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The church of St James, Avebury, Wiltshire, is an old one, with a nave that is part Saxon - it is close by Avebury Manor (see diary) and in a dominant position in the center of this tiny village, which is part of a World Heritage Site. The church dates from around 1000 CE and has had Norman aisles added to the original struture (there are still two Saxon windows high up in the nave). You could say that Christianity was a competing religion in this tiny village at the time the church was founded, as it is likely that veneration of the nearby massive stone circles had continued for some time.

In the church is a splendid example of a tub font, which would have originally been plain, but has been carved in the Romanesque style. Baptism, either of the adult or the infant, has long been considered as one of the seven essential sacraments of the Christian church; indeed, at the Provincial Council of Tribur (in what is now Germany) in 895 CE, it was declared that the 'triple immersion in water' represented the three days spent by Christ in the tomb. Immersion, semi-immersion, affusion (the pouring of water on the head, only) and aspersion (the sprinkling of water) have all been considered valid methods of baptism by various Christian sects at certain times. The sacrament was administered to individuals when they reached adulthood, or even delayed until it was given on the deathbed, only. The practise of the baptism of infants, although now used by many established churches, is rejected by Anabaptists, Hutterites, Pentacostals, and other groups, who consider the infant as being unable to consent, and also not being in a state of sin, and therefore not in need of forgiveness.

There is great debate regarding the dating of this particular font, with some authorities giving an estimate of the 12th century, and others a date of 880-890 CE. I think that the carving may have been added during the 12th century, to the much earlier plain font. The carved wooden font cover is also very pleasing, and it dates from 1941, the very darkest period of World War Two, a time during which any artistic endeavour would have taken a great deal of effort on the part of the individual.

The design carved on the surface of the font appears to be composed of flowing elements, typical of the period, including the figure of a bishop; we can be sure of the churchman's rank as he is carrying a crosier, and he is either being attacked by two wyverns, or is treading on their heads! Some say that the animals are dragons, but the use of wyverns would be most appropriate, as that mythical winged beast is the symbol often used to represent Wessex, the region in which this church stands. It could be that this represents the church’s triumph over the primitive religion of the stone circles, which are very close at hand.

Whatever the actual date of the font, it has formed part of village life for around 1,000 years - a most impressive object!

Originally posted to shortfinals on Sat Apr 06, 2013 at 07:28 PM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks.

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