Decoration in colours and gold must have been a necessary part of a font cover such as this. Constructed of wood, visible as such to the eye at a moment's glance, it appears to be impossibly fragile. The fact thai it is telescopic further intensifies this impression.
Constructed of metal, this delicacy of ornament would be justified to the observer. In wood, painted and gilded, it would acquire an appearance of strength in its parts, even although such covering were somewhat in the nature of a deception; an artistic sham. The painting of the roof above is merely decorative; applied to harmonise the timbers with the font cover suspended below. The cover depends, at its apex, from an effigy of the heraldic pelican the symbol of the Redemption, which we shall see in a later chapter, in the panel of a pulpit in Aldington Church in Kent.
Niches are provided in each tier, the lower series intended to hold the effigies of saints, but these have disappeared, long since. The cover has been scraped and scoured until the merest vestiges of its original colouring remain, but of the four original panels which exist, two have remnants of the free floral designs in colour and gold which must have been applied to the entire cover. In the upper portions of these panels are the remains of gilded gesso backgrounds, patterned with incised and dotted diapers. The floral dado with a gold ground above, behind each effigy which formerly stood in the niches, must have made a rich and effective setting to the figures.
The second and third tiers of these tabernacles also exhibit evidences of having contained images, originally. The backgrounds of the lower series are in blue and red counter-change; in the upper tier red and green is used; the red being above the blue of the lower series. All the canopies to these niches were groined in gold with panels of blue and with little gilt flowers in the centre. The buttresses, pinnacles, tracery and other tabernacle-work were in gold ground with decoration of white, green and red. The pelican was in blue and gold with traces of black and white. Of this original colouring, which must have made this Ufford font cover such an exceptional example, even of its time, only the merest indications remain.
The font has always been an object of importance and reverence in the history of the Christian religion. Constructed of stone, in nearly every case (although lead fonts are not unknown, as, for example, the one in Brookland Church in Kent), many have persisted from Saxon times, and possibly from still earlier periods. The covers, where such existed, were usually made from wood, and have nearly all perished, either with time, or at the hands of iconoclasts.1 At no period, however, was the destruction of font covers authorised, and there are numerous ordinances from Bishops ordering them to be safeguarded and provided with locks or similar security. The cover, to protect the font containing the holy water, was almost of as great an importance as the font itself. These covers vary, in different churches and districts, from the elaborate example at Ufford to the mere disc of wood. So many have perished, however, that the latter may be subsequent replacements, and it is possible that each parish church, originally, was provided with a font cover of some degree of elaboration. The usual form was pyramidal, with moulded ribs at the angles, which developed by the addition of a deep moulded or carved base. From this stage the font cover evolved by the addition of crocketting to the ribs, as at Ashbocking, Fig. 163, and Pilton, Fig. 164. The next stage was the deepening of the cover below the pyramid and the introduction of pinnacles and traceried panels, as at Barking, Fig. 165, finally culminating in magnificent covers such as at Ufford.
1 See Dowsing's Journal in relation to the destruction at Bramfield.
The later development of the font cover is a canopy supported on posts at the corners, as at St. Peter Mancroft, Fig. 166, instead of being suspended from the roof. The lower stag"-, which forms the font lid, telescopes into the dome. Unfortunately, only the posts and the flat canopy are original; the dome with its niches are restoration. At Trunch in the same county, is another example of this kind, unrestored but very incomplete.
Fig. 176. Cartmel Priory, Lancs., Stall Canopies. - Early seventeenth century.
At Swimbridge, Fig. 167, there is a different development, the cover being formed as an octagonal-framed casing to the font, with doors above which open, for access to the font itself. The ornament is well carved, in the Renaissance manner, which indicates the early years of the sixteenth century.
In St. Michael-at-Plea is the little classical cover, Fig. 168, showing the decline in size and importance which occurred after the Reformation. It demonstrates, also, the complete departure from the Gothic traditions at this date. It is possible that this stone font originally possessed a rich cover, which has disappeared and been replaced by the present one. The following extract from Bloomfield's History of Norfolk (1745) is curious, and must refer to this font either without a cover, or with one of a totally different fashion, although "sitting on the font" (eight persons, be it remembered) must have meant sitting on the steps below it. In any case the present cover could not have existed.
"1504. Alderman Thomas Bewfield was buried by the font in the Church of St. Michael-at-Plea, Norwich, and founded a mass for eight years, every working day at 8 o'clock in the morning, and his executors were to find eight poor men and women daily to attend it and sit on the font and pray for his and his friends' souls, and each to have fourpence every Saturday.