere decoration , but have deep meaning. She explains that these geometric designs illustrate the cosmology derived from Plato’s “Timaeus and the Theory of Number” written by the Pythagorean mathematician Nicomachus of Gerasa (Gerasa is known today as Jerash in modern Jordan) who died c. 120 AD. The work of Nicomachus was translated into Latin by Boethius (died c. 524 AD) and this arithmetical primer supplied the Middle Ages with the sole text book available on the subject in the schools!
The early philosophers placed much emphasis on mathematics in their view of the universe. They believed that the universe must be in a harmony that was created by God. This harmony was evident through mathematical relationships. Unsurprisingly, it was none other than Pythagoras who first expounded this theory, and Plato developed it in his “Timaeus”. Thus to these philosophers, for example, the “square-on-a-square” motif represented the “perfection of numbers” .
These ancient cosmological theories came to be adopted by the Church to provide a ‘scientific basis’ for Christian theories on the Creation. Mary Webb shows that a wonderful example of this is to be seen in the geometric carvings on the famous 12th century font in the church of Stone, Buckinghamshire and believed that these intriguing geometric carvings depict God’s Foundation or Creation of the world.
It was Mary Webb’s first encounter with this font that triggered off her many years of research. She did not intend at first to write a book but only to discover for herself the meaning of the geometric designs which are carved on one side of this font together with the meaning of the pictorial carvings which are carved on the other side. However, over the years her research ballooned into a book. At the time of her death she still had not finished her work and it fell to her daughter, years later, to try to sort her papers and print them as a book. This was completed in 2010 and so the risk of her work being lost altogether was thankfully avoided.
The Norfolk fonts of Toftrees, Shemborne and Sculthorpe (all shown on my website) and Braybrooke in Northants are also wonderfully carved with meaningful geometric designs that echo those on the font at Stone. There are several other ancient fonts in different parts of England carved with meaningful geometric designs. Here I include a note written by Mary’s daughter:
“Many twelfth century fonts are carved with geometric designs similar to these. These designs were not carved as mere decoration, but have deep meaning, the circular designs interlaced by their arcs being of particular interest since these are a representation of Cosmic Harmony, going back ultimately to Plato’s description of the World Soul in his “Timaeus” dialogue. The Church Fathers, notably Origen in the third century adopted this figure as a reference to God’s Creation of the Universe.
In manuscripts going back at least to the seventh century, such figures often contain the four elements from which according to Plato, the world is formed , earth, fire, air and water (the Macrocosm) and alternatively the four humours of man, blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy (the Microcosm).
Since the middle ages the significance of these designs has been largely forgotten. It would be a great loss to our artistic heritage and our understanding of the medieval mind, if we fail to understand and conserve precious carvings such as these.”
It is startling to see imagery reflecting Greek philosophy dating back nearly 1500 years carved on fonts and elswhere. Reading Mary Webb’s book one is struck by the depth of thinking that went into the evolution of Greek philosophies, the work of Euclid, Archimedes, Pythagoras. To those of us who love to study geometric carvings on fonts, it is clear that there are other designs still waiting to be explained and understood and I feel sure that Mary Webb would love to have had time to study them.