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We love the sacred font

09 January 2015

Pamela Tudor-Craig on a recent addition to Iffley Parish Church

"For there the holy Dove . . .":the font cover by Roger Wagner and Nicholas Mynheer

"For there the holy Dove . . .":the font cover by Roger Wagner and Nicholas Mynheer

EVER since John Piper's window of the nativity, with the animals voicing their onomatopoeic Christmas praises (following the 16th-century wall-paintings at Shulbrede Priory), was installed in Iffley Parish Church, near Oxford, this lovely little Romanesque church has become a destination not only for those who revel in the antiquity of our village churches, but for those who delight in their evidence of their new artistic vitality.

Piper's window has been joined by Roger Wagner's first major work in stained glass, a flowering crucifix opposite it; and the furnishings also include aumbry doors by Nicholas Mynheer. Wagner and Mynheer have now joined forces to create a new font cover.

In churches up and down the country, the font is the most ancient element surviving. Time and again, the church has been rebuilt piecemeal around it. At Iffley, church and font have survived the centuries together. Relatively few fonts are earlier than the 12th century; so in this case it is the church that has avoided rebuilding through eight-and-a-half centuries.

At some point, one of the four spiralled decorated legs of this square font collapsed, and a contrivance of perhaps the same date has been pressed into service. Loving repairs are afoot. The new font cover, required because the modest, probably 19th-century, cover was too heavy to lift by the single hand-hold provided, was dedicated last September.

This history of font covers comes into its own in the later Middle Ages, with the threat of theft of the consecrated water for witchcraft purposes. A virtue was made of a precaution, and the covers rose to unexampled heights on the eve of the Reformation. Ewelme, in Oxfordshire, has a wonderful spire of a font cover, set in a perfect Perpendicular church; but the crown of them all is at Ufford, in Suffolk, where the cover's fretted spire rises to the height of the clerestory.

To the anxious question how you could take it off, which has been troubling Iffley, the answer at Ufford and Ewelme is that there is a hinged opening at the convenient height, and appropriate fastening. After the triumph of Ufford, font covers dwindled, and craftsmen turned their attention to sounding-boards.

Churchwardens today do not usually worry about witchcraft, although the practice is not entirely extinct. Dust and bats, however, are more with us than they were when the countryside offered alternative nesting sites. And so to Iffley.

The new font cover is of pewter over wood, with, in the middle, a glass circle raised in the centre in the form of a flying dove. Around that central circle there are five thoughtful hand-holds of leaf shape. Through these you can see the waters beneath, and, to the delight of the artists, the hand-holes also afford a glimpse of the dove shimmering over the waters. The medieval locking device has been pressed into service once more, to defend against theft of the cover itself.

Once more, courage and imagination have been rewarded. The spirit of Walter Hussey, that great commissioner of art for churches, lives on. Whatever an artist's personal stance on matters of religion, I have never met one who was not keen to carry out a commission for the Church; and often those commissions have become key reference-points in their work.

So, well done, Iffley; well done, inspiring patrons; well done, two dedicated artists and the craftsmen supporting them.

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