Tournai marble font

This ancient, polished dark stone font, with its unique carvings of the miracles of St Nicholas, the kindly children’s saint, is one of the Cathedral’s greatest treasures. It was brought from Tournai, in modern Belgium, in the 12th century, and has been in constant use ever since. You can find it on the north side of the nave.

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What’s special about it?

This massive font, carved from a single block weighing about 1.5 tonnes, dates from about 1150. It is the finest of just 10 fonts of this type in England today, including three others in Hampshire.

Pictures and sculptures were a vivid way of communicating important messages. This font is lavishly decorated with scenes from the legendary life of St Nicholas alongside images of symbolic animals such as lions and birds.

It’s said to have been the gift of Henry of Blois, the French-speaking grandson of William the Conqueror and Bishop of Winchester during the 12th century.

What’s it made of?

Its upper, ‘marble’ section sits on a stone base with four corner pillars – but it’s not real marble, a term once used for any stone that took a polish.

It’s in fact made from of carboniferous limestone quarried in Tournai, in modern Belgium, and was probably shipped to England in separate pieces.

Who was St Nicholas?

We know that he was Bishop of Myra in modern Turkey in the 4th century, and his remains are housed in a shrine in Bari, Italy. But many legends and stories cluster around these bare facts.

He is strongly associated with acts of kindness, especially to children – lending his name to the jolly Santa Claus who brings Christmas gifts down the chimney today.

The font’s carvings work a bit like a modern cartoon strip. Several different stories are depicted, but you can always spot St Nicholas by his bishop’s mitre and crozier, a stylised shepherd’s crook symbolising his care for his flock.

One shows the saint miraculously bringing three apprentices back to life after their murder by a wicked innkeeper. In another, he saves lives at sea. The panel features the earliest known picture of a ship with a high prow and fixed stern rudder.

A third shows him with the three grateful daughters of an impoverished nobleman. He had saved them from a life on the street by secretly throwing three bags of gold into their home. These led to the symbol of three gold ‘balls’ still used by pawnbrokers today.

What is the font used for?

For centuries, fonts (from the Latin word for fountain) have symbolised the start of a Christian life.

Their main role is to hold the water used in Christian baptism in a shallow dished top. They allow a baby to be comfortably cradled in the arms of a priest while water is trickled over its head to welcome it into the Church.

But this font is not just a monument to the past – a thousand years on, it’s still in use for baptisms today.

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