Christian Inculturation in Eighth-Century Northumbria:
The Bewcastle and Ruthwell Crosses
ÉAMONN Ó CARRAGÁIN
The Bewcastle and Ruthwell high crosses are among the finest sculptural monuments to survive from Anglo-Saxon England.1 They are of interest, not just to specialists in Anglo-Saxon sculpture, but to anyone interested in inculturation: that is, in the ways in which Christianity can interact with cultures that receive it, and express itself in terms that make sense within these cultures while at the same time transforming their values. The designers of both high crosses were deeply imbued with, and sympathetic to, contemporary Anglo-Saxon secular values, but they were concerned to mould those values towards a new vision. In order to “sing a new song for the Lord” the designers used images and poetic texts that their communities would comprehend. Literate nuns, monks, and clerics would have easily understood all aspects of these crosses; their meaning was also available, to some extent at least, to the illiterate laity who, once interested, could easily be further instructed.
The Christian spirituality reflected in both crosses is deeply influenced by contemporary communal worship: those modern interpretations of the monuments that have failed to take account of the liturgical references in them have invariably failed to do justice to the coherence of both crosses. Such modern interpretations have found themselves forced, in effect, to fragment the monuments.2 In particular they have failed to appreciate that Ruthwell gives detailed expression to theological ideas found in embryo on the Bewcastle Cross, or, to put it another way, that Bewcastle preserves, and develops in its own way, elements of a theological program more fully developed at Ruthwell. On balance, more likely Bewcastle is the earlier cross, but, as we shall see, it is also possible that Bewcastle adapted elements of the Ruthwell program to its own, rather different, devotional purposes.
Although there is lively discussion about the dates of these monuments, there is a growing consensus that both are to be dated to the first half of the eighth century: as it were, to the “Age of Bede” (who died in 735) or to the generation after his death. The Bewcastle designer used a separate stone for the cross-head: a socket for the cross-head survives at the top of the surviving shaft. Experienced and reliable antiquarians recorded the cross-head as being in place as late as 1607, but it went missing soon after.3 We do not know how, or precisely when, the cross-head was lost: perhaps in a storm, perhaps in an unrecorded outburst of iconoclasm, or perhaps even because the local antiquaries became anxious to possess a cross-head that had an English runic inscription, ricæs drihtnes, “of a powerful lord.” This inscription provides one possible key to the meaning of the Bewcastle Cross: as we shall see, the whole cross is the symbol “of a powerful lord.”
The Ruthwell Cross is also built from two stones, but here the designer used the second stone for the upper part of the cross-shaft as well as for the equal-armed cross-head. This upper stone was broken into fragments when Protestant iconoclasts pulled the cross down in 1642. In fragmenting the cross, iconoclasts went so far as to bury a large chunk of the broken upper stone deep in the graveyard of Ruthwell parish church. However, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Henry Duncan, the Presbyterian minister of Ruthwell and an excellent antiquarian, was able to reconstruct the cross convincingly. Failing to find the transom of the cross (which may also have been smashed, and then buried in the churchyard), the Rev. Duncan had a local mason construct a new transom; he was able to work out its dimensions from the lower and upper arms of the cross-head which survive.
The Bewcastle Cross
The Bewcastle cross-shaft stands today where the cross has always stood: in the open air, in the churchyard, just to the south of the present parish church at Bewcastle (fig. 5; the illustrations are found on the accompanying CD). The churchyard is enclosed by the vallum of a Roman fort, originally one of the advance fortifications to the north of Hadrian’s Wall. The site, which the Roman imperial army had shaped at the apogee of their empire, was apparently inhabited by some sort of Christian community by the early eighth century. What sort of community that was we do not know (laity, religious, or both? if religious, clerical, or monastic, or both?), but their great cross suggests that some members of the community, at least, were nuns, monks, and/or clerics.
The sun’s daily course provides the best guide to the dynamic symbolism of the surviving cross-shaft: it would have naturally suggested to any community living within the Bewcastle vallum that the cross should be read sunwise. Each morning the rising sun shines on the great vine-scroll or Tree of Life that unifies and enlivens all of the east side of the shaft (fig. 6a) Each of the eight surviving volutes of the scroll, except the smallest one at the very top of the shaft, is inhabited by a bird or animal-like creature feeding on the grapes or berries of the Tree. The foliage scroll or Tree of Life, particularly when inhabited by humans or animals, was an ancient, pre-Christian, symbol of life, fruitfulness, and hence prosperity.4 In Christianity the Tree of Life lost none of its ancient associations with sustenance, fertility, and life, but Scripture and liturgical practice combined to give it a new range of meanings, above all the union of the Christian church with Christ (see John 15:5, “I am the vine, you are the branches”).5 Eucharistic celebrations reinforced the identification, in particular with the blood of Christ, and gave it a new eschatological urgency: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Cor 11:26). The great Bewcastle Tree of Life is sculpted in a Roman or Mediterranean visual tradition, but eighth-century Northumbrian onlookers are likely to have remembered that actual trees had always had important religious functions for them, as for other Germanic peoples.6 At Bewcastle a sculptural language imported from the Mediterranean gave new life to an ancient natural religious symbol: as Richard North put it, “The need was local, if the style was not . . . By legitimizing a need for leaves and branches on the cross, Roman vine-scroll could assist the transition from superstition to doctrine.”7
Each morning, as the sun rose towards its zenith, its course was mapped by the sundial (by far the earliest English sundial to survive), a central feature of the south side of the cross-shaft (figs 6b and 7a). The sundial inhabits a large panel of vine-scroll, visually reminiscent of the great Tree of Life on the east side, though no animals inhabit the south side. Reading from the bottom of the shaft, this large foliage scroll is the fourth of five panels of abstract ornament on this side. In the five panels the designer took care to juxtapose distinct visual traditions: two large vine-scrolls (reading upwards, panels two and four), in a Mediterranean style, alternate with three smaller panels of interlace (one, three, and five), in an insular style that recalls the carpet-pages of the Book of Durrow, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and the Book of Kells.8 It is as if the designer wished to celebrate the variety of visual languages that had recently become available to the community: Mediterranean and insular, Germanic as well as Celtic. The first (lowest) panel of insular interlace has at its center a small equal-armed cross: the panel, at the foot of the shaft, provides a foundation-stone for the program of the whole side.9 All three panels of insular interlace have the added fascination of a visual puzzle, a trompe l’oeil: the unhurried onlooker soon discerns that diagonal lines unite the individual panels of interlace, forming chiastic (X-shaped) patterns that unify each panel. We will find that chiastic references play a central symbolic role in the figural panels of the west side. Between each of the five panels the designer left a thin flat band that may once have been inscribed with a short incised or painted text, such as a name. No legible inscription has survived from the five surviving bands on this south side. We will return to this feature later, as it recurs, with two surviving inscriptions, on the opposite (north) side of the cross-shaft.
After noon, the sun begins to shine directly on the four large panels on the west side (figs 7a and 7b). Reading from bottom to top of the shaft these comprise: (1) a standing male figure: on his left wrist perches a large hawk- or eagle-like bird. Modern scholars are divided as to whom this male figure represents. Some have seen the panel as a portrait of Saint John the Evangelist (though he is usually represented seated, not standing), identified by the large eagle-like bird.10 In the nineteenth century, and again in recent years, other scholars have favored a secular interpretation: an aristocratic donor, such as one of the kings represented on early Anglo-Saxon coins.11 In this case the hawk perched on his left wrist would indicate his aristocratic status.12 If we accept the “secular aristocratic patron” interpretation as a working hypothesis, this panel provides a remarkably unmilitary portrait of an early medieval aristocrat. In Old English heroic poetry, when you advanced to do battle you let your hawk fly away to safety from your wrist, and faced your human enemies. This Christian monument may possibly celebrate here the aristocratic arts of peace; it certainly does not celebrate the military arts of war.13
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