I was recently cataloguing a book on monasteries in Schleswig-Holstein (Klöster in Schleswig-Holstein: von den Anfängen bis zur Reformation by Oliver Auge and Katja Hillebrand). As I was leafing through the pages I was struck by a double page spread on baptismal fonts, and in particular by a full-page photograph of the highly decorative one to be found in the Marienkirche in Bad Segeberg.
The most notable feature of these fonts to me is that they were made of bronze, often, it seems, as a sideline for bellfounders (they do perhaps resemble upside-down bells). After a little research I soon realised that unlike in Britain (where stone was the usual material for fonts) there are still many fine examples of bronze baptismal fonts in northern Germany and nearby.
The Segeberg one was commissioned by the monastery’s Augustinian canons in 1447 and is one of several cast by the Bremen bellfounder Ghert Klinghe (a man significant enough to have had a doctoral thesis written about him in the 1960s: Ghert Klinghe: ein norddeutscher Erzgiesser des 15. Jahrhunderts by Barbara Hellwig). The crucifixion is depicted with the twelve apostles alongside, their names inside large halos; the whole structure is supported by four figures in choir robes.
Other interesting bronze fonts in Germany featured in our collections include one in Rostock dating from 1290: Die Fünte der St. Marienkirche zu Rostock by Ulrich Nath and an even earlier and very fine one in Hildesheim, discussed in Dom und Domschatz in Hildesheim by Victor Elbern and in Die protestantischen Taufbecken Niedersachsens von der Reformation bis zur Mitte des 17. Jahrhunderts by Ulrike Mathies.
I could not think of any bronze fonts I had seen during visits to churches in England and was pleased to have this confirmed by Cox and Harvey in the chapter on fonts in their English Church furniture: “the use of metal for fonts was not prohibited, though rarely used in England, save in lead. There are some very fine examples of brass or bronze fonts, of different periods, on the Continent … There is a single brass font now in an English church, namely at Little Gidding, Hunts … There are a variety of leaden fonts in England of different periods.” This last point is dealt with in more detail in George Zarnecki’s English Romanesque lead sculpture: lead fonts of the twelfth century. Zarnecki suggests that English craftsmen used lead as a substitute for other metals such as bronze and were imitating the finer techniques of bronze font-making first found in the Duchy of Lower Lorraine (an area encompassing modern-day Netherlands, Belgium, northern France and Germany).
The finest example of Romanesque bronze fonts is in St. Bartholomew’s church in Liège, made in the early 12th century by Renier de Huy and still with us today thanks to being hidden during the French Revolution. This large font featuring New Testament scenes and resting on ten (originally12) delightful oxen is regarded as a masterpiece of Romanesque art and important enough to have books devoted to it. The University Library has two, one in German: Das Taufbecken des Reiner von Huy in Lüttich by Bruno Reudenbach and one in French: Études sur les fonts baptismaux de Saint-Barthélemy à Liège by Geneviève Xhayet et Robert Halleux.
Although there is a preponderance of bronze fonts in northern Germany and surrounding areas, there is also one to be found in Austria in Salzburg Cathedral, dating from the early 14th century and discussed by Rudolf Christiner in his dissertation Mittelalterliche Taufbecken in Österreich. Christiner asserts that bronze was more likely to be used in areas where there was an absence of local stone such as in the flat lands of northern Germany.
Many more images of beautifully decorated bronze fonts in Germany are available here.