The second panel, just above the portrait of the peaceful aristocrat, is filled with nine lines of runic script. Unfortunately only scattered runes are still legible. The panel opened with the statement that “this victory-symbol [sigbecn] was erected by Hwętred,” and it seems to have ended with the formula “pray for their souls.”14 It is reasonable to speculate that the panel may have contained a list of commissioners or benefactors, and perhaps prominent clerics, monks, and/or nuns connected with the Bewcastle community, and that the list may possibly have included the name of the aristocrat portrayed with his hawk just below the runes.
The third panel, just above the runes, clarifies the function of the long runic inscription. This panel portrays a majestic figure of Christ. In his left hand he bears a closed scroll, and his right hand is raised in blessing. His feet rest on the snouts of a pair of animal-like creatures. The panel recalls the early Christian iconography of Psalm 91:13:
You will tread on the lion and the dragon,
The asp and the basilisk you will trample under foot.
Psalm 91 (Latin, 90), “Qui habitat,” was sung every single night at Compline, just before going to bed: its promise of divine protection against “the terrors of the night” (verse 5) must have been familiar to every educated monk, nun, and cleric. When tempting Christ in the desert the devil himself had quoted, out of context, verse 12 of the psalm, “he has given his angels charge over you” (Matt 4:6). Therefore, verse 13 of the psalm, “you will tread on the lion and the dragon,” was usually interpreted as foretelling Christ’s rejection of the temptation and his defeat of the devil. In Western liturgies, Saint Matthew’s account of the temptation provided the Gospel lection for the first Sunday in Lent. The psalm sings of faith and confidence in God; thus, in order to reiterate the psalmic context ignored by the devil, the Church ensured that Psalm 91 echoed through all the Mass-chants that Sunday.15
Psalm 91 had already, from the earliest Christian centuries, been an important element of the most moving moment in Holy Week. From at least the fourth century, i.e., long before a six-week Lent began to be celebrated, it was sung at Rome on Good Friday at the ninth hour during the service of readings commemorating Christ’s death. The Psalm was then sung, to a very ancient chant, as a response to the second Old Testament reading, the account in Exodus 12 of how the Paschal Lamb should be slain, prepared, and eaten.16 This solemn chant continued in Roman use throughout the early Middle Ages, and would have been familiar to any Northumbrian clerical or monastic community. When sung at the moment in which Christ’s death was commemorated, Psalm 91 provided a moving elegiac lullaby for Christ, the fallen hero who would defeat death itself by rising again:
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
Or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at midday (verses 5-6).
But the Bewcastle panel cannot simply be seen as illustrating a verse from Psalm 91. For a start, the two animals cannot easily be interpreted as lions and dragons, asps or basilisks. The designer has simplified them into anonymity; they are simply “living creatures, beasts, animals.” Secondly, although Christ’s feet rest on their snouts, these animals do not look downtrodden. The designer has converted them from symbols of diabolic power into positive figures. Their paws are raised to acclaim Christ in an animal variant of the ancient attitude of prayer, the orans gesture (used, for example, during the eucharistic prayer of the Mass). As part of this gesture their inner paws meet: though the paws have been damaged by centuries of rain and frost, it is probable that they originally crossed to form a chiastic or X-pattern. Such a gesture would provide a visual reference to the Christian “chi-rho” symbol so important in the great insular gospel-books at Durrow, Lindisfarne, and Kells, and we have already seen that the X-pattern is a feature of the riddling interlace panels of the south side of the shaft. The visual gesture, in which these animals cross their paws between their bodies, proclaims the majestic figure above them to be “the anointed one” (Greek, Christos), the Messiah.
The beasts’ gesture makes Christ known, literally, “in the midst of two animals.” On Good Friday at the ninth hour, in the Roman ceremony commemorating the moment of Christ’s death, an ancient chant based on the Old Latin text of Habbakuk 3:2-3 was sung in response to the first Old Testament reading (Hosea 6:1-6). Like Psalm 91, all of the Canticle of Habbakuk was well known to any ecclesiastic, as it was also sung throughout the year each Friday at Lauds.
The canticle, and the Good Friday chant based on it, both proclaimed of Christ that “you will be recognized in the midst of two living creatures” (in medio duorum animalium innotesceris). In more senses than one, therefore, the Bewcastle Cross is the monument “of a powerful lord” as its lost cross-head once proclaimed. Just above the majestic figure of Christ two lines of runes give Christ’s name and title: gessus kristtus. The crossed paws between the two animals’ bodies visually echo the X-shaped “g” rune with which this runic title begins. Thus these converted beasts, silent as sculpted figures must be, bend towards each other in an eloquently cooperative orans posture so as to acclaim gessus kristtus as the Messiah. The closed scroll that the majestic Christ holds in his left hand is an image of the Book of Life. This is the heavenly book which only the triumphant Lamb can open, and in which all Christians hope to find their names inscribed. Christ’s right hand can be seen to bless, not merely the Book or Scroll of Life, but also the beasts who proclaim him. His gesture further implies that the names in the panel of runes, and the peaceful aristocrat (or saint?) who stands with his hawk (or eagle?) at the foot of the shaft, are safely inscribed in Christ’s heavenly Liber Vitae.
At the top of the shaft a standing figure of John the Baptist, clad in rich robes as a member of the heavenly liturgy, points across his body with his right index finger to acclaim Christ who now stands triumphant as the Lamb of God, cradled in John’s left arm, his sacrifice accomplished. The panel complements the majestic Christ just below in a number of ways. It encourages the onlooker to see that Christ should be acclaimed, not only in his majestic humanity, but also as the triumphant Lamb of the heavenly liturgy described in the Book of Revelation, chapters 4 and 5. As we have seen, the prescription for the preparation of the Paschal Lamb formed the second reading on Good Friday in liturgies based on those of the city of Rome. In addition, from about 700 the chant “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis” (“Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us”) had been introduced into the Mass of the Roman rite to accompany the breaking of bread for Communion. The new chant was known, for example, to the Northumbrian monastic scholar Bede. The chant was sung by assistant clerics and the people while the celebrant silently broke the eucharistic loaf. The breaking of bread in the Mass was regularly interpreted as symbolizing the breaking of Christ’s body on the Cross on Good Friday.17
Taken together these two portraits of Christ, human and symbolic, intimately associate the west side of the Bewcastle cross-shaft with the Good Friday liturgy: a natural association on what may have been the earliest Northumbrian figural high cross. The west side is the culmination of the dynamic program of the cross. It was appropriate to refer to Good Friday chants and readings on this side of the cross-shaft because it was believed that Christ faced west on the Cross.18 Early Christians often faced east in order to pray: people who prayed in front of this side of the Bewcastle Cross must have felt that the majestic Christ was blessing them also, and not merely the scroll, the animals at his feet, and the patrons named in the runic panel just below.
If the west side was the culmination of the program on the cross-shaft, the north side provides it with a carefully-designed prelude (figs 8a and 8b). This side is a creative variation on the design of the south side.19 Again we have five panels, but this side has only two small panels of insular interlace instead of three as on the south side. At the foot of the shaft and at its top (reading upwards, panels one and five) two large panels of uninhabited foliage-scroll, in the Mediterranean style, provide an outer frame for the whole shaft. The insular interlace panels (panels two and four) provide an inner frame. Thus the large central panel, of chequer patterns, is given an elaborate double frame. The central panel is a triumph of trompe l’oeil (fig. 8b). Alternate squares of raised and depressed stone create squares of light and darkness on this, the only side of the cross rarely illuminated directly by the sun, but behind which the sun can always be seen in late morning and early afternoon.20 These patterns of light and darkness produce multiple and shifting references to small equal-armed crosses, some dark, some bright: these tiny crosses may have visually echoed the now-missing cross-head, which was probably equal-armed, like the surviving Ruthwell cross-head.
As on the south side, the designer left four narrow bands between the five panels of the north side: each band provides space for an incised or painted inscription. One inscription has survived, between the lower foliage scroll and the lower insular interlace panel (reading upwards, panels 1 and 2), the female name kynibur* g, Cyniburh, who may have been a benefactress of a community at Bewcastle, or perhaps an abbess or prioress. The survival of this one name helps us to understand the strategy of the cross: the appeal that closes the panel of runes on the west side, “pray for their souls,” presumably applies to Cyniburh also. Names may have been incised or painted on some or all of the other bands on this side, as on the opposite side. If other names once existed on the strips on the north and south sides, three sides of the cross (north, south, and west) made names part of the larger design of the shaft. This cross reminded onlookers that other persons, living and dead, needed their prayers.
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