Unlike the Bewcastle designer, the designer at Ruthwell seems to have provided every single panel of this cross with an extensive titulus, usually but not always with narrative content. None of the tituli that have survived is simply a personal name or set of names, and none is ever a mere label to identify its panel. Instead, every single titulus seems to have been ekphrastic, consisting of a relatively extensive narrative about, or else a coherent theological comment on, its panel. These tituli were designed to suggest appropriate contexts within which each panel could be understood, and to hint how the audience should respond to the panel. To provide space for these extended tituli the designer provided every panel with flat vertical as well as horizontal borders, so that tituli that began on a horizontal border could flow uninterrupted (at times in the middle of a word) onto a neighboring vertical border, and so that on occasion the ekphrastic narrative or description could flow around all four borders of a panel. This feature is unique in early medieval insular sculpture, whether Anglo-Saxon, British, Pictish, or Irish: the Ruthwell tituli are far more extensive than those found on all the other insular high crosses put together. The tituli of the first broad side of the upper stone, as well as of the vine-scrolls on the narrow sides, are in runes: in this the designer was possibly inspired by the runes of the Bewcastle Cross. But the Ruthwell designer departed from the Bewcastle model by extensive use of Latin. Latin was usually inscribed in Roman capitals, but on at least one panel, the Visitation on the first side of the upper stone, a Latin titulus is inscribed in runes. In due course we will suggest a reason for this highly significant exception.
The Ruthwell designer provided the rooted vine-scrolls on the lower stone (i.e., those parts of the vine-scroll that anyone familiar with runes could easily read) with a carefully-edited verse narrative, in English and in runes, of the heroic death of Christ. The narrative begins on the side of the cross that would probably have faced north originally, the side of the cross on which the sun only shone in high summer, and then slantingly (fig. 9a). In the middle ages the north was associated with spiritual darkness and the power of demons. The vernacular crucifixion narrative is highly original. Unlike the four Gospels, which tell how the Cross came to Calvary with Christ, borne by Simon of Cyrene (the synoptic Gospels) or by Christ himself (John 19:17), the English vernacular poem envisages the Cross already in place before Christ confronts it. Thus the English poem creates a disturbing encounter between Christ, who courageously chooses death, and a startled Cross, which sees itself required, not to defend its Lord unto death as any loyal warrior would do, but to stand fast and become its Lord’s killer. The Cross was, in this way, required to become an apparent traitor to its lord, in the presence of enemies who mock them both: the most agonizing dilemma an Anglo-Saxon poet could imagine. The opening sentence of the English poem runs across the top of the lower stone and then, in a great column of runes, down the right-hand side of the vine-scroll:
God almighty stripped himself
when he willingly chose [wolde] to ascend the gallows
brave before all men: I dared not bow . . .22
In choosing the gallows, God reveals himself: the narrative begins with a theophany. The first verb, ondgeredæ, “stripped himself,” is remarkable: Germanic warriors normally armed themselves for battle, they did not usually strip. The verb echoed a closely related verb ongyrede, “prepared himself”; more importantly, it introduced into the poem an important metaphor derived from the Epistle for the Sunday before Easter (Palm Sunday), Philippians 2:5-11. There, at the beginning of Holy Week, the whole life of Christ, from incarnation to crucifixion, was seen in terms of self-stripping, self-emptying (Phil 2:7: Greek eauton ekenôsen, Latin exinanivit seipsum, he stripped/emptied himself). These two related metaphors, stripping and emptying, will shape the whole Ruthwell narrative: it begins as almighty God strips himself willingly to ascend the gallows, and ends (in the second titulus on the opposite narrow side of the lower stone) as Christ’s followers contemplate his dead body, emptied even of its blood.
The verb wolde, which I translate as “willingly chose,” literally means “willed”: the verb concentrates our attention on Christ’s will. The nature of Christ’s will(s) was at the center of a major theological controversy of the period 630-720, a controversy that led to schism between the church in East and West, and to the martyrdom of a pope (Martin I, 649-55). While some Eastern emperors and their theologians held that Christ had a single will, the divine will, which he shared with the Father and the Holy Spirit, the Western Latin Church, supported by an Eastern theologian of the quality of Maximus Confessor (also martyred by the emperor, in 662 c.e.) held that Christ, if he was fully human as well as divine, must have had two wills: while he freely chose his actions through his own human will, he also fully participated in the divine will, never acting against it: “not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).23
In this first sententia Christ’s ascent of the Cross is at once a divine action (that of almighty God) and humanly courageous (Christ is “brave before all men”): mo_d (cf. modern German Mut) is the central human quality of a Germanic warrior. The phrase “brave before all men” is creatively ambiguous in Old English, as in modern English: it can mean both “braver than all human beings” and also “brave in the sight of all human beings.” In its balancing of the divine title (almighty God) with heroic courage, the first Ruthwell titulus closely parallels the classic formulation of the Western (“dythelete” or “two-will”) position in the canons of the Lateran Council called by Pope Martin in 649 c.e.: that Christ “willed and effected our salvation at once divinely and humanly,” and that his human and divine wills were “coherently united.”24 It was primarily for calling this council that Pope Martin had been imprisoned and martyred. All can see that Christ, in choosing to ascend the cross, embodied a new and subversive kind of heroism, based not on violence to others, but on self-giving even to the death of the cross. This first sentence of the first titulus already moves from divinity to humanity: it already embodies, in miniature, the kenotic structure of the whole Ruthwell poem.
The second sentence of the titulus is inscribed on the left side of the vine-scroll: to read it we have to move from right to left, following the sun’s daily course. The sentence concentrates on the dilemma of the Cross. By going through with its terrible act of obedience to Christ’s implied command, the Cross is intimately united to Christ, by mockery and by Christ’s blood.25 Once more, when the poem refers to Christ’s heroic choice it coherently unites the divine and the human: phrases that can connote his divinity as well as his human power (“a powerful king,” “the lord of heaven”) are combined with the human, literally kenotic, image of Christ’s blood, poured out from his side at the moment of his death:
I [lifted up] a powerful king,
The lord of heaven I dared not tilt
men insulted the pair of us together; I was drenched with blood
poured [from the man’s side]26
The English narrative is unique in Christian literature in concentrating on the dilemma of the Cross, required to kill its lord. The Carmen paschale of Sedulius, a widely-read Latin Christian epic, presented Christ’s approach to Calvary as a triumphant royal advance (adventus); but Sedulius, and other Latin Christian poets such as Juvencus and Venantius Fortunatus, unlike the English poet, saw the role of the Cross at the crucifixion as unproblematic: for Sedulius, the Cross even “exults” as it bears Christ.27 It was natural for a monastic poet to present Christ’s approach to Calvary as an adventus, because several royal adventus-ceremonies are described or referred to in the Psalter.28 For an early eighth-century monastic poet the word adventus may have recently taken on a new and complementary meaning: it had come to refer to the midwinter liturgical season of Advent, which prepared for the nativity of Christ at Christmas. In the last decades of the seventh century at Rome the papal schola cantorum (adapting earlier Gallican customs) had instituted its own tightly-organized four-week Advent season.29 The readings for that season always included Saint Luke’s accounts of the annunciation and of the visitation.30 The annunciation lection provided a good analogue for the dilemma of the startled Cross when Christ confronted it. Since the late fourth century theologians had held that already, before the annunciation, the Virgin Mary had taken a vow of perpetual virginity.31 This meant that for early medieval audiences Mary’s question to the angel Gabriel, “How can this be, since I know not man?” (Luke 1:34), expressed a serious dilemma: should she refuse the divine command, or should she break her vow? Bede implies the dilemma in his Advent homily on the annunciation lection, and also in his commentary on Luke: “‘How,’ she asked, ‘can this occur, that I conceive and give birth to a son, since I have determined to live out my life in the chaste state of virginity?’” 32
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