10th Century Baptismal Font at the Church of Saint Mary,
Melbury Bubb, Dorset, England
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GENERAL INFORMATION
Patron SaintSaint Mary
LocationMelbury Bubb, Dorset, England
Font location in churchIn the nave to the left of the door
workshopUnknown
Date/Century/PeriodLate 10th or early 11th Century
MediumLimestone
DrainageCentre hole in bowl
Date of On-site Visit16th September 2004
FONT NOTES
The font is a cylindrical tapering bowl, formally part of a circular shaft reversed, face carved with continuous design of beasts and interlacement; beasts include a stag (frequent on Celtic crosses), biting a serpent whose coils interlace the feet of the other animals; a tall horse with paws not hooves; a lion with a mane, biting a small dog with its tail between its legs; and a large animal with a mane (probably a wolf) facing the horse. The are two small legged dragons between the larger animals.

Whatever its precise origin, the whole scene of carved animals is found upside-down.

Yapp, in his treatise on the font at Tollar Fratrum, some five and a half miles (9 km) to the south in the Frome Valley, refers to "another enigmatic font, of a totally different character... It is usually dated at about 1000. The RCHM illustrates sculptured fragments from Melbury Orchard, Batcombe and Cattistock and ascribes them to the 10th and 11th centuries. From these examples it is clear that sculpture flourished in West Dorset at least throughout the 11th century"

Arthur Mee (p. 151) In his usual form, describes it as "the work of some artist far back in time who gave it a bold and handsome circle of hounds chasing deer, with wild beasts preying on each other. Like the lamps of the Foolish Virgins, they are all shown upside down, though the font is shaped like a tumbler and is the right way up. One theory is that the design shows the overthrow of cruelty by the gospel of love; another is that it stands for the overthrow of Creation by sin. It is a very early example of Dorset art, probably part of a sculptured Saxon cross hollowed out for use as a font by the Normans, and is as beautiful as it is curious".

Alternatively, is it possible that the Norman mason simply hollowed out the previously carved shaft from the wrong end before realising his mistake? But then a font with a wide base and narrow top would also look out of proportion. However, this font is not unique. Bond refers to another hollowed out piller, also upside down, at Wilne, Derbyshire. Fonts formed from parts of other older structures can also be found locally at Tollar Porcorum and Litton Cheney.

Long writes, "Saxon fonts survive in different parts of England, and two at least are to be found in Dorset - Chaldon Herring and Melbury Bubb - while it is quite possible that several, usually assigned to the Norman period, are in reality of Pre-Conquest origin.

REFERENCE
Dorset Historic Churches Trust, Dorset Churches. [Dorchester]: DHCT, 1988, p. 34.
Fonts and Font Covers, F. Bond, Oxford University Press 1908, p. 106
Hutchins, J. The history and antiquities of the County of Dorset, 3rd ed., edited by W. Shipp and J.W. Hodson, Westminster: J.B. Nichols, 1861-1873.
Mee, A., ed., Dorset: Thomas Hardy's country. The King's England. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1939, pp. 150-151.
Newman, J. and Pevsner, N., The buildings of England: Dorset. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972, pp. 272-273.
Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England), An inventory of historical monuments in the County of Dorset, Vol. 1, West Dorset. London: HMSO, 1952, pp. 157-159.
W.B. Yapp, Dorset Natural History and Antiquities Society volume 109 (1987), The Iconography of the Font at Toller Fratrum, pp. 1-4
DESCRIPTION DIMENSIONS
Font Shapetub Total Height (without plinth or cover)85 cm
Basin Shape (outside)circular Diameter of basin (including rim)58 cm
Basin Shape (inside)circular Diameter of basin (not including rim)43 cm
Basin lininglead Width of rimvaries from 6.5cm to 8.5cm
Base Shapen/a Outside Height of Basin n/a
Number of pieces 1 Inside depth of Basin 15 cm

View of the church looking from the north

View of St. Mary's Church from the grave yard

View of the font from the door

View of the font from the chancel

View looking past the font toward the altar

The front of the font from inside the door

The Stag ~ Press Here for larger picture

The Horse ~ Press Here for larger picture

The Lion ~ Press Here for larger picture

The Wolf ~ Press Here for larger picture

Inverted sketch of the wild beasts preying on each other
LINKS
Dorset Historic Churches Trust
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Copyright Gerald Duke 2004