St Swithins’ church, Lower Quinton, Warwickshire
This article details the surprise discovery of a six-petalled rosette1 motif cut into the lead of a 12th century font in the church of St Swithins, Lower Quinton, Warwickshire (Figure 1).
The discovery of such an expertly executed design was unexpected and only revealed once the heavy font cover had been lifted.2 Of all the symbols that regularly occur in the corpora of medieval (and later) graffiti, the compass drawn circle – in its numerous iterations – has survived the scrutiny of the last twenty-eight years of academic research. It is still generally held to be a bone-fide ‘apotropaic’ – functioning as both a ritually-applied ‘protection’ mark in most cases (Easton 1999:23, Champion 2017: 10). Its solar origins and ancient antecedents suggest that it may have also been deployed as an evocation of (divine) light (Billingsley 20202:42, Hoggard 2021:86).
The font is a Romanesque ‘tub’ font, with scalloped decoration running along its lower rim surmounted by a plain band and a shallow roll (Figure 2). Some of the ‘shields’ (the spaces inside the scallops) retain traces of paint. The font was moved to its present position in the north aisle during the 1864 restoration (CRSBI 2022).
Inspection and recording of the font by the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain & Ireland (CRSBI) noted both a crack in the font wall and two repairs to the rim. At the time of their recording, the lower third of the basin was covered in a green mould, due to a leaking lead lining. This mould (as seen in their photographs) is no longer present, suggesting that subsequently the font had been either repaired or cleaned prior to my visit (CRSBI 2022).
The Six-Petalled Rosette
The six petalled rosette design (Type 2d3) is created by using a compass (or set of dividers) to scribe seven intersecting circles, comprising six vesica piscis arranged radially around a central point (Figures 3 – 5). The number seven in Christian scared numerology related to the days of the week; the heavenly bodies (sun moon and the five known planets); notes of the scale; virtues, liberal arts; deadly sins; Acts of mercy; gifts of the Holy Spirit and possessed many other symbolic associations (Stemp 2010: 107).
Timothy Easton was one of the first researchers to propose that the compass drawn circle motif was employed as an apotropaic within a domestic setting. It began when he had recorded a number of compass-drawn circles on the ceiling at Bedford Hall, Suffolk, a building dating to the mid 17th century. Within the out-buildings associated with the main residence (including the barns and storage sheds) he found that many of the prominent circular, evil-averting symbols were located around the threshing floor or where animals were housed (Easton 1999: 23). He further proposed that, in this domestic context ,the symbol was meant to invoke or act as a cipher for the Virgin Mary to bring good luck and bless the animals and crops.
In medieval symbolic art the circle – formed without a break or an angle, – was seen as embodying perfection. It was understood as a symbol of eternity and heaven and represented the Virgin’s purity and unbroken virginity (Stemp 2010). The circle can also be seen to represent a globe; symbolic of the Earth, but when depicted in a smaller form, symbolizes a fruit. In this way, Mary came to represent the new Eve, a sign of redemption (Bourlier 2013). Further, the six-petalled rosette also became intimately linked with the Virgin in early Christian art (Figure 6).
Solar Symbols & Ancient Antecedents
Many circular motifs (which can include the six petalled rosette), can be traced back to ancient antecedents, mainly comprising solar symbols.4 It is claimed that they can be shown to reach back as far as the 8th century BC. Easton has suggested that a relief from northern Syria of an Astral Goddess flanked by ‘solar wheels’ is one of the earliest artistic representations of the form (Easton 2015: 54). However, researcher Cheryl Hart (under the nomenclature, ‘the Rosette Lady’) has dedicated her studies specifically to the form and believes that she can track its use to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia (Figure 7). She has recorded its continued application in sacred art across the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean of the later and Classical periods (Hart 2014).
As the six-petalled rosette design travelled across the Mediterranean and into southern Europe it was appropriated by a number of wide-ranging cultures, as it can be seen on many sacred objects including the ‘Celtic’ Gundestrup Cauldron (Figure 8) through to its deployment on Roman stelae and headstones.
It continued to feature strongly in the later sacred and religious art of both the Carolingian and Merovingian periods in Europe, deployed alongside survivals of earlier ‘solar’ motifs (Figure 9).
As Christianity spread across Europe, the symbol was still at the forefront of early Christian iconography, whilst being used interchangeably with the Latin cross and pentangle (Champion 2021) (Figures 10 & 11). The six-petalled rosette continued in use on early Christian gravestones but is believed to have been phased out of official ecclesiastical symbols sometime around the 14th to 15th centuries (Easton 1999: 26-28). However, like many cultural traditions that had their roots in medieval England, the use of hexafoils on headstones was transported by the early settlers to the eastern seaboard of America in the 17th and 18th centuries where it persisted as a potent symbol for far longer (Easton 1999: 26-28).
More recently, it was Matthew Champion who noted that, in ecclesiastical settings, the compass drawn designs often concentrated close to fonts (or on the font itself) within the Lady Chapel or places where former fonts or Guild chapels once existed and which had been subsequently swept away by the Reformation (Champion 2015:37-38). Spatial mapping of the designs has reinforced this view; in the south-west of England they are often found to be closely associated with fonts (if not on the font itself). An example has recently come to light in the Midlands (Figures 12 & 13). Champion has suggested the medieval congregation may have felt the need to protect the newborn (an vulnerable) child from evil influences with an ‘additional layer’ of protection (Champion 2015: 40-2).
Outside the world of Christian symbolic art, the six-petalled rosette also held a central role among architects and stone masons as the basis of their sacred architecture; they were doing God’s work, after all. From this simple compass drawn design one can create hexagons, equilateral triangles, right-angled triangles, diamonds and perfectly formed rectangles; Champion has highlighted the fact that the six petalled rosette design contains all the basic geometric knowledge required to build a church or cathedral (Champion 2015: 35) (Figure 14).
Intriguingly, it has also been proposed that use (and creation of) the six-petalled rosette may have been gender specific. Noting the preponderance of the symbol on or close to the font Champion (2015:39) has suggested that due to its central connection to childbirth, midwifery and baptism, their creation may have been the woman’s domain. Further, he considers it possible that some of them could have been executed by the application of iron shears that were used by women for a variety of domestic tasks.
This suggests, therefore, that it may not have required an expensive pair of stone masons’ dividers to create the design. It led to an anecdote from a French correspondent, who related the tale of how his grandfather had used a two-pronged hay fork to cut a six-petalled rosette design into the plaster render of a barn annually at the termination of the year’s harvest (Legard 2015). Other suggestions have included the use of 18th century two-pronged eating forks used to create the ‘simple’ 1-2cm diameter circles often found cut into timber fireplace lintels (Figure 15).
However, it is not always the six-petalled rosette found on fonts; concentric circles and ‘faux’ consecration crosses have also been recorded (Figure 16).
The Six-Petalled Rosette in ‘Early Modern Period’ (c. AD 1550 – 1800) Archaeological Contexts
Taking all the above into account, the challenge which faces researchers today is to try and understand what motivations may have fuelled its application in 16th and 17th century secular buildings and on later, post-Reformation church fabrics. It has been acknowledged by contemporary researchers that dating historic graffiti is often difficult, due to the protracted periods of use of certain key symbols (Hack 2022:17).
In an ecclesiastical context, it may be possible to find a six-petalled cut into a 13th century font; but of course it could have been made at any time after the font had been created. Designs cut into medieval masonry and then covered in lime wash during the iconoclasm can, therefore, be dated to a broad period – between the time at which the masonry block had been dressed and the application of the paint or plaster during the Puritan purge – possibly a ‘window’ of 400 years!
For example, a six-petalled rosette design added to a 16th century porch serving an earlier church can be said to provide a terminus ante quem,4 whereby the symbol could only have been made following (or even during) its construction – unless, of course, it can be shown that the symbol is on a re-used or recycled timber element (which would be rare but not impossible). The corpora of graffiti that has been recorded in 16th/17th century secular buildings can be dated more precisely calculated through the use of dendrochronology (if the variables of re-used and re-cycled timber are eliminated and building chronology understood). Masonry fireplace lintels of the period also provide a terminus ante quem often supplemented with initials and dates often of the 17th-18th centuries (Figure 17).
It has now become clear that many of the symbols recorded in medieval contexts appear in identical form during the Early Modern Period (c. AD 1550-1800), and many can be proven to have been made post-Reformation. It is a conundrum that has come to the fore during the meticulous recording by the Wiltshire Medieval Graffiti Survey at Lacock Abbey and its subsidiary buildings. The question has arisen that, if the six-petalled rosette and the Marian Mark6 were indeed meant to evoke the Virgin, then why were they then being deployed during an era which had seen unprecedented changes in religious practice due to the Dissolution of the monasteries and the introduction of the Church of England? (Hack 2022).
Material Traces of Past Cultural Anxieties
Spatial distribution patterns and analysis of this motif has often record it deployed around thresholds in secular contexts. Timothy Easton concluded that the use of circular symbols as apotropaic devices in the Early Modern Period seemed to have been made to address, ”a range of fears, particularly those of the risk of ‘spontaneous’ (and devastating ) fire, the danger of ‘chance’ lightning strikes and the possibility of the unwelcome intrusion of spirits into the building‘ (Easton 2015:57).
During this period the fear of witchcraft became a mania for many complex and psychological reasons. Between the 15th and 17th centuries it became an obsession across late medieval Europe – as was the fear of ‘ill-wishing’ or being ‘overlooked’ – which continued right up until the Age of Enlightenment (Merrifield 1987: 159-60). The great turmoil of the Reformation further fired great uncertainty among the intelligentsia in their ability to distinguish between the practices of superstition, occultism, scholarly knowledge and pious ritual. Renaissance magic was inevitably an admix of all these disciplines fired by the ‘rediscovery’ of Classical magic.
Wherever the re-use of motifs based upon the appropriation of ancient antecedents exists, it has been clearly demonstrated that, although their form may have remained identical over time, the ‘meaning’ behind their use (and the agency which drove their creation) had changed, dependent upon the prevailing cultural and historical context(s). In the words of Ralph Merrifield (1987: 1),“Superstitious ritual often survived the religious belief that gave birth to it and it was reinterpreted in the light of current beliefs or adapted to relieve new fears. Nothing exists in a vacuum.
The question for modern researchers now is whether the later, post-Reformation six-petalled rosettes were meant to convey the same meaning as their early medieval counterparts. Or had the motives for their application changed? If indeed they were meant to be ciphers for the Virgin Mary in Middle Ages, did that still hold true when they were scribed onto masonry and timber elements of buildings in the 16th/17th centuries? Had the cult of the Virgin Mary survived the Reformation? If so, then these ‘covert’ marks appear to have been made in many clearly visible locations. Conversely, their continued use may simply have been due to the ‘inheritance of a known & revered protective mark’ (Champion 2015).
For now, these questions remained unanswered and we have yet to find firm documentary evidence which may reveal the use of the symbol further. The symbols’ long journey over time has seen its transition from one deployed exclusively in ecclesiastical buildings to one moving into secular structures of the 16th/17th centuries. Context may have shifted again, but it is likely that it was deployed with the intention of both protecting and illuminating the buildings. We await the ‘Rosetta Stone’ of graffiti to help unlock its secret.
- In graffiti studies, the term ‘six-petalled rosette’ is replacing ‘hexfoil,’ ‘hexafoil,’ ‘daisy wheel’ and ‘Flower of Life’ as the correct nomenclature for the symbol- although in general use all still acceptable terms.
- I recommend this course of action to all church crawlers if it can feasibly be done carefully and without harm to cover, lead lining or font.
- MGS: Volunteer Handbook 2017
- Warning! This is by no means meant to be a full account of the use of the six-petalled rosette through time, only a brief acknowledgement of its re-cycling and appropriation by different religions and cultures across the world.
- The term, terminus ante quem – ‘the time before which’….and ….terminus post quem..’the time after which’ are used to denote the time at which the earliest and latest events could have occurred.
- The Marian Mark is composed of two superimposed ‘V’s in its ‘W’ form or, just as commonly, as na ‘M.’ Controversy over whether it was meant to act as a cipher for the Virgin Mary still rages.
Billingsley, J (2020) Charming Calderdale: Traditional Protections for Home & Household. Northern Earth Books, Hebden Bridge UK.
Champion, M (2015) Medieval Graffiti. Ebury Press, London
Champion, M (2017) ‘Medieval Graffiti Survey: Volunteer Handbook.’
CRSBI (2020) St Swithins, Lower Quainton, Warwickshire
Easton, T (1999) ‘Ritual Marks on Historic Timber’ in, Weald & Downland Magazine. Spring Edition. p.22-28.
Easton, T (2015) ‘Like The Circles That You Find’ in, Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings Magazine Winter 2015, p51-57
Hack, T (2022) Lacock Flat One Boiler Room (11)
Hart, C (2014) An Analysis of the Iconographic Rosette Motif as a Means of Non-Verbal Communication: A Case Study –The Rosette Motif and its Association with Solar Symbolism (3)
Hart, C (2017) ‘An Examination and Analysis of the Role of the Iconographic Rosette Motif in the Egyptian Artistic Repertoire: a Case Study, in, Egypt.’ Perspectives of Research. Proceedings of the Seventh European Conference of Egyptologists
Hoggard, B (2019) Magical House Protection. Bergahan Books
Merrifield, R (1987) ‘The Archaeology of Ritual & Magic.’ BT Batsford Ltd, London
Stemp, R (2010) The Secret Language of Churches & Cathedrals: Decoding the Sacred Symbolism of Chritianity’s Holy Buildings. Duncan Baird Publishers, London
Cocke, T Findlay, D et al (1996) Recording A Church: An Illustrated Glossary. Practical Handbook in Archaeology 7. Council for British Archaeology, York.
Foster, R (1981) Discovering Churches. BBC Books, London.
Marchant, S (Ed) (1996) The Country Church Visitor’s Handbook: Discover Great Stories in Stone. Through The Church Door.
Rodwell, W (1981) The Archaeology of the English Church: The Study of Historic Churches & Churchyards. Batsford Books Ltd, London.
Rodwell, W (1989) The English Heritage Book of Church Archaeology. Batsford Books Ltd, London.
Stemp, R (2010) The Secret Language of Churches & Cathedrals: Decoding the Sacred Symbolism of Chritianity’s Holy Buildings. Duncan Baird Publishers, London.
Taylor, R (2004 ) How to read A Church. Random House, London (2nd Ed).
Yorke, T (2010) English Churches Explained. Countryside Books, Newbury, Berkshire.