Baptistry - Cliffe History

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The Baptistry is the area within a church designed for the ritual baptising of individuals to ‘wash away their sins and begin a new life in Christ’.  One the most usual finds in a Christian Church Baptistry is that of a font: a place where consecrated water used in the baptism of newcomers to the Christian church (usually infants). Fonts are usually located at the west end of the church, often near the south door. Fonts are usually of stone, and often lined with lead.
The font at St. Helen’s which has been moved from its original position, is 3 feet 4 inches in height, and apparently of late-fourteenth century date. The perfectly plain octagonal bowl has concave sides, around the lower edge of which is a hollow chamfer. The bowl is supported by an octagonal, buttressed stem on a plain base. The significance of octagonal shaped fonts is linked with the meaning of baptism which is to do with re-birth and regeneration. Number eight being the glyph for a new beginning. One circle leads out of another creating, as it were, a new octave. It is also interesting to note that a cruciform church building has eight angles.
Although it would appear that this is probably not the original font it is quite certain that the font has been moved from its original position. Evidence in the form of a bracket and chain attached to the nearby pillar suggests a Font was possibly positioned near this spot and that it possessed one of the more elaborate covers common in the 15th century. In 1896 church noted that the font was inconveniently placed just in front of the door of the Vestry which is under the Tower being in the way of the choir and clergy as they proceed to take their places in the Chancel and concluded that removing the font and placing in the baptistry as it is today.
Fonts in ancient times did not have covers although water brought in on Holy Saturday for baptisms remained for future use in the Font, and was not disposed of after every service of Holy Baptism, as is the usual custom today. Many finely carved and elaborate covers were made, but a great number of these were spoilt following the Reformation when they were forcibly levered off, resulting in hasps and hinges being shattered as well. It will be seen that there is a clasp and iron staple built into the Font here and the existing cover is designed to be secured by these.
An interesting feature of the baptistry is the stone seating benches along the walls. Although these are probably not original they are likely to be replacements for earlier ones during the restoration work carried out in the 1800’s. As seating inside a church was uncommon, seats were made available for the aged and those with infirmity.
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