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.