Early medieval audiences saw the annunciation, and hence the incarnation, in terms of a heroic royal adventus. Bede (paraphrasing Gregory the Great) understood the Archangel Gabriel to personify divine strength and courage:
And so the angel Gabriel was sent by God. Rarely do we read that the angels appearing to human beings are designated by name, but, whenever this occurs, it is so that they may even by their very name suggest what ministry they have come to carry out. Now Gabriel means “strength of God” [Gabrihel namque fortitudo Dei dicitur], and rightly he shone forth with such a name, since by his testimony he bore witness to the coming birth of God in the flesh. The prophet said this in the psalm, The Lord strong and powerful, the Lord powerful in battle [Psalm 23/24:8]that battle, undoubtedly, in which he [Christ] came to fight the powers of the air [Ephesians 2:2] and to snatch the world from their tyranny [Illo nimirum proelio quo potestates aerias debellare et ab earum tyrranide mundum ueniebat eripere].33
For Gregory and Bede, Mary encountered, in Gabriel, the strength or courage of God: Latin fortitudo denoted spiritual strength (courage, fortitude) as well as physical strength.
In late seventh-century Rome the annunciation lection had acquired another new use. It would continue to be chanted during Advent, but it was now also chanted on the new Feast of the Annunciation, on 25 March, the date of the spring equinox in the Julian Calendar. As we have seen, Christian writers had for centuries considered that date to be the anniversary of Good Friday. It seems likely that the Annunciation feast was celebrated at Hexham, i.e., near the Ruthwell area, after Bishop Wilfrid returned from Rome and was made bishop of Hexham in 706 c.e., perhaps a generation before the Ruthwell Cross was erected. At Rome Wilfrid had been accompanied by his chaplain Acca, who would succeed him as bishop of Hexham in 709.34
This new use of the annunciation pericope on the anniversary of the crucifixion provided the English poet with a model for a new and heroic crucifixion narrative, a royal adventus that revealed the unity between Christ’s divine and human wills. On 25 March Mary had encountered “the strength or bravery of God” in Gabriel; now the English poet retold the crucifixion as a tragic variant of the annunciation, in which on 25 March the startled Cross encountered “the strength or bravery of God” in Christ himself, “brave before all men.” The concept of variation, which we have found useful in examining the Bewcastle cross-shaft, is crucial in appreciating the poet’s strategy: the differences between these two events are as significant as the similarities. Gabriel had immediately calmed Mary’s fear, resolved her dilemma, and waited to hear her willing assent to God’s plan. The English poet narrates the crucifixion as a silent and tragic ordeal. The Cross gets no explanation of what is happening: instead of receiving an angel’s reassurance, it has to endure, with Christ, the mockery of their enemies. It is only when these terrible events are long past that the Cross can in the poem sing of its silent ordeal when confronted with fortitudo Dei, the bravery/strength of God. The poet uniquely grasped that at both the incarnation and the passion Christ acted in cooperation with created beings who were each, in different but comparable ways, startled but obedient: Mary at the incarnation, and the Cross at the passion.
To read the two great columns of runes in which the first titulus is set out we have had to move from the right border of the inhabited vine-scroll to its left border (fig. 9a). If we now continue, following the sun’s daily course, we come to the first broad face of the cross: the side that, it is likely, originally faced east. Each morning the rising sun would have shone directly on images of the two great Advent lections: the annunciation (at the bottom of the shaft) and the visitation (on the damaged upper stone, the top of the shaft). The annunciation (figs 9b and 10a) is represented as a confrontation between the archangel Gabriel, who advances from the left, and the Virgin Mary, who shrinks back slightly: the angel’s halo begins four centimeters in from the left border of the panel, while Mary’s halo touches the right border; Mary’s dress swings back so far that its hem invades the right border. With her right hand Mary points at her own body just under her china gesture expressing her perplexitywhile her left hand clutches her dress in front of her body as though in surprise or alarm. The long Latin titulus comes from near the beginning of the lection. Though damaged, it can be reconstructed as Luke 1:28: “The angel, coming in, said to her: ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.’”
The idea that Mary is blessed among women seems to have been still more strikingly expressed in the damaged Latin titulus, in runes, for the visitation panel on the upper stone (fig. 11). On the left border the name “Martha” can be made out: it seems likely that that damaged border at one time bore the names “[Maria et] Martha,” with reference to the sisters Mary and Martha of Bethany. The upper border apparently reads Maria m[ate]r, “Mary the mother [of Christ].” The damaged inscription on the right border begins with the word dominnæ, “ladies”; its continuation is lost. Thus the visitation panel seems to have praised Mary among other “ladies,” as the annunciation panel had done (“in mulieribus”). It was particularly appropriate to name Mary and Martha of Bethany among these ladies, for the usual Gospel for the feast of the Virgin Mary’s death and entry into heaven (15 August) was the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). On that day, the greatest Marian feast of the year, Christ’s praise of Mary Magdalen, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her,” was by implication applied to the Virgin herself. In other words, the liturgy used Christ’s praise of Mary of Bethany, who had chosen not to act as handmaid but to listen to the Lord’s word, as an analogy for the greater honor which, precisely on this feast of her entry into heaven, the Lord gave his own mother, the handmaid of the Lord whose free choice to bear the Word would cause all generations to call her blessed. The designer could hardly have found a more forceful way to express the idea that Mary was blessed among women.
The visitation panel itself (fig. 11) represents the two mothers, Mary (left) and Elizabeth (right), who celebrate their pregnancies with remarkably physical gestures. Elizabeth’s open left hand, on which the separate fingers and thumb can be distinguished, touches and feels the life within Mary’s womb, while Mary’s right forearm reaches out to touch her cousin’s left upper arm. Mary thus agrees, and collaborates with, the exploratory gesture of her cousin.
The Ruthwell designer directed our attention to the significance of pregnancy in the visitation scene by placing a vivid archer, drawing his bow, in the small panel just above (fig. 11). Slung over the archer’s left shoulder, and hanging down in front of his body, a large satchel acts as his quiver. In the satchel is a rectangular object, its edges slightly bevelled: the satchel seems to be a book-satchel, and the square object a copy of the Gospels or of Scripture. This archer seems to take his ammunition from the word of God: in Christian commentary, archers were traditionally seen as images of the preacher, who shoots the words of Scripture into the hearts of his audience.35 But it is likely that the reference to preaching in this vivid panel is more specific than this. The entrance chant for the midsummer feast of the birth of John the Baptist, 24 June, declared of John that
from my mother’s womb the Lord has called me by my name: he has made my mouth like a sharp sword; he has protected me under the covering of his hand, and placed me like a chosen arrow. [Psalm:] It is good to give praise to the Lord [Psalm 92:1]. [For the repetition:] The just shall flourish like the palm tree [Psalm 92:12].36
The Epistle for that midsummer Mass was Isaiah 49:1-7, and its opening verses provided every literate cleric with the source of the Introit just quoted:
1 Listen, you islands, and give ear, you people from far off,
the Lord has called me from the womb:
from the womb of my mother he has remembered my name,
2 and he has made my mouth like a harp sword:
in the shadow of his hand he has protected me, and has made me like a chosen arrow; in his quiver he has hidden me.
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