Baptismal font at St Bartholomew's Church, Liège
The baptismal font at St Bartholomew's Church, Liège is a Romanesque brass or bronze baptismal font made between 1107 and 1118 now in St Bartholomew's church in Liège, Belgium. The font is a major masterpiece of Mosan art, remarkable for the classicism of its style, whose origin has been the subject of great debate among art historians. The Meuse River valley in modern Belgium and France, roughly coterminous with the Diocese of Liège, was the leading 12th-century centre of Romanesque metalwork, which was still the most prestigious medium in art.
The Liège font was commissioned after 1107 and completed by 1118 for the church of Notre-Dame-aux-Fonts ("Our Lady's with the font"), which abutted the old Liège Cathedral and functioned as the baptistry for the city. These dates are based on the period of office of the Abbé Hellin, parish priest of the church, known to have commissioned it, for in his obituary in the contemporary Chronicon Rythmicum Leodiense (English: Liège Rhyming Chronicle) the font is clearly described, though with no mention of the artist. Both cathedral and church were destroyed during the French Revolution, and the font was hidden for safe-keeping before being moved to its present location in 1804. The Liège chronicle describes a cover with figures of the Four Evangelists and prophets, presumably also in metal, which was lost during the Revolution, along with two of the supporting oxen. The present stone plinth and setting replaced in the 20th century a solid round stone one built in 1804. The font is still used for baptisms today; there is normally a small charge for viewing it.
Renier de Huy
The font was traditionally attributed to Renier de Huy, a 12th-century metalworker and sculptor, but this, and even the Mosan origin of the font, have been questioned and alternative theories advanced. Nothing is known of Rainer's life other than that he was mentioned in a document of 1125 as a goldsmith, but a 14th-century chronicle mentions him as the artist of the font. He may have died about 1150. Another equally shadowy figure in Mosan metalwork from the next generation, Godefroid de Huy or de Claire, also came from the small but prosperous city of Huy on the Meuse.
The only other work generally agreed to be by the same master as the font is a small bronze crucifix (Schnütgen Museum, Cologne); another in Brussels has many similarities. A censer in similar style is attributed to Renier or a follower by many.
Style and origin
The figures on the font are in very high relief, and have a remarkable classicism of style; so much so that it has also been suggested that it was in fact made in Constantinople, or by Greeks in Rome about 1000. Other explanations attribute the classicism to close Byzantine influence, though as Honour and Fleming point out, "In bodily proportions, poses, gestures and garments, they recall Classical models far beyond Byzantine, Carolingian, or even Early Christian art"; they suggest the artist might have seen ancient Greek sculptures in Constantinople when on the First Crusade. Other writers explain the style as emerging from older Mosan and Carolingian traditions, with recent Byzantine influence, and prefiguring Gothic figure style. The idealized figures are modelled in rounded forms; several nude figures are present, and one is seen from behind in a three-quarters view, a sophisticated classical pose.
Art-historical argument over the origin of the font has been vigorous and sometimes acrimonious, and in recent decades mostly conducted in French. In support of the Byzantine origin theory, analysis of the lead in 1993 has shown that it came from mines in Spain or Sardinia, whereas other Mosan works used locally sourced metal. Pierre Colman and his wife Berthe Lhoist-Colman have developed a "Roman" theory, according to which the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III commissioned the font from Greek craftsmen in Rome in about 1000, as a gift for the Basilica of Saint John Lateran there. Decades later it was carried off by Henry IV or Henry V to the Meuse. However most art historians continue to accept the traditional Mosan attribution, and relate the style to the other works mentioned above.
The basin is 91 centimetres (36 in) across at the top, tapering slightly towards the base, and is variously described as of brass or bronze. It was made by lost wax casting, with the basin cast in a single piece; the size was not necessarily exceptional, as both church bells and cauldrons for large households were probably cast at comparable sizes; some church doors cast in a single piece, though flat, were much larger. The font sat on twelve oxen (two are now missing), who emerged from a stone plinth, a reference to the "molten sea... on twelve oxen" cast in bronze for Solomon's temple The five scenes shown, identified by Latin inscriptions ("tituli") on the rim above and in the image field, can be read in chronological sequence:
- John the Baptist preaching to four figures, the last on the right in full military gear; followed by a fig tree.
- John baptising two neophytes, with two further figures to the right, who probably represent the two disciples John told to follow Jesus (John 1:35–37). As often in Early Medieval art, the attempt to convey the River Jordan stretching away in perspective has it rise up like a mound. A palm tree follows.
- The Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist, a commonly represented scene, again with the water piling up like a mound. Jesus is beardless and young, as is also typical. The angel to the right of Jesus has his hands veiled with a cloth, a mark of respect in Eastern liturgy, though it may also simply represent a cloth ready for Jesus to dry himself with. An olive tree follows.
- Saint Peter baptising Cornelius the Centurion, the first gentile to be baptised (Acts 10), with a sponsor or godfather. The Hand of God appears from above to signal approval.
- Saint John the Evangelist baptising the "philosopher Craton", also with a sponsor and Hand. A vine follows. The story of Craton comes from apocryphal writings such as the account of John's life by the Pseudo-Abdias.
Except for the last two the scenes are separated by trees which are stylised in typical Romanesque fashion, but whose leaf shapes are all different. A continuous undulating ground-line runs all round the basin. Other inscriptions run round the top and bottom rims of the basin. While the baptism of Jesus is very commonly depicted in Early Medieval art, those of the other figures are very rare subjects indeed, and this unusually elaborate and learned programme was no doubt composed with clerical assistance. It does not reflect Byzantine iconographic precedents; instead it matches closely the interest in typology and allegory, of which the influential contemporary Liège-born theologian Rupert of Deutz was a particular exponent (though Rupert was also a particular opponent of the bishop at the time, Otbert of Liège, who took the Emperor's side in the Investiture Controversy). The head of God the Father that appears at the top of the Baptism of Christ (identified as PATER) is an early appearance of God the Father in Western art; a Hand of God, more typical of the period, appears in the baptism scenes of Cornelius and Craton.
The baptismal font in the little village of Furnaux (Mettet), relatively far from Liège but at that time in the same diocese, has the same theological background linking Rupert de Deutz's theological vision where the Old Testament and New Testament are closely linked.
- Beckwith, 178. See Xhayet and Halleux, 123, note 17 for a fuller account of the status of the church and its priest.
- Xhayet and Halleux, 21 (quotes chronicle) and 122–123
- Xhayet and Halleux, 21 and 123 and Liège City Tourism
- Rousseaux, Henry (1907), "Les fonts baptismaux de Saint Barthélémy à Liège", Bulletin des Musées Royaux d'arts décoratifs et industriels (in French), pp. 58–60
- See old photos on Commons
- Liège City Tourism
- Beckwith, 178
- Beckwith, 178. The Getty Union Artist Names List has him active until 1144 
- Lasko, 181
- Illustrated in Xhayet and Halleux, before p. 129
- Henderson (1967), 46, Gombrich and others
- Honour & Fleming, 288 online text. See also Beckwith, 178–179
- Beckwith, 178–179, Henderson (1967), 46–48
- Xhayet and Halleux, 117, 199
- Xhayet and Halleux, 101–103; see also note 19 on p. 124, and Liège City Tourism
- Colman and Lhoist-Colman, 2003.
- Xhayet and Halleux, 99–101, who do not accept this theory.
- The two terms for copper alloys have some overlap.
- 1 Kings 7:23-7:27; this feature is today typical of fonts in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
- See the continuous diagram at Xhayet and Halleux, 124; the scenes are covered in great detail in the pages following; also Calkins, 128
- "Linear graphic of Baptismal font at St Bartholomew's Church (official website)". Picture. ASBL "Art et Histoire - Saint-Barthélemy - Liège". Archived from the original on 2010-01-20. (in French)
- Xhayet and Halleux, 124-6
- Xhayet and Halleux, 126-9
- Xhayet and Halleux, 129–131
- Xhayet and Halleux, 131-32
- Cartlidge and Elliott, 195; for a full account in French see Xhayet and Halleux, 199ff, and 132-33.
- See the comparison at Xhayet and Halleux, 127, where each is identified as respectively fig, vine, olive and palm.
- Xhayet and Halleux, 94–98 give the texts. These are a number of hexameters of Leonine verse, the upper ones explaining the relief scenes while the lower one explains the oxen: "By the twelve oxen is shown the forma [type] of pastors, through the example of whose apostolic life, full of grace, and their elevated office, the citizens are purified, and the spirit of these waters refreshes the holy city" (approximate translation)
- St Peter baptising an unspecified figure is shown on an ivory book cover of c. 900 in Florence, in a similar composition which also has a layperson to the right of the font, holding textiles (the naked catchumen's clothes, or a towel) which veil his hands in a similar way to the angel in the Baptism of Jesus scene here. Lasko, plate 63
- Xhayet and Halleux, 133, and 122 on their dispute. See also Henderson (1977), 229
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Baptismal font of Renier de Huy, Liège.|
- Beckwith, John. Early Medieval Art: Carolingian, Ottonian, Romanesque, Thames & Hudson, 1964 (rev. 1969), ISBN 0-500-20019-X
- Calkins, Robert G.; Monuments of Medieval Art, Dutton, 1979, ISBN 0-525-47561-3
- Cartlidge, David R. and Elliott, James Keith, Art and the Christian Apocrypha, Routledge, 2001, ISBN 0-415-23392-5, ISBN 978-0-415-23392-7, Google books
- Colman, Pierre; Lhoist-Colman, Berthe (2003), Les fonts baptismaux de Saint-Barthélemy à Liège - Chef-d'oeuvre sans pareil et noeud de controverses (in French), Académie Royale de Belgique, ISBN 2-8031-0189-0
- Henderson, George. Gothic Art, 1967, Penguin, ISBN 0-14-020806-2
- Henderson, George. Early Medieval Art, 1972, rev. 1977, Penguin.
- Hugh Honour and John Fleming, A World History of Art, 1st edn. 1982 & later editions, Macmillan, London, page refs to 1984 Macmillan 1st edn. paperback. ISBN 0-333-37185-2
- Kleiner, Fred S., Christin J. Mamiya, and Helen Gardner. Gardner's Art Through the Ages. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2004
- Lasko, Peter, Ars Sacra, Penguin History of Art (now Yale)
- City of Liège Tourism, with good feature, and a bibliography of recent scholarship in French. Accessed 10 Jan. 2010
- "Oxford": Rainer of Huy: The Oxford Dictionary of Art. Accessed 10 Jan. 2010, 
- Swarzenski, Hanns. Monuments of Romanesque Art; The Art of Church Treasures in North-Western Europe, Faber and Faber, 1974, ISBN 0-571-10588-2
- Xhayet, Geneviève and Halleux, Robert (eds), Études sur les fonts baptismaux de Saint-Barthélémy à Liège, Editions du CEFAL, 2006, ISBN 2-87130-212-X, 9782871302124 google books
- "Detailed picture gallery of Baptismal font at St Bartholomew's Church of Liège". Picture Library. Royal Institute for the Study and Conservation of Belgium's Artistic Heritage. Retrieved 2010-01-20. (in French)
- "Picture gallery of Baptismal font at St Bartholomew's Church (official website)". Picture Library. ASBL "Art et Histoire - Saint-Barthélemy - Liège". Archived from the original on 13 January 2010. Retrieved 2010-01-20. (in French)