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The Christian Zodiac on a Font at Hook Norton: Theology, Church, and Art

  • Mary Charles Murray (a1)


This paper is an attempt to offer a preliminary study of a Christian tradition of allegorizing the zodiac which is found in certain literary texts and artistic representations. What prompted the investigation from the artistic point of view was an examination of the twelfth-century baptismal font in the church of St Peter at Hook Norton, Oxfordshire, which is decorated with a mixture of selected signs of the zodiac and scriptural images (plate i). It raises the question of how early was the tradition in which the zodiac was linked with baptism in Christian thought, and what other connections there might be. So the question I should like briefly to illustrate here is the connection between Christian decorations which feature the zodiac, particularly in the medieval period, and an allegorical tradition which goes back to the early Church.



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1 The font is a small, white stone cylindrical drum, 2 feet 1½ inches high, with an upper diameter of 2 feet 7 inches and a lower of 2 feet 4 inches. It has two bands of decoration, one at the top and one at the bottom, encircling it. The upper band, 4 inches deep and running below the rim, is composed of a pattern of writhing branches and foliage; the bottom, half an inch smaller, is a running pattern of rimmed circles. The surface between the bands is carved with a single series of large figures, facing in such a way that they should be read from right to left, and all in excellent condition, despite the careless treatment the font has at some time received. The first two figures are a naked Adam and Eve, identified by a Latin inscription. Next to Eve is a formally designed Tree of Knowledge, identified by the apples, carefully arranged in a studded pattern on its curling branches. Next is Sagittarius, then Aquarius, then a lamb (Aries), standing above a Tree of Life. The circle is completed by a half-wild animal, a half-finned serpent, which appears to be a combination of the biblical serpent, Scorpio, and Capricorn. Beside the serpent is a three-leaved, flower-star rosette, corresponding to the large, formal four-leaved, star-like flower, which separates the figures of Adam and Eve. The Hook Norton allegory is complete, continuous, and carefully elaborated, and totally related to the baptismal purpose of the font.

2 See Sukenik, E. L., Ancient Synagogues in Palatine and Greece (London, 1934), pp. 335 .

3 See Toynbee, J. M. C., Roman Medallions-Numismatic Studies, no. 5 (New York, 1944), p. 90 .

4 Mattingly, H., British Museum Catalogue of the Coins of the Roman Empire, 3 (London, 1936), p. 278. no. 312 .

5 See Toynbee, J. M. C., The Hadrianic School (Cambridge, 1934), pl. 33, no. 3 .

6 For Tacitus, also Alexander Severus, Julia Mamaea, and Gordian III, see Gnecchi, F., l’Medaglioni Romani, 3 vols (Milan, 1912), 2 , plates 101, no. 10; 105, no. 7; 3, plate 156, no. 14 (pl. XL VII, 3). Toynbee, Medallions, p. 92.

7 The iconographical evidence for Mithraism is still most easily accessible in M. J. Vermaseren, Corpus inscriptionum et monumentorum religionis Milhriacae, 2 vols (The Hague, 1956,1958). For Housesteads see D. J. Smith, Museum of Antiquities, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, an Illustrated Introduction (Newcastle, 1974), no. 26, p. 23. Vermaseren, Corpus, 1, pp. 298-9, no. 860, fig. 226.

8 Zeno of Verona, Tractatus, I, 38, ed. B. Lofstedt, CChr.SL, 22, pp. 105-6. This edition supplants for the text that of A. Bigelmair, Bibliothek der Kirchenvater, 2 (Munich, 1934), 10. But for the introduction Bigelmair is essential. For a largely inclusive discussion of both see G. Banterle, ‘La Nuova Edizione dei Sermoni di S. Zeno’, Studi Zenoniani (in occasione del XVI centenario della morte di S. Zeno). Accademia di Agricoltura, Scienze e Lettere di Verona (Verona, 1974).

9 Greogry of Elvira, Tractatus originis, IX, 11-14, CChr.SL, 69, p. 73.

10 Gaudentius of Brescia, Sermo 111, PL 20, cols 865-6.

11 Asterius the Sophist, Homilies on the Psalms, ed. Richard, M. - Symbolae Osloenses (Oslo, 1956).

12 Ambrose of Milan, Exposith evangelii secundum Lucam, VII, 222, CChr.SL, 14, p. 291.

13 Boll shows that the dodekaoros represented the cycle of both the twelve hours and the twelve months; and that the sundial, the horologion, was decorated not only with the signs of the zodiac, but also with the twelve gods of Olympus. See F. Boll, Stemglaube una Stemdeutung (Leipzig, 1918), p. 75. There is an example, found at Gabies, in the Louvre. That the Apostles are here also being substituted for the Olympians is suggested by J. Danielou, Primitive Christian Symbols (London, 1964), p. 124, who gathers together useful material on the Apostles and the zodiac, to which I am indebted.

14 Clement d’Alexandrie, Extraits de Theodote, ed. Sagnard, F., Sources chrétiennes (Paris, 1970), sect. A 1, 2 , p. 110.

15 Instances from Arles and Manosque: see s.v. ‘Astres’, in Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, 1(2) (Paris, 1907), cols 3005-33.

16 Origen, In Matthaeum, XV, 24, PG 13, cols 1323-6.

17 Commentarium in Matthaeum Imperfectum, PL 56, cols 813–14.

18 There is a mosaic which appears from very imperfect photographs to have the heads of the twelve months, with a personification of the year, the four seasons, and the twelve zodiac figures, on the floor of the baths of Tallera, north of Maltezana harbour, on the island of Astypalaia, near Kos. Apart from its date in the Christian period, there seems nothing to identify it as either pagan or Christian. See S. Pelecanidis and P. Atzaca, Corpus mosaicorum Christianorum vetustiorum pavimentorum Graecorum I, Graecia Insularis (Thessaloniki, 1974), pp. 46–7, and pi. 5(a)(b). See also Cook, J. M., ‘Archaeology in Greece’, Journal of Hellenic Studies, 73 (1953), p. 126 .

19 De temporum rottone, eh. 16, gloss - 361. There is some confusion about the works involved and the names and persons concerned. Genuinely of Bede, see Jones, C. W., Bedae opera de temporibus (Cambridge, Mass., 1943), is the De natura rerum, containing in ch. 17 a scientific analysis of the classical zodiac. The explanation is dependent on Isidore of Seville, Etymologiarum libri XX, book 3, 71. This allegory was commented on by an English monk of the eleventh century, Byrhtferth of Ramsey. Attributed to Bede is the De temporum ratione: see C. W. Jones, Baedae pseudepigraphaScientific Writings Falsely Attributed to Bede (Cornell and Oxford, 1939), pp. 21–38. This, in turn, was commented on in a gloss attributed to, but in fact in no way related to, Byrhtferth. The mistake seems to have been made in the first folio edition of Bede by Hervagius (Basle, 1563) and thence copied into subsequent editions.

20 Many examples of this tradition are carefully arranged in a series of tables in the long article by J. Fowler, ‘On mediaeval representations of the months and seasons’, Archaeologia, 44 (1873), pp, 137–224. This tradition appears on fonts also, e.g. a rype of lead font imported from France and found at Brookland, in Kent, illustrated in L. Stone, Sculpture in Britain; the Middle Ages (Harmondsworth, 1955), p. 89, fig. 66. Cf. also the font at Burnham Deepdale, Norfolk.

21 That Bede and Northumbria are not the source is clear, though there are illustrated zodiac manuscripts from this area. See F. Saxl, Verzeichnis astrologischer und myllwlogischer Illustrierten Handschriften des lateinischen Mittelalters (Heidelberg, 1927).

22 MGH.PL, III, 2, poem VI, pp. 688f. I owe this reference to Peter Levi, who generously made available to me his own unpublished work on the Hook Norton font.

23 MGH.PL, IV, poem CXVII, pp. 603f.

The Christian Zodiac on a Font at Hook Norton: Theology, Church, and Art

  • Mary Charles Murray (a1)


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