FONT (Lat. fons, "fountain" or "spring," Ital. fonte, Fr. les fonts), the vessel used in churches to hold the water for Christian baptism. In the apostolic period baptism was administered at rivers or natural springs (cf. Acts viii. 36), and no doubt the primitive form of the rite was by immersion in the water. Infusion - pouring water on the head of the neophyte - was early introduced into the west and north of Europe on account of the inconvenience of immersion, as well as its occasional danger; this form has never been countenanced in the Oriental churches. Aspersion, or sprinkling, was also admitted as valid, but recorded early examples of its use are rare (see Baptism). These different modes of administering baptism have caused corresponding changes in the receptacles for the water. After the cessation of persecution, when ritual and ornament began to develop openly, special buildings were erected for administering the rite of baptism. This was obviously necessary, for a large piscina (basin or tank) in which candidates could be immersed would occupy too much space of the church floor itself. These baptisteries consisted of tanks entered by steps (an ascent of three, and descent of four, to the water was the normal but not the invariable number) and covered with a domed chamber (see Baptistery).
By the 9th century, however, the use of separate baptisteries had generally given place to that of fonts. The material of which these were made was stone, often decorative marble; as early as 524, however, the council of Lerida enacted that if a stone font were not procurable the presbyter was to provide a suitable vessel, to be used for the sacrament exclusively, which might be of any material. In the Eastern Church the font never became an important decorative article of church furniture: "The font, (says Neale, Eastern Church, i. 214), in the Eastern Church is a far less conspicuous object than it is in the West. Baptism by immersion has been retained; but the font seldom or never possesses any beauty. The material is usually either metal or wood. In Russia the columbethra is movable and only brought out when wanted."
One of the most elaborate of early fonts is that described by Anastasius in the Lateran church at Rome, and said to have been presented thereto by Constantine the Great. It was of porphyry, overlaid with silver inside and out. In the middle were two porphyry pillars carrying a golden dish, on which burnt the Paschal lamp (having an asbestos wick and fed with balsam). On the rim of the bowl was a golden lamb, with silver statues of Christ and St. John the Baptist. Seven silver stags poured out water. This elaborate vessel was of course exceptional; the majority of early fonts were certainly much simpler. A fine early Byzantine stone example exists, or till recently existed, at Beer-Sheba.
Few if any fonts survive older than the 11th century. These are all of stone, except a few of lead; much less common are fonts of cast bronze (a fine example, dated 1112, exists at the Church of St Barthélemy, Liége). The most ancient are plain cylindrical bowls, with a circular - sometimes cruciform or quatrefoil - outline to the basin, either without support or with a single central pillar; occasionally there is more than one pillar. The basins are usually lined with lead to prevent absorption by the stone. The church of Efenechtyd, Denbigh, possesses an ancient font made of a single block of oak. Though the circular form is the commonest, early Romanesque fonts are not infrequently square; and sometimes an inverted truncated cone is found. Octagonal fonts are also known, though uncommon; hexagons are even less common, and pentagons very rare. There is a pentagonal font of this period at Cabourg, dept. Calvados, N. France.
Fonts early began to be decorated with sculpture and relief. Arcading and interlacing work are common; so are symbol and pictorial representation. A very remarkable leaden font is preserved at Strassburg, bearing reliefs representing scenes in the life of Christ. At Pont-à-Mousson on the Moselle are bas-reliefs of St John the Baptist preaching, and baptizing Christ. Caryatides sometimes take the place of the pillars, and sculptured animals and grotesques of strange design not infrequently form the base. More remarkable is the occasional persistence of pagan symbolism; an interesting example is the very ancient font from Ottrava, Sweden, which, among a series of Christian symbols and figures on its panels, bears a representation of Thor (see G. Stephens' brochure, Thunor the Thunderer).
In the 13th century octagonal fonts became commoner. A very remarkable example exists at the cathedral of Hildesheim in Hanover, resting on four kneeling figures, each bearing a vase from which water is running (typical of the rivers of Paradise). Above is an inscription explaining the connexion of these rivers with the virtues of temperance, courage, justice and prudence. On the sides of the cup are representations of the passage of the Jordan, of the Red Sea, the Baptism of Christ, and the Virgin and Child. The font has a conical lid, also ornamented with bas-reliefs. A cast of this font is to be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum at South Kensington. A leaden font, with figures of Our Lord, the Virgin Mary, St Martin, and the twelve Apostles, exists at Mainz; it is dated 1328 by a set of four leonine hexameters inscribed upon it. In the 14th and succeeding centuries octagonal fonts became the rule. They are delicately ornamented with mouldings and similar decorations, in the contemporary style of Gothic architectural art. Though the basin is usually circular in 15th-century fonts, examples are not infrequently found in which the outline of the basin follows the octagonal shape of the outer surface of the vessel. Examples of this type are to be found at Strassburg, Freiburg and Basel.
In England no fonts can certainly be said to date before the Norman conquest, although it is possible that a few very rude examples, such as those of Washaway, Cornwall, and Denton, Sussex, are actually of Saxon times; of course we cannot count as "Saxon fonts" those adapted from pre-Norman sculptured stones originally designed for other purposes, such as that at Dolton, Devonshire. On the other hand, Norman fonts are very common, and are often the sole surviving relics of the Norman parish church. They are circular or square, sometimes plain, but generally covered with carving of arcades, figures, foliage, etc. Among good examples that might be instanced of this period are Alphington, Devon (inverted cone, without foot); Stoke Cannon, Devon (supported on caryatides); Ilam, Staffs (cup-shaped); Fincham, Burnham Deepdale, Sculthorpe, Toftrees, and Shernborne in Norfolk (all, especially the last, remarkable for elaborate carving); Youlgrave, Derby (with a projecting stoup in the side for the chrism - a unique detail); besides others in Lincoln cathedral; Iffley, Oxon; Newenden, Kent; Coleshill, Warwick; East Meon, Hants; Castle Frome, Herefordshire. Some of the best examples of "Norman" fonts in England (such as the notable specimen in Winchester cathedral) were probably imported from Belgium. In the Transitional period we may mention a remarkable octagonal font at Belton, Lincolnshire; in this period fall most of the leaden fonts that remain in England, of which thirty are known (7 in Gloucestershire, 4 in Berkshire and Kent, 3 in Norfolk, Oxford and Sussex, 1 in Derby, Dorset, Lincoln, Somerset, Surrey and Wiltshire); perhaps the finest examples are at Ashover, Derbyshire, and Walton, Surrey. Early English fonts are comparatively rare. They bear the moulding, foliage and tooth ornament in the usual style of the period. A good example of an Early English font is at All Saints, Leicester; others may be seen at St Giles', Oxford, and at Lackford, Suffolk. Fonts of the Decorated period are commoner, but not so frequent as those of the preceding Norman or subsequent Perpendicular periods. Fonts of the Perpendicular period are very common, and are generally raised upon steps and a lofty stem, which, together with the body of the font, are frequently richly ornamented with panelling. It was also the custom during this period to ornament the font with shields and coats of arms and other heraldic insignia, as at Herne, Kent. The fonts of this period, however, are as a rule devoid of interest, and, like most Perpendicular work, are stiff and monotonous. There is, however, a remarkable font, with sculptured figures, belonging to the late 14th century, at West Drayton in Middlesex.
In Holyrood chapel there was a brazen font in which the royal children of Scotland were baptized. It was carried off in 1544 by Sir R. Lea, and given by him to the church at St Albans, but was afterwards destroyed by the Puritans. A silver font existed at Canterbury, which was sometimes brought to Westminster on the occasion of a royal baptism. At Chobham, Surrey, there is a leaden font covered with oaken panels of the 16th century. The only existing structure at all recalling the ancient baptisteries in English churches is found at Luton in Bedfordshire. The font at Luton belongs to the Decorated style, and is enclosed in an octagonal structure of freestone, consisting of eight pillars about 25 ft. in height, supporting a canopy. The space around the font is large enough to hold twelve adults comfortably. At the top of the canopy is a vessel for containing the consecrated water, which when required was let down into the font by means of a pipe.
In 1236 it was ordered by Edmund, archbishop of Canterbury, that baptismal fonts should be kept under lock and key, as a precaution against sorcery: - "Fontes baptismales sub sera clausi teneantur propter sortilegia." The lids appear at first to have been quite simple and flat. They gradually, however, partook of the ornamentation of the font itself, and are often of pyramidal and conical forms, highly decorated with finials, crockets, mouldings and grotesques. Sometimes these covers are very heavy and are suspended by chains to enable them to be raised at will. Very rich font covers may be seen at Ewelme, Oxon; St Gregory, Sudbury; North Walsingham, Norfolk; Worlingworth, Suffolk. The ordinary position of the font in the church was and is near the entrance, usually to the left of the south door.
See Arcisse de Caumont, Cours d'antiquités monumentales (Paris, 1830-1843); Francis Simpson, A Series of Antient Baptismal Fonts (London, 1828); Paley, Ancient Fonts; E.E. Viollet-le-Duc, Dict. raisonné de l'architecture (1858-1868), vol. v.; J.H. Parker's Glossary of Architecture; Francis Bond, Fonts and Font-Covers (London, 1908). A large number of fine illustrations of fonts, principally of the earlier periods, will be found in the volumes of the Reliquary and Illustrated Archaeologist.
(R. A. S. M.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)