This exquisite Late Medieval baptismal font is housed in St. John’s Church of Ireland at Coolbanagher Co. Laois. The font predates the church by approximately 400 or more years. According to Roe (1947) the font had formed part of Lord Portarlington’s garden ornamentation at Emo Court before it was acquired by the rector of this church (Rev. Dudley Fletcher) in the 1930’s. Prior to this the general consensus is that the font belonged to the once important ecclesiastic settlement of Ardea, an ancient site which some researchers believe to lie beneath the splendid landscapes of the much later Emo Court demesne. What is clear is that this font would have been an important undertaking for any ecclesiastic settlement, and it seems that its patrons were of a thriving and influential establishment right here in Co. Laois.
This ornate piece consists of an octagonal shaped basin supported by a pedestal, which was added as a support and functionality in the 1930’s. Both basin and pedestal are hewn from limestone, the predominant bedrock of the County. Each of the eight basin panels are elaborately decorated in relief carvings. These depict symbolic Christian iconography of which some are deeply rooted in pagan art.
Before I describe the panels, I’d like to highlight a few general features of the font. Although the font is exteriorly faced with octagonal panels, the interior is rounded and finely punch-dressed which indicates a Late Medieval date. A plug hole is located at the bottom of this basin, a requirement on L. Medieval baptismal fonts as the holy water could be drained to the earth whenever the rules required this to happen (it could days in one church, weeks in another). Secondly the very nature of these octagonal shaped fonts had a specific meaning. In the early days of Christianity; the general rite after childbirth was that of circumcision. Christianity it must be remembered was entrenched in the much earlier Judaism. These traditions required that newborns were to be circumcised on the 8th day. Luckily enough, Christianity evolved in a different way as time passed and baptism became the dominant rite!! Baptism became an official rite of passage at the 11th Council of Florence in the 1440’s. Nevertheless we have our octagonal baptismal fonts to remind us of the 8th day.
Beginning with Panel 1; we see a disgorging head capped with what seems to be a mitre or bishop’s hat. From the mouth of this man’s head we see two tree-like branches emanating in opposite directions which span the entire central circumference of the basin. They almost hold all the symbolism depicted on the eight panels together. These branch-moldings which morph into foliated designs along the panels seem to represent the grape-vine, a plant which featured in an important biblical parable; “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). The relief carved head with these vines bursting from an open mouth fits in neatly with what has been described as the “Green Man”. As shown below in some pictures, this type of depiction has its origins in pagan art and has been found throughout the world in various cultures. The general theme associated with the Green-Man is that of rebirth, and indeed the rite of baptism incorporates this theme within the ritual. The Green-Man is reminiscent of the enigmatic Sheela-na-gig’s another sculpture which may have its origins in pagan art. The Green-Man made a bit of a comeback in the Late Medieval Period and has been found in various forms both in stone and in wood carvings in ecclesiastic settings from the 12th to the 15th Century all across Western Europe. It is intriguing to think that our piece here at Coolbanagher on the fringes of this geographical area, shared in this cultural phenomenon during the period. The “Green Man” at Coolbanagher is quiet unique as it incorporates a mitre, bridging a Pagan-Christian divide or perhaps “capping” a Pagan symbol with that of a Christian crown!!
Panel 2. This has intricate foliage carvings both above and below the vine branches, likely vine leaves.
Panel 3. We see one of three angels carved in relief. These have long pleated robes and are holding an oval object in both hands at the waistline. Large ribbed wings flay out behind the heads of each. Both panel 3,5 and 7 feature these angels. The symbolism of the trinity is evident. Secondly there are a number of renaissance paintings which depict the baptism of Christ, whereby three angels are present. I’m not aware of a biblical reference to angels present during Christ’s baptism, but the renaissance paintings from the Late Medieval period may indicate a further continental influence within the design of this font at Coolbangaher. The three angels may also relate to the Book of Revelations 14:6–12 in which three angels appear to protect souls in the event of Apocalypse. “Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus”.
Panel 4. This panel depicts another Late Medieval church symbol in that of “the Pelican in her piety”. This symbolizes the passion of Christ and the Eucharist. It has been an important portrayal in church iconography since at least the time of St. Thomas Aquinas in the mid-13th Century. The pelican is seen as feeding her young from the blood of her breast. “Mortuos vivificat” (“Makes the dead live”) was a famous Medieval Christian motto attached to this symbol.
Panel 5. The second of our angels.
Panel 6. Again similar designs of vine foliage as seen in panel 2.
Panel 7. The third angel as outlined in panel 3 & 5.
Panel 8. The third and final depiction of the vine foliage.
Overall what we have here at Coolbanagher is a very fine example of Late Medieval ecclesiastic art depicted on one of the main pieces of church furniture, the baptismal font. It seems that its Co. Laois patrons were heavily influenced by European religious architecture during the period. The intricacy of the design and its wonderful execution indicate that whoever the patrons were, they presided over an important church settlement in the area. Perhaps this could have been the now lost seat at Ardea which may lie somewhere beneath the gardens at Emo Court. The font is now retired and is suitable housed indoors at St. John’s Church Coolbanagher. During its lifetime it would have once been at the core of many a medieval family gathering, in a ritual where its living waters provided spiritual nourishment, as well as piercing cries, for generation after generation of local clan’s people and Anglo-Norman settlers in this area of Co. Laois.
Two Baptismal Fonts in County Laoighis, Helen M. Roe, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 77, No. 1 (Jul., 1947), Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland
Ordnance Survey Letters, Laois: Letters Containing Information Relative to the Antiquities of the Queens County Collected During the Progress of the Ordnance Survey in 1838, Volume 1 by Michael Herity (Editor)