Luppitt's Norman font and pillar piscina: An Extract from the book 'Luppitt: Parish, Church and People'

"Both the font at the base of the tower, and the pillar piscina, now in the south east corner of the chancel, are declared to be of the early Norman period, probably around 1100 AD.

It would be impossible to include all the comments made by so many on our remarkable font, but there is general agreement on its probable age, and some consider that there are Saxon influences in its barbaric carvings. An explanation given is that, although it might have been carved in early Norman times, in this country area the Saxon influences would still have been strong. Coxhead refers to it as a 'relic of an ancient Keltic Church'. Francis Bond in his work on fonts and font covers, endeavours to find a biblical inspiration, such as Sisera and Jael, on the east face. Dr C A Ralegh Radford, who in the early 1920s gave Rev F T Maydew, our Vicar a detailed explanation of the historical background of our Church, considered the description given by Miss Kate Clarke to be a good one, and so here is the extract;

The story of the font, then, may be interpreted as follows: a holy man made his abode in a remote forest inhabited by barbarians, many of whom he converted to Christianity. The king of the country, a pagan, desired to put him to death; a pretended friend of the saint betrayed him and guided the king and his following to his retreat. The saint was captured and murdered, the king standing by. The false friend, with a congenial associate, retired to a little distance; the other attendants of the king stood around; the Christian converts fled.
Mr Radford further states:

I believe that much of the so-called symbolism in this, as in many other cases, is purely decoration rising out of the sheer love of ornament for its own sake.
The animal on the north face has been referred to as an amphisbæna, and is mentioned in Pliny's natural history as 'a serpent with a second head at the end of its tail' thus able to go two ways at once, and very dangerous. This weird beast was much used in moral instruction to typify the sin of duplicity and its danger. The west face has been termed 'foliage ornament' to represent the afforested area as much then was, and the south face described as a hunting scene, with possibly dogs and a hare.

The square leaded bowl at the top, the richly carved sides and about three inches of the round shaft appear to be original, and we suppose that it was this part that was found by Rev W T Perrott soon after he became Vicar of Luppitt in 1880, when digging on his glebe land nearby. He wrote to the Church Building Society asking for grant aid, stating that 'the font lies on the floor unusable'. In June of that year the font had been restored, and other restoration works done.

In the notes on the parish church in the 'List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest' produced by the Department of the Environment, dated 16th March 1988, it is stated that:

The font is very good and though probably Norman, may be Saxon. It is built of Membury stone. It has a square bowl with round rib moulding. The bowl is covered with a rich and elaborate sculpture. The east face features a martyrdom and the other sides feature a fabulous monster, wild animals and patterns. Each corner has a large mask like head. Most of the shaft and the base are C20.
In the 1950 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica Volume 17, page 963 a description of a piscina is given:

Ecclesiastically, the term is used for the stone basin with a drain emptying upon virgin soil, in which the utensils of the mass are cleaned and ritual ablutions performed. In mediaeval churches, especially in England, piscinae are most frequently in the chancel, close to the altar, and often recessed arched niches of great beauty.
The pillar piscina in Luppitt Church already referred to is said by Dr Ralegh Radford to be

....typically Norman work of the 12th century, and late rather than early in that century. The cable moulding at the base of the bowl, and the star and pellet band immediately below it are typical Norman motives; and the same may be said of the ornament of the bowl with the flowing patterns issuing from the mouth of the mask.
John Stabb in his 'Some old Devon Churches' tells us that 'it was found embedded in a buttress during the carrying out of some restorations'. This was most probably during the extensive work done on the chancel in or about 1880.

Ralegh Radford considers the trefoil headed piscina which is recessed into the north-east wall of the north transept to be of 15th century date. "

© 2000 - J. Sage