SEE US IN A NEW LIGHT
Bravo Cuthbert Maxwell… and our Anthony!
The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes…
This last week the Cathedral shared a story showing the care being put into protecting the Medieval Font canopy (or cover) that you may have seen suspended at the West entrance. The post explains that the cover hangs high on a chain above the Font – apparently the secret of how to lower it is known only to the bell ringers! The picture attached shows Anthony one of the stone masons working with Louise the Conservator to devise a light weight frame of wood and wire which could be attached above the canopy in order to hang some sort of protection. The concern was that the canopy could develop a mould if it was boxed so instead a fabric cover was designed and installed. Admittedly it took a couple of goes but using a very light-weight, breathable fabric called Tyvek and a good day’s manoeuvrings it worked. So now it hangs shrouded, but well protected from the dust, waiting like all of us – Anthony included – for the works to recommence.
The canopy is very beautiful. It is thought that it was made by a great Cathedral benefactor, Richard Rhodes, in the 15th Century. Most believe he paid for, and built, the Lantern Tower too, and his family Coat of Arms adorn the roof of the tower immediately above the Font and there is one on each of six of the sides of the Font itself. Generally, I’m not that enamoured with Coats of Arms but I love his – I call it the ‘whippet and three stotties’. Just have a look next time you are able and you’ll easily see why. Incidentally, no one really knows who the other two Arms refer to (for the experts among you they consist of ‘quartered coat argent, a chevron gules, between three rooks within a border engrailed’ or something like that!) perhaps most obviously they are the family arms of Rhodes wife, Agnes. But before we get to the Font itself it’s worth a moment’s pause at the canopy.
It is of delicate and curious workmanship, and just like the ornate tip of a steeple. Hidden inside is a wonderful and unusual carving of the Coronation of Our Lady. Nicholas Coulton, a former Provost and Dean of the Cathedral, made the following comment on a recent Facebook post:
‘The carving inside of the Coronation of the Virgin is superb. Providentially it complements the stained-glass roundel of about the same period, showing the Virgin breastfeeding the infant Christ. Together those two wonderful works of art show both the Divinity and the Humanity of Christ.’
It’s a favourite point he likes to make, I remember he made it when he interviewed me for a vacant Canon’s post in 1999. Indeed, I can still picture him, all enthusiastic, shining a large hand-held torch to make it more visible.
Covers for Fonts are quite medieval in origin. Not designed to keep the dust out, more designed to keep pilfering of ‘holy water’ at bay. Or more helpfully for me, to help protect us from superstitious beliefs running riot: apparently people held that ‘holy water’ from the Font held miraculous healing powers and they often tried to take some home. The Cathedral’s canopy was the inspiration for Johnson and Hedley when the designed and made the Quire redevelopment in 1882. It was this that made us into a Cathedral at the inauguration of the Diocese. Take a look at the Dean’s stall and of course the Bishop’s Cathedra and you will see exactly what I mean. As an aside the observant among us will have noted from the past that the Font cover does not hang directly over the Font anymore. This cannot be rectified because it’s 7mm offset is caused, not by the cover or the pulley system, but by actual movement in the tower. Don’t panic it is carefully monitored so quite safe but the canopy will remain off centre – a little (but delightful) Newcastle quirk. So, you see why it is a special jewel in our crown and a crucial part of our story. Thank God the Tyvek shroud worked well on the second attempt. Sleep well and safe beautiful canopy, for a little while at least.
The word ‘Font’ has its origins in the word fountain or spring. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some of the most ancient are cruciform in shape and deep enough to walk into or for an adult to kneel for Baptism. Some suggest other shapes are chosen for their symbolism: Round for the eternal circle, three sided for the Trinity, or like ours eight sided because eight is the number of new creation – it was after all on the eighth day of the week that Christ rose from the dead. I’m sure that we shouldn’t get too hung up on symbolism and shapes, Baptism is after all about the water not the basin. Our Font looks quite old though I’m not 100% sure that the stone base is the original. Why you ask? Well the oldest reference I can find to the Font is in 1847 where MacKenzie tells us that the base is made of Frosterly marble yet the base I see today is certainly not: another mystery to solve! Perhaps Debs our stone expert can help?
As part of the restoration we hope to install a small mechanism in the basin so that the Font will always have moving water – ‘living water’ if you will. So, lowered from its steps, chains removed, and standing at the centre of a new stone floor which (will included a decoration in actual Frosterly marble) this ancient basin will have a dignified presence at the entrance to the Cathedral, calling us always to our Baptismal commitment to life in Christ.
Interestingly, MacKenzie also says that the Font wasn’t in use in those days, in fact the cover was kept lowered on to four small pillars and unable to move. What did they use for Baptism then? I suppose it matters little as long as there was water and the words of Trinity. Yet when I take a baptism in the Cathedral I like to muse on the thousands of families who have brought their offspring here to bask in God’s grace, be they baby Collingwood or baby ‘ragamuffin’ all welcome to be ‘drowned’ and risen in his love. This is for me at the heart of the restoration work we share. This simple, but profound task that we have to declare that the God of our ancestors has been at work in this place for generations and he has not stopped his activity now, now when it can feel that we need him more than ever. We the baptised people are his body here on earth today, we carry the torch of faith to our generation, we who have been dipped in the water of his glorious love now declare to our people his love is freely available.
Anthony, our friendly stonemason, enjoys his restoration work and makes best use of his advantageous positions. He sent me a remarkable photo of the characters carved right on the canopies pinnacle. It looks like four grim monks (though I can’t be sure) designed, no doubt, to keep their watchful eye on the carvings and any other proceedings.
That reminds me, Anthony isn’t the only stonemason to have helped preserve our beloved Font and its spectacular cover: In 1639 the (Protestant) Scots attacked the city and as they took over each church they destroyed any papist furniture or adornments. At St John’s Grainger Street, they smashed the Font and its cover to pieces. The quick-thinking local stonemason, Cuthbert Maxwell, (no relation to coffee purveyors, well at least to my knowledge!!) rushed from St John’s to St Nick’s and helped dismantle and hide the Font cover and basin, and miraculously it remained stashed away until it could safely be brought back out into the open. We are without doubt grateful that it is a different reason for ‘hiding away’ this time. But Anthony, just note that you have like-minded colleagues from generations past. To you both, and to countless others we are indebted and grateful!