Contemporary or Early Medieval?

Sometimes it is only too easy to make assumptions. This image of a rather smug looking cat could be a ‘Good Luck’ greeting card or a contemporary print.

In actual fact it is one of twelve similar, although not identical, twelfth-century lions carved in relief to decorate a marble font bowl.

The square font bowl is made from black Tournai marble and is set on a Tudor stone base. Although Tournai marble fonts decorated with lion motifs are found throughout Europe, there are only nine in England. This particularly fine example can be found in St Peter’s Church, College Street, Ipswich.

There is evidence of a church on this site since Saxon times and further evidence of a stone building from 1130 when an Augustinian priory dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul was established to the east and north of the church. It is thought that the font dates from the latter part of the twelfth century and that it is almost certainly the original priory font.

The font arrangement we see today in St Peter’s was organised by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey when he claimed St Peter’s in 1528 following the dissolution of the priory.

A frieze of monumental lions passant decorate the font.

However, the damage to the font base we see today occurred after the Cardinal’s time. This deliberate defacing of the figures was carried out by William Dowsing, when according to his journal, he visited Ipswich on 29th January 1643.

The black marble font atop the Tudor base featuring now defaced figures.

Through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Suffolk wool trade brought prosperity to Ipswich. The extensive rebuilding of the old church begun by Wolsey was continued after his fall and death with the wealthy parish funding the rebuilding work.

These days, something that no doubt would have surprised Cardinal Wolsey, St Peter’s is no longer a site of Christian worship. The church, redundant since 1973, was converted in 2006-08 to a music and arts centre. It is a popular venue in normal, non-Covid times regularly hosting ‘The Ipswich Hospital Band’ and a ‘Jazz by the Waterfront’ series.

These cats look like they’ve taken a few sips from those beer glasses momentarily balanced on the rim of the font as enthusiastic jazz fans offer their applause at the end of a set. And, here’s to a return of the music in the not too distant future.

Note – April 2020 – I made this visit before the Covid Lockdown and like many public places this building is currently closed.