Category Archives: UNITED KINGDOM

Farne Islands, known as the ‘Islands of the Pilgrims’

It was a relaxing end to the day as we enjoyed a sunset cruise around the Farne Islands. We departed from Seahouses Village, after very good dinner at Lewis’s Fish Restaurant in the town centre. We were staying nearby, at the White Swan Inn, in Belford, around eight kilometres from Bamburgh Castle. The hotel features sparkle clean facilities and nice, little added extras, and fabulous food in the pub area downsatirs. That evening, the weather was really promising for amazing sunset views, though some clouds were stubbornly wandering in the blue sky.

The Farne Islands and Lindisfarne

The Farne Islands lie off the coast of Northumbland in north-east England. To the north of the Farne Islands and the tidal estuary-like mud flats of Budle Bay lies the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Though the Holy Island of Lindisfarne lies just to the north of the Farne group of islands, it is argued not to belong to the Archipelago as this is not a true island; it is connected to the mainland for about twelve hours a day by a causeway that is covered and uncovered by the tides.

The modern causeway is about 1.6 kilometres long and reaches the Holy Island at a point called the snook, at the western tip of a long sandy peninsula. Visitors to Lindisfarne should always check the crossing time table to avoid being trapped in a car by the incoming tide. To the south of the causeway used usually by drivers, a series of wooden poles marked out the ancient Pilgrim’s Way across the shifting sand and mud. Modernday pilgrims can still follow it, crossing the way to the Holy Island on foot. It was used in ancient times by contemporary visitors to the religious centre of Lindisfarne. Like the causeway, it can be used only at low tide, as described by Sir Walter Scott:

For with the flow and ebb, its style
Varies from continent to isle;
Dry shod o’er sands, twice every day,
The pilgrims to the shrine find way;
Twice every day the waves efface
Of staves and sandelled feet the trace.

Sir Walter Scott, 1888, ‘Marmion: A Tale of Flooded Field’, in Simpson, D., ‘Lindisfarne: Less civilised times’, in England’s North East, 1991-2022.

Great Whin Sill Formations

The Farne lsalnds are formed from the rocks of the Whin Sill Complex (or the Great Whin Sill, a tabular layer of the igneous rock dolerite in County Durham, Northumberland and Cumbria in the northeast of England). It also creates the outcrops of rock, which gave the foundations for Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh Castles, and for parts of Hadrian’s Wall. The other outcrop of the Whin Sill Complex on Holy Island is also topped by Lindisfarne Castle. The Farne Islands are an archipelago of between 15 and 20 islands (depending on the height of the tide) lying approximately 8 kilometres north-east of the village of Seahouses.

They form an archipelago, divided into the Inner Group and the Outer Group.If Lindisfarne is excluded, the island of Inner Farne, also known as House Island, is then the largest at 16 acres and is the closest to the mainland. Lindisfarne itself measures almost 5 kilometres west-east and 3 kilometres north-south.

The Heroine from the Farnes

The Farne Islands are associated with the story of Grace Darling and the wreck of the Forfarshire. I saw a plaque commemorating her name and history in the harbor at Seahouses. Grace Darling was the daughter of Longstone lighthouse-keeper, William Darling. On September 7, 1838, when she was 22 years old, she rescued together with her father nine people from the wreck of the Forfarshire, which struck the Harcar Rock in a strong gale and thick fog.

The story of the rescue spread from the Northumberland coast and attracted extraordinary attention throughout Britain, making Grace Darling a heroine who is remembered in British folklore. Grace Darling died of consumption four years later, in 1842, and is buried in the churchyard of the village of Bamburgh, which also houses the Grace Darling Museum; it includes even the coble boat used by Grace in her famous rescue.

Less Heroic Attitudes

There is, however, another account from the seventeenth century, which gives an insight into attitudes of the Islanders, quite different from Grace Darling’s :

“The common people there do pray for ships which they see in danger. They all sit down upon their knees and hold up their hands and say very devotedly, ‘Lord send her to us, God send her to us.’ You seeing them upon their knees, and their hands joined, do think that they are praying for your safety; but their minds are far from that. They pray, not to God to save you, or send you to port, but to send you to them by shipwreck, that they may get the spoil of her. And to show that this is their meaning if the ship come well to port, they get up in anger crying `the Devil stick her, she is away from us.’“

Captain Robin Rugg, the seventeenth century governor of Holy Island, in Simpson, D., ‘Lindisfarne: Less civilised times’, in England’s North East, 1991-2022.

Paradise for Wreck Divers

The Farne Islands extend for over 8 kilometres out into the North Sea and have always been a danger to ships. For this reason, many lighthouses have been built on the islands over the years and two are still in use today. All the operational lighthouses on the Farnes are now automatic and have no resident keepers, although in former years, they did.

Ruins of some of the older lighthouses may be seen, for example on the Brownsman, which used to have two. One of them has its base remains attached to the keeper’s cottage. Earlier, beacons were on several of the islands and a light was once shone from the tower. Despite that, hundreds of ships have been wrecked on the Farnes over the years, providing plenty for wreck divers to explore.

Culdees and Benedictines

The earliest recorded inhabitants of the Farne Islands were various Culdees, some connected with Lindisfarne. This followed the old Celtic Christian tradition of island hermitages, also found in Wales, Cornwall, and Hiberno-Scotland. The islands were used by hermits intermittently from the seventh century. These included Saint Bartholomew of Farne. The last hermit was Thomas De Melsonby, who died on the islands in 1246. Hermits were replaced as elsewhere in Europe by Benedictine monks and a formal monastic cell of Benedictine monks was established on the islands around 1255.

A relaxing end to the day as we enjoyed a sunset cruise around the Farne islands that has allowed us to know many stories and legends associated with their saints, pilgrims, heroes and demons … Photography by Filipe Almeida. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The cell was dependent on Durham Abbey, then changed to Durham Cathedral. A very small cell was usually home to only two monks, although on occasion this rose to as many as six. The cell was dissolved in 1536 as part of King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. In the course of their turbulent history, the islands had belonged to County Durham till 1844, when they became the part of Northumberland County and are currently owned by the National Trust.

Saints of Northumbria and their Hermitage

The islands are first recorded in 651, when they became home to Saint Aidan, followed by Saint Cuthbert. Despite Saint Cuthbert’s reclusive lifestyle, so characteristic of the Celtic Church that he initially followed, the saint was comonly loved and respected as a caring and peaceful man, existing yet in a violent period of history.

Cuthbert isolated himself on the islands until he was called to the bishopric of Lindisfarne, but after two years, he returned to the solitude of the Inner Farne and died there in 687 but his body was moved back to Lindisfarne. He spent there 9 years, leaving like an eremit on Inner Farne. Saint Cuthbert’s life on Inner Farne was not always one of seclusion, as his reputed gift of healing brought pilgrims to the island from all over the Kingdom of Northumbria. Hence, a suggested meaning for the name of the Farne Islands, ‘Islands of the Pilgrims’, which may have derived from ‘Farena Ealande’. The first structures built by the monks Aidan and Cuthbert on Inner Farne are no longer visible. In Life of St Cuthbert, medieval scholar and monk, Bede the Venerable, gives some clues about these early buildings. After moving to Inner Farne, Saint Cuthbert erected, or rather restored, a hermitage together with a construction of a guesthouse or hospitium, which an answer to crowds of pilgrims. Cuthbert’s cell, first built by Aidan, was made of stone and turf and was – according to Bede – ‘higher than a man’. Another larger structure, a guesthouse or ‘hospitum’, probably stood where the Fishe House is sited today. It is also possible that the cell on Inner Farne in which St Cuthbert lived and died existed on the site occupied now by Saint Cuthbert’s Church (or Chapel).

Documents show that work on a larger structure began in 1369 and the older remains have been incorporated into this later building. By these means, the small chapel was part of a Benedictine cell affiliated to Durham Abbey, then Durham Cathedral. The monks of the House of Farne were wealthy enough to build such structures – they cultivated crops and kept livestock on some of the other islands. Accordingly, the today visited Chapel on Inner Farne was once part of a larger monastic complex, which included another chapel dedicated to Saint Mary, once located just to the north, and surrounding courtyards. Known as Saint Cuthbert’s Chapel, it is described as a “single-cell building of four bays”. The holy community continued to use the chapel until Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. Just to the west of Saint Cuthbert’s chapel stands Prior Castell’s Tower which dates from about 1500. It is a defensive pele tower (a small fortified keep), typical of the Northumberland coast, which was built for the contemporary Prior of Durham Cathedral monastery from 1494 to 1519. The tower initially served as an accommodation for the monks of the Benedictine cell but this was closed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

All Real Saints once Faced Some Demons

A legend goes that before Saint Cuthbert inhabited Inner Farne, he banished some ‘demons’ from the island to the nearby isle of Wideopens. Those evils spirits apparently still haunted later inhabitants of Inner Farne, long after Saint Cuthbert’s death. David Simpson provides a record of the demons’ description:

“…..clad in cowls, and riding upon goats, black in complexion, short in stature, their countenances most hideous, their heads long – the appearance of the whole group horrible. Like soldiers they brandished in their hands lances, which they darted after in the fashion of war. At first the sight of the cross was sufficient to repel their attacks, but the only protection in the end was the circumvaliation of straws, signed with the cross, and fixed in the sands, around which the devils galloped for a while, and then retired, leaving the brethren to enjoy victory and repose.”

In Simpson, D., ‘The Farne Islands: St Cuthbert and the Farne Devils’, in England’s North East, 1991-2022.

It is thought that these demons were really the spirits of indigenous ancient people who had been once cut off from the mainland.

Another Hermitage Island

Apart from Lindisfarne and Inner Farne, there is also one more tiny island related to Saint Cuthbert’s legendary hagiography. Just offshore from Holy Island Village, is the small Island of Hobthrush, or St Cuthbert’s Isle, where the saint was said to have crafted the legendary beads, known as Saint Cuthbert’s or ‘Cuddy’s Beads’. Sometimes, they can be noticed by more arrentive visitors washed up on the shores of Holy Island.

But fain St Hilda’s nuns would learn
If on a rock by Lindisfarne
St Cuthbert sits and toils to frame
The sea borne beads that bear his name.
Such tales had Whitby’s fishers told,
And said they might his shape behold,
And here his anvil sound:
A deadened clang – a huge dim form
Seen but and heart when gathering storm
And night were closing round.
But this, a tale of idle fame,
The nuns of Lindisfarne disclaim.

Sir Walter Scott, 1888, ‘Marmion: A Tale of Flooded Field’, in Simpson, D., ‘Lindisfarne: Hobthrush and St Cuthbert’s beads‘, in England’s North East, 1991-2022.

Cuddy’s beads are in fact the fossilized remains of tiny sea creatures, which inhabited the ocean depths in prehistoric times. As their surface is marked with the shape of the cross, they may have been once used as Rosary beads.

Cuddy’s Eider Ducks and Other Animal-Brothers

Today the Farne Islands are still an important nature reserve for wildlife and are the home to many species of sea birds, including Puffins, Eider Ducks, Razorbills, Guillemots, Terns, Kittiwakes, Shags and Cormorants. During the breeding season from May to the end of July there are thousands of nesting birds at the Farne Islands. For these reasons, summer visitors to Inner Farne are strongly advised to wear hats due to Arctic terns dive bombing to protect their chicks. There are also an estimated 3 to 4 thousand Grey Seals at the Farne Islands and large numbers can be counted basking on the rocks, especially at low water when more of the Islands are exposed. Saint Cuthbert was also known to have had a great love of nature and especially of birds and seals, who were often his only companions in his lonelines on Inner Farne. Saint Cuthbert had, like Hiberno-Scottish monks, and much later Franciscan monks, friendly attitude to animals, whom he treated like his brothers. Thus, he is claimed by some to be one of the first ever nature conservationists. Among other acts, Cuthbert introduced special laws in 676 protecting the eider ducks, and other seabirds nesting on the islands; these are thought to be the earliest bird-protection laws anywhere in the world. And to commemorate Saint Cuthbert’s care for birds, the eider ducks have become known as St. Cuthbert’s ducks or Cuddy’s ducks

Following your cruise around the Farne Islands, we continue to sail along our beautiful coastline to enjoy scenic sunset views as the sun was setting behind the magnificent Bamburgh Castle, with the occasional visit from local dolphins. The Farne Islands are popular with bird watchers, and as scuba diving locations, with a variety of sites suitable for all levels of divers, for the seals and wrecks.

Featured image: Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands at sunset. Photo by Felippe Almeida. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


Hannaford, L., ‘The Farne Islands and Holy Island, Northumberland’, in British Geological Survey, 2023. (,and%20uncovered%20by%20the%20tides; accessed 2nd September, 2023).

Lewis, N., [No Date], ‘History of the Farne Islands’ buildings’, in Collections & House Officer, National Trust. (; accessed 2nd September, 2023).

Simpson, D., ‘Lindisfarne’, in England’s North East, 1991-2022. (,2022; accessed 31st August, 2023).

Simpson, D., ‘The Farne Islands’, in England’s North East, 1991-2022. (,2022; accessed 31st August, 2023).

The Shaft of A Monumental High Northumbrian Cross at Bewcastle

We are heading to ancient lands of Northumbria, one of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It was what is  now northern England and south-east Scotland. After taking a ferry from Ireland, we are first traveling along the Solway Coast in Scotland to see Northumbrian high crosses of Ruthwell and Bewastle, just at the border with England.

One of the Finest Northumbrian High Crosses

At Bewcastle in North Cumbria, there’s a parish church dedicated to Saint Cuthbert, as are most churches in Northumbria, and the shaft of an early medieval monumental cross. Bewcastle Cross with its counterpart at Ruthwell are both Northumbrian crosses, and are located on  the Solway Coast, at the border with Scotland, and in close vicinity to the Roman Wall. They are probably the finest to survive from Anglo-Saxon Britain.

Both  crosses are around 57 kilometers from each other and have similar programs and figure types. Their style and iconography look to Northumbria, and beyond there to Rome, Ravenna, the Eastern Mediterranean, including Christian Syria and Egypt. They are likely to date from after 675 when this area had come under Northumbrian rule, and when Benedict Biscop brought masons and artists from the Continent to work at the so-called Twin Monastery at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow. The Middle Eastern links are not so surprising: many monks and craftsmen fled persecution and went to the British-Isles, producing strong artistic and theological links between those two remote Christian traditions. At that time, many Syrian monks found their sanctuary in Rome, producing five Popes and great missionaries sent to the British Isles by the Apostolic Capital. Among them there was a successor of Saint Augustine of Cantenbury, Theodore of Tarsus (from modern day Turkey), who was appointed in 667 as the Archibishop of Cantenbury. Together with the Abbot, Hadrian, who himself came from northern Africa, they both created one of the greatest schools of learning and so produces outstanding scholars, like Aldhelm, Abbot of Malmesbury Abbey, and Bede the Venerable, who worked at the Monastery of Jarrow. Among Theodore’s proteges were the Northumbrian nobles who became clerics acting in favour of the Roman Church, Benedict Biscop, Ceolfirth and Wilfrid.

The Message of the Cross

Unlike Ruthwell Cross, the Cross in Bewcastle still stands unprotected under the open sky,  and so is exposed to elements. Consequently, its top has been destroyed and the surface of the  stones is badly weathered, but on a bright day the sculpture is still most impressive. On three of its sides, the Cross has only an ornamental decoration but on the fourth there are four panels. In one is a runic worn inscription. Its meaning is now not certain. Possibly, the inscription was to commemorate King Alchfrith of Deira (southern Northumbria), who died after 664, and his wife, Cyneburh. The memorial thus may have been ascribed to his half-sister Abbess Ælfflæd of Whitby (died in 714). Yet, such a theory is the realm of speculation.

Each of the other three panels of the that Cross’ side contains a monumental figure. The  three figures on the cross are crucial to its significance. In the center is Christ in Majesty, standing over two beasts at His feet who are recognizing him as their God. At the top, there’s Saint John the Baptist with the Lamb, and finally, at the base, a famous and controversial figure of a man with a falcon or eagle on a perch beside him. Most possibly, it is Saint John the Evangelist holding a pen. The two first figures are the same as on Ruthwell Cross, though different stylistically. The Bewcastle master’s figures are long and square, without round or bulging forms typical of Ruthwell Cross. Christ standing over the beasts is a subject from Psalm 91, Verses 11-13, which are  mostly interpreted in relation to the Gospel according to Saint Mark, Chapter 1st, Verse 13, when Jesus is in the desert together with wild animals, metaphorically compared to demons, and serving him angels, and Verse 24, where demons recognize Him as the Son of God.

For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.

Psalm 91:11-13

… and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

Mark 1:13

 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

Mark 1:24

The scene was usually depicted in Eastern Mediterranean art, where the beasts were a lion and a snake or a dragon. Here is a Northrumbrian variant, where the wild animals look rather like swine, and their attitude also differs from a common Mediterranean examplum. Possibly, Northumbrian artists used an imported ivory or metal relief as a model for their sculpture and adopted it to their own tradition. Saint John the Evangelist is also on Ruthwell Cross but smaller and possibly together with the three other Gospel writers. At Bewcastle, he is singled out and represented on the same monumental scale as Christ  and Saint John the Baptist. Like at Ruthwell High Cross, Saint John is shown with his symbol of the eagle. Recent reserach has revealed that a similar representation can be found in a Syrian manuscript; although Saint John is shown there in a seated position, his pose with a lamp on a stand, with the latter mistaken as the eagle, does not differ much from Saint John carved on Bewcastle Cross.

But what is the connection between Saint John the Evangelist and Saint John the Baptist? The Gospel according to Saint John starts with the description of the Logos which became the foundation of all medieval theology. Saint John the Evangelist mentions Saint John the Baptist in the sentence: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John” (John 1:6) and then follows an account of the mission of the Babtist with the verse referring to the Lamb: “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!'” (John 1:29). Hence, Saint John the Baptist is the prophet of the Logos, prophet of the Lamb and prophet of the Baptism, so he is like a predecessor of Christ and of those times where Christ appears in history and in the Bible. In turn, Saint John the Evangelist has been considered by medieval Church as the highest of the four Gospel writers. Both parts of the Gospel according to Saint John, Chapter 1, were read within the same week in the Roman Church, the part about the Babtist in the week before Christmas, and the beginning on Christmas Day.

Melting Pot of Christian Traditions

Regarding the decoration of the Cross on the remaining three sides, there are multiple and various interlaces, as well a kind of floral elements, together with possibly some animal elements as well. A style the crosses in Bewcastle and Ruthwell was inspired by Christian art of Rome and the Mediterranean but as much as the contemporaneous iconology of Hiberno-Scotland, that of Northumbria was also influenced by Oriental Churches of Syria and Egypt. International artistic links are very visible in an ornamental decoration of the crosses. On Bewcastle Cross there are all the motives from different parts of the the Christian world, so it’s the  Mediterranean, Continent, Southern Europe and, of course, the prevalent Celtic element. Eyecatching are birds, some beautifully ornamented plants, possibly flowers. Foliage patttern and animal designs enclosed in medallions and braided patterns may have derived from Coptic sources, possibly from Coptic textiles and manuscripts brought to the British Isles by Eastern artists themselves. Various representations visible on high crosses of Northumbria thus originated from a melting pot of many different elemnts coming to one decoration, complex system used by Christian masters.

The Bewcastle Cross and a nearby Ruthwell Cross on the Solway Coast, are probably the finest to survive from Anglo-Saxon Britain. Like High Crosses in Ireland there are a particular Bible in stone. Photography by Filipe Almeida. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In Favour of Rome and its Church

Bewcastle Cross is possibly earlier than the Cross in Ruthwell. It may be because Bewcastle Cross is simple and more precise than Ruthwell Cross. Moreover, it seems mild and its forms less sophisticated. The both have been assigned to the second half of the seventh century. Yet, their age is still being discussed. They are likely to date from after 675 when Benedict Biscop and Ceolfirth brought masons, glaziers and metal workers from abroud (mostly from Gaul) to work in building their new monastery, the likely base from which the team came to carve Bewcastle Cross. They were filled win an ardour for Rome, Benedict visiting it five times. They were so fascinated with the culture of the Continent so  they brought back books and such artifacts as icons, paintings, sculptued objects, so models for their creations on the British Isles. By these means, they followed the Continental art and fasion to adorn their churches, which included Biscop’s Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, founded respectively in 674 and 681, and Wilfrid’s Ripon and Hexam, said to be the largest church north of the Alps. So the Anglo-Saxon clerics brought back books but they also created books here in Northumbria in the so-called Twin Monastery.

Accordingly, Monkwearmouth & Jarrow, were very romanized; they accumulated great models, illuminated books, manuscripts, created there at the scriptorium, which were yet modeled on the Continental artifacts. And this Monastery was also very important because in Jarrow there was a historian of the English history, Bede the Venerable. So, he created a very important historical account of the Anglo-Saxons, the so-called Ecclesiastical History of the Anglo-Saxons, which was biased,  still it gives today a great insight especially in the eighth century. Bede died in 731. He actually spent all his lifetime in Jarrow from nine years old till his  death in the eighth century but still he had a lot of information from around.

From Cumbria to Northumberland

After leaving behind County Durham and legendary lands of Prince Bishops, we resumed our journey northward, along the Northumberland Coastline, designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and, finally, we arrived to Norham, with another medieval church dedicated to Saint Cuthbert and the twelfth century Castle of Prince  Bishops, whose power once reached even there, furthest to the north, at the border with Scotland.

Featured image: Bewcastle Church and the Shaft of Bewcastle High Cross. Photo by Felippe Almeida. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


Brown, M. P. 2003. ‘Painted Labyrinth. The World of the Lindisfarne Gospels. (London, The British Library).

Lethaby, W. R., 1912. ‘The Ruthwell Cross’, in The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, June, 1912, Vol. 21, No. 111, pp. 145-146.

Saxl, F., 1943. ‘The Ruthwell Cross’, in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld institutes, Vol. 6, pp. 1-19.

Thomson, Dr D., [date uknown]. ‘Bewcastle Cross’, in Bewcastle [Official Website] (; accessed 19th May, 2023).




Medieval Comic Strip in the Technique of Sgraffito

The Tring Tiles are today remarkable survivals, witnessing the devotional curiosity of the Middle Ages with the Christ’s childhood (Robinson et al. 2008:118) and a clear reflection of “the resurgence in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries of Christianity’s focus on the humanity of Christ” (Casey 2007:2).  

Christian lore of medieval dominoes

“The scenes [on the tiles] are arranged in pairs [except for one of the canonical character], in a composition that resembles a modern-day comic strip” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). There are more traditional Christian miracles, such as a multiplication of food (Casey 2007:1): “planting a single grain of wheat, which immediately produces an entire crop for the poor to harvest” (Ibid.:1). There is equally a scene showing “healing the lame and the injured” (Ibid.:1).

The four other Tring Tiles preserved by the British Museum; Room 40 in the Medieval Gallery. Image cropped and colours intensified. Photo source: Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles.

Christ is obviously the driving force of all these miracles. Still He is also the hero of more humoristic but confrontational scenes while He is depicted “at play, [often resulting in fatal accidents], working in the fields or in the carpenter’s workshop, at school, and, occasionally, in trouble” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). On the whole, the “[stories] told by the tiles are drawn from the ordinary activities of children, though enriched by a miraculous element” (The British Museum II 2021), which, on the other hand, “struggle [to show] the notion of a child at once human and divine”(Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Consequently, the angelic face of the Child Jesus, as drawn on holy pictures in the Church, as much as in the Tring Tiles (Casey 2007:2) “may belie the strangeness of his actions” (Ibid.:2); the Christ Child behaves as an average boy but granted with supernatural powers that he openly uses not only in good intentions but also for his own, rather selfish purposes; if the author of the Apocrypha “was to humanize the Christ Child, he went to such [extremes in Jesus’ behaviour] that centuries of Popes, Church Fathers, theologians and scholars have dismissed the stories as incorrect, […] exaggerated [and even heretic, as they declare] the [Child] Jesus to be rude, vindictive, unruly, and ‘non-Christian’” (Ibid.:3).

Mediation of the Virgin Mary

Such an attitude of the Church is not surprising; in the apocryphal legends, also illustrated on the Tring Tiles, Jesus transforms other boys into pigs and even kills his colleagues and a Jewish teacher for offending Him, after which, however, He restores them either to the previous state or even to life, especially on the initiative of His Mother, Saint Mary, who asks Him for mercy on behalf of the people and, in every instance, the intercession of the Virgin Mary sees the return to normality (Robinson et al. 2008:118; Casey 2007:1; Munday 2018).

The image of the Virgin Mary with Jesus Child in one of the illuminations decorating the Infancy Gospels in Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38.8, fol. 027v (detail) (c. 1315-1325). Apocryphal Childhood of Christ. Written in French. Image source: Bodleian Library (2021) “Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38, pt. 1”. In: Digital Bodleian; Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Sometimes, the Virgin is represented as if She rebuked Her Son for His bad behaviour towards humans (Casey 2007:15) or even as if “it was the Virgin, not [Her Son], who restores order after a death or some other catastrophe” (Munday 2018). Such an illustration of the Jesus’s Mother shows the cult of the Virgin Mary at its height and underlines Her increasing, almost godlike power in the Christian tradition (Munday 2018; Casey 2007:15). Despite the negative reaction of the Church officials’ towards the Infancy Gospels, the Church simultaneously remained quite tolerant when it comes to a growing popularity of such stories among the lay Christian populace, and while they were being consecutively repeated in multiplying images created by artists in religious art, like those depicted on the Tring Tiles (Casey 2007:3).

Starting with a miracle

I decided to start analyzing the objects from up down; consequently, I looked up at the uppermost tile in the showcase covered with glass. It displays two, rather unrelated scenes; the first one shows a cart drawn by one horse and two peasants harvesting a field of wheat, miraculously grown from the one grain which Jesus has planted (Fig.1A) (Casey 2007:27,39). In Pseudo-Matthew and Selden Supra 38 the grain is barley (Ibid.:27). The tile with the preceding scene of Christ sowing and multiplying His Mother’s grain is lost. Missing scenes obviously disturb the continuity of the story represented on the Tring Tiles. Although they can be easily complemented and retold by means of the written versions of the Infancy Gospels, the tile showing the reaping of wheat miraculously multiplied to a vast amount still remains combined with an unconnected accident, namely Fathers and Jesus at oven (Fig.1B) (Ibid.:39).

‘Unpleasant’ transformation

The latter scene (Fig.1B) shows three parents of Jesus’ colleagues who “are reluctant for their children to play with Jesus [and thus] often [implement] extreme measures to prevent [His] contact with [their children]” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). In the scene, they are standing with Jesus Child in front of an oven, pointing to it.

Fig. 1A “Harvesting” and Fig. 1B “Fathers and Jesus at oven”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles.

The medieval Infancy Gospels say that the parents have just hid their children in the oven away from Jesus only to find them later transformed by Him into pigs, when they finally open it (Robinson et al. 2008:118). “Missing from the extant Tring Tiles is the pig-children’s culminating escape from the oven, but this dramatic scene would undoubtedly have been part of the original tile series” (Casey 2007:38). The story is not a part of Greek and Latin texts of the apocryphal Gospels of Thomas or Pseudo-Matthew (Ibid.: 38). Yet it may have originally been included in one of the early versions of Gospels of Thomas, from which it was removed for being too ‘unpleasant’ (Ibid.:38). Anyway, it reappears in early apocryphal literature of the Arabic Infancy Gospel but the boys there are transformed not into pigs but into goats (Ibid.:38). “The exchange of the pigs for goats has been attributed to a […] Jewish aversion to pork, a restriction shared with Islam” (Ibid.:40).

Another reason may be the historic antisemitic association of Jews with pigs or an Islamic notion (Casey 2007:40), according to which “Jews [and] Christians were once punished by being transformed into pigs and apes” (Ibid.:40). Nevertheless, the story with the boys transformed into pigs already appears in medieval Christian manuscripts and so must equally have been included in the lost model for the Tring Tiles (Ibid.:38-39).

Privileged animals, a miracle, and the Crown for the Virgin Mary

In the lower row, there are two tiles; one from the left portrays jumping and apparently happy lion cubs, accompanied by Child Jesus, His Mother Mary and Joseph, and two Jews further behind them (Fig.2A) (Austin Date Unknown). The scene is to express the fact that in contrast to Jews, animals are able to recognize Jesus as the Son of God (Ibid.). In the scene, “Mary’s appearance reflects the evolution of the Cult of the Virgin by the early fourteenth century as she is portrayed in elegant Gothic dress, wearing the crown of the Queen of Heaven, as opposed to her depiction in Selden Supra 38, where she is seated, holding a book, with a shawl over her head” (Casey 2007:15).

Fig. 2A “Lion cubs” and Fig. 2B “Broken plough”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

Next scene on the same tile (Fig.2B) is the first of the three (two more are shown on the next tile in the same row: Fig.3A&B) illustrating Christ’s miracle of mending the broken plough. In the first scene (Fig.2B), a workmen is scolded by his master for breaking or cutting a plough beam too short (Priory Tiles 2021). Jesus observes the incident and eagerly helps to fix the tool; He miraculously repairs the beam (Fig.3A), which can be successfully applied again in ploughing the fields (Fig.3B).

Culmination of the story in the middle

Below the second row, there is only one tile in the middle, which actually should be the culmination of the series (Fig.4: feature image) (Robinson et al. 2008:118). It is the only scene which occupies a full tile, which stands for its significance, and illustrates Christ’s first official miracle at the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus changes water to wine (John 2:1-11) (Robinson et al. 2008:118; Casey 2007:46).

Fig. 3A and Fig. 3B “Christ’s miracle of mending the broken plough”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

By these means, the ‘unofficial’ life of Christ naturally complements the canonical version (Casey 2007:46). Moreover, including the biblical scene in the series of formally rejected stories also “[lends] an air of legitimacy to the marginalized apocryphal Infancy Gospels“ (Casey 2007:46).

Death and resurrection

The successive row of the tiles below again displays two of them with four related scenes. Starting from the episode on the left (Fig.5A), Child Jesus is shown playing alone a “game of making pools on the banks of the river Jordan, which is [suddenly] disturbed by a [bad Jewish boy] who destroys them: the bully promptly falls down dead” (Robinson et al. 2008:118; see Casey 2007:46). “Likewise, [in the first scene on the right side tile (Fig.6A)], when a fellow pupil jumps on Christ’s back in a playful attack, he is struck down, [in front of seated Zacharias]. In both cases instant dead is shown by the figures being flipped upside down” (Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Fig. 5A “Jesus building pools; dead boy” and Fig. 5B “Mary, Jesus reviving dead boy.”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

In the second scene of the first tile (Fig.5B), Saint Mary with the crown on Her head admonishes Jesus for killing the boy (Casey 2007:15). She puts “her hand on Jesus’ back, encouraging him to rejuvenate the dead boy” (Ibid.:15). Although Jesus still curses the Jewish colleague, He revives the boy, yet underlying that he does so only for Her Mother’s sake (Ibid.:15).

Caricatured faces

In the second tile, in the left side scene (Fig.6A), “Zacharias is hieratically seated on an elevated bench, holding a book […], his head capped with a stalked beret, a style seen frequently on Jewish scholars. He looks beyond Jesus to exchange gestures and glances with the Bad Boy, implying a possible collusion between the teacher and the boy, and reminding viewers of the Christian assertion that the Jews were blind to Christ [as it is also underlined in the scene showing lion cubs]. The exaggerated, yet comical, antisemitic caricature of Zacharias’ visage does not suggest a man of wisdom” (Casey 2007:20).

Fig. 6A “Zacharias, boy and Jesus; dead boy” and Fig. 6B “Joseph and parents; Jesus reviving boy”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

Written versions of the Infancy Gospels also adds that “Jesus starts lecturing [Zacharias], pointing out the teacher’s ignorance, in contrast to Jesus’ superior knowledge” (Ibid.:20). The compression of the two successive events in a single scene, with Jesus and the boy jumping on His back, and the Bad Boy seen again upside down behind the first group was a typical artistic practice in the medieval art, also observed in a comic strip. Having killed the boy, Jesus again appeared in the right scene accompanied by Joseph who is standing in front of the Bad Boy’s annoyed parents, trying to calm them down (Ibid.:17,19). Meantime, Jesus restores their son back to life (Casey 2007:17; Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Castle tower

At the bottom of the showcase there is the last row of the two tiles; “[they] continue the polemic between Christianity and Judaism” (Casey 2007:36). The one on the right side shows in the first scene (Fig.7A), a father who has just locked his son in a tower with a huge key, “to protect him from the ‘accidents’ which seemed to occur when children play with Jesus” (Ibid.:36). However, already in the second scene (Fig.7B) “Christ miraculously pulls the boy through the lock” (Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Fig. 7A “Father locks son in tower” and Fig. 7B “Jesus pulls boy from tower”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

The symbol of a tower seems significant as it used to be an important feature of medieval Anglo-Jewish co-existence (Casey 2007:37). In England, the tower was a place of refuge for Jews or, like the Tower of London, it was used to imprison and execute them (Ibid.:37). “At times, Jews saved their lives by converting [to Christianity] while they were imprisoned […]” (Ibid.:37-38). The tile illustrating the tower may metaphorically symbolize such a conversion of the released boy, who was eventually set free by Jesus Himself.

Again in school

“Following an interlude of [those two Tring Tile scenes, in the left side scene of the second tile], Jesus appears [again in school (Fig.8A). He is standing in front of] a second teacher, a bearded Levi, seated on a bench with his legs crossed. This teacher also attempts to instruct Jesus, but Jesus rejects the teacher’s instructions, exhibiting his knowledge […] and […] the extent of his wisdom” (Casey 2007:20). As a result, “the teacher scolds him for his insolence, and slaps him” (Ibid.:21). In this scene, there also appears the mentioned practice of duplicating the same character in order to present it at a later stage of events, being the aftermath of the previous one.

Fig. 8A “Levi slaps Jesus; Jesus scolding” and Fig. 8B “Teachers, Jesus; lame persons”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

Consequently, behind the ‘first’ representation of the Christ Child, “[the] second figure of Jesus shows [Him again] responding to the teacher, as he in turn, scolds the Hebrew master” (Casey 2007:21). The right side of the same tile (Fig.8B) further illustrates Jesus who is still engaged in preaching but this time there are two teachers seated in front of him (Ibid.:31). Behind Jesus, there are two lame people whom only Jesus, and not the teachers, can heal. “The compositional placement of the teacher [or teachers] seated on the left and Jesus standing on the right appears [in all such scenes and may be symbolically related to the right side associated with good, and the left with evil]”(Ibid.:20).

Difficult relations

By observing and analysing the artefacts behind the glass, I understood that the Tring Tiles not only illustrate the apocryphal Infancy Gospels to fill in the gaps in the biblical stories, but also to reflect tense and difficult Jewish-Christian relations in medieval England, where there was the supremacy of Christianity over Judaism, especially because Jews reminded blind to Jesus’ teaching; “the stories [represented on the tiles], sometimes not so subtly, reflect the conflicts that existed between Jews and Christians [already] in the early years of the new faith when both groups proclaimed the predominance and superiority of their beliefs, while competing over converts. The stereotypical, [even caricatured, depictions] of the Jewish figures, [usually featuring huge noses and bulging eyes] in the scenes on the Tring Tiles, reminds […] that these conflicts still existed in the minds of the fourteenth century English, even though King Edward [the First] had expelled all Jews from England in 1290” (Casey 2007:1-2).

Two other tiles

In the Middle Ages, “from the Jewish perspective, the fathers in both the tower and the oven stories would have recognized the need to hide their children from Jesus, not just for their physical safety, but to protect them from the threat of medieval Christians who attempted to convert [Jews] to Christianity” (Casey 2007:41).

Tring Tile on the left: Fig. 9A “Jesus and kneeling boys”. Fig. 9B “Jesus and boys at well”. Tring Tile on the right: Fig. 10A “Joseph and angry parents”. Fig. 10B “Jesus and kneeling boys”. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. Preserved by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photo source: Mary F. Casey (2007). “The Fourteenth-Century Tring Tiles: A Fresh Look at Their Origin and the Hebraic Aspects of the Child Jesus’ Actions”, p. 42. In: Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, Vol. 2, Issue 2, pp. 1-53.

Images depicted on the two missing Tring Tiles, displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum illustrate such conversions among Jewish children (Casey 2007:41-42). The first tile (Fig.9A) shows kneeling boys and Jesus preaching or blessing them in the first scene (Ibid.:41). The same composition reappears on the second tile, on its right side (Fig.10B) (Ibid.:41-42). “These images show [obedient] children, as Jesus’ blessing gesture suggests that he is fulfilling his mission and converting the children” (Ibid.:41); moreover, the “repetition of [the] image of kneeling children (Fig.9A and 10B) suggests a special emphasis on conversion” (Ibid.:42). The Infancy Gospels also read that Child Jesus “revives and blesses his playmates, after they accidentally fall while attempting to follow him as he jumped from hill to hill and slid down a sunbeam” (Ibid.:41). This underlines “the importance of Jesus’ life-saving power, even though following his lead can be difficult” (Ibid.:42).

The well

The second scene on the first tile (Fig.9B) is also related to the theme of conversion. Jesus and boys are at well (Casey 2007:42); while one figure is using a pitcher to draw water from it, others carry the pitchers, already full or empty, on their shoulders.

This is probably a reference to the baptism following the conversion. It also brings to mind the Gospel scene in which the adult Jesus talks by a well with a Samaritan woman who consequently experiences conversion (John 4: 5-42). Jesus then said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10).

‘Convert or die’ threat

The first scene of the second tile (Fig.10A) shows in turn Joseph and the children’s parents who have just witnessed Jesus’ ability to revive their dead children (Casey 2007:41-42). The one standing just in front of Joseph seems angry, yet others behind them look like wondering at Jesus’ miraculous powers (Ibid.:41).

Although those tile scenes show that the miraculously restored to life Jewish children were converted, in contemporary England, it was also “a reminder of the ‘convert or die’ threat often faced by Jews. […] In reality, the attempted conversion failed after a two-century effort which ended in [their] expulsion of 1290” (Casey 2007:42).

The Humanity of God

It was almost one hour, I was squatting on the floor in front of the tiles. The scenes drawn on them were both, informative and touching; not only do they portray politics, ethnic and religious conflicts in medieval England but also a strong desire of contemporary people to approach their God closer in His Humanity by observing Him as a human Child with miraculous powers, yet with flaws typical of common children. I also understood that the ten preserved Tring Tiles of the whole larger series would not give all the answers to the questions posed without the written versions of the Infancy Gospels, in turn, filling gaps in the missing stories expressed in art. And although apocrypha does not deepen the canonical knowledge of God’s Child as represented on the Tring Tiles (Rops 1944:115), they do reveal mankind’s desire to find human nature, with all of its aspects, in the Divine.

Nazareth, old postcard by Fadil Saba. Uploaded by TheRealHuldra in 2008. Public domain. {{PD-Israel-Photo}}. Photo source: “Nazareth” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

So deep in my thoughts I hardly noticed there was a group of visitors gathering in the Room 40 and trying to approach the object of my study. I quickly gathered my notes from the floor, stood up and sent my last glance at the red tiles. ‘To be continued during the lecture’, I thought.

Featured image: “Jesus building pools; dead boy” (left) and “Mary, Jesus reviving dead boy.”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Drawing by the British Museum (2021). Asset number: 191480001. Earthenware tile, lead-glazed. © The Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: The British Museum (2021).

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


“Nazareth” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

Austin W. (Date unknown). The Mystery of the Tring Tiles. Available at <>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].

Bodleian Library (2021). “Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38, pt. 1”. In: Digital Bodleian; Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Available at <>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

Casey M. F. (2007). “The Fourteenth-Century Tring Tiles: A Fresh Look at Their Origin and the Hebraic Aspects of the Child Jesus’ Actions”. In: Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, Vol. 2, Issue 2, pp. 1-53. Available at <>. [Accessed 22nd January, 2021].

Munday A. (2018). “The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Tring Tiles”. In: A Writer’s Perspective. Available at <>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].

Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles. Available at <>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

Robinson et al. (2008). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Masterpieces. Medieval Art. pp. 118-119. London: The British Museum Press.

Rops D. (1944). Dzieje Chrystusa [Histoire Sainte – Jesus et Son Temps]. Starowiejska-Morstinowa Z. trans. Warszawa: Instytut Wydawniczy Pax.

The British Museum II (2021). “The Tring Tiles; museum number 1922,0412.1.CR.” In: The British Museum. Available at <>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].

The British Museum (drawing) (2021). Asset number: 191480001. Photo source: The British Museum (2021). Available at <>. [Accessed 3rd July, 2021].

Images of the ‘Infancy Gospels’ on Medieval Clay Tiles

Once again I found myself among the finest artefacts gathered by the British Museum; I felt as if I had been in the middle of piled or scattered volumes, surrounding me and calling for being opened and read. Walking up and down between all the museal objects, without paying them enough attention, would be like skipping pages of those books and missing their stories. It is worth thus choosing one and read it from cover to cover.

Room 40 in the British Museum

At that time, the Room 40 of the Medieval Europe galleries was my destination for homework; I was studying one of the core modules of Medieval Cultures at Birkbeck College and was analysing medieval artefacts preserved by the Museum for the following class. There were just few people around so I decided to squat on the floor and making my notes in front of ‘my homework’. Those were eight red clay tiles resembling large domino blocks of 33 centimetres long and 16 centimetres wide, but without black dots (The British Museum I 2021).

Instead, there were intriguing medieval representations of apocrypha scenes related to the unknown events of Jesus Christ’s lifetime, which is not recorded in the canonical Bible (Robinson et al. 2008:118; Casey 2007:1). Such artistic documents do not only seem uncommon in traditional representations of the Christ but may be also provocative in their interpretations (Casey 2007:1). First of all, the official image of Jesus known from the writings and art stand here in sharp contrast to the illustration of Christ provided by the tiles, especially because they depict and regard Him as a Child at the age between five and twelve (Ibid.:1). Such images, however, do not belong to a canonical tradition of the Gospels but are taken possibly from the anonymous second century’s Apocryphal Infancy of Christ Gospels, translated into art in the form of the earthenware rectangular tiles in the fourteenth century AD., precisely circa 1330 (Casey 2007:1; The British Museum I 2021).

Biblical story of the Child Jesus

The four Gospels written by tradition by the Evangelists, Saint Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the only recognized source of Christ’s life and ministry (Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Nazareth as depicted on a Byzantine mosaic (Chora Church, Constantinople) (created between 1315-1320). Meister der Kahriye-Cami-Kirche in Istanbul – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202. Public domain. Colours intensified, Image source: “Nazareth” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
Marble sculpture of “Christ as the Teacher” (Cristo docente) by anonymous early Christian Roman sculptor (the fourth century AD.) Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome. Photo source: Weitzmann, K., ed. (1979). “Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century:”, p. 524; statue: 469. In: MET Publications.

According to the Evangelists, Saint Luke and Saint Matthew, the Holy Family, after their stay in Egypt, returned to Nazareth in Galilee (Rops 1944:109). Little Christ’s homeland was just that little town, white and green, situated on the slope of the rolling hills that enclose the Jezreel Valley to the north (Ibid.:111). The streets and houses of Nazareth are like all the streets and houses of the East (Ibid.:111). The city is only distinguished by the number of its churches, monasteries and bell towers; it is surrounded by a semi-circle of gently rolling hills dotted with villages with houses made of white clay (Rops 1944:111). Among the olives, the vineyards and grain fields, bullets of black cypress trees shoot up into the sky (Ibid.:111). The gardens of Nazareth are full of lilies and verbenas, and on many walls of its houses, juicy flowers of bougainvillea spread their covers in the colour of episcopal purple (Ibid.:111). It was in this environment that Jesus the Child grew up (Ibid.:111). However, one should not imagine him under the very graceful figure represented by a late antique statue from the fourth century, known as Jesus the Teacher, preserved in the National Museum of Baths of Diocletian in Rome: he is represented there too calm, too well-mannered, and hieratic in his long pleated tunic (Ibid.:111). Rather, it should be assumed that little Jesus looked like one of those lively, nervous kids that one still meets on the roads of Palestine, lightly dressed, barefoot, with an expression of great intelligence on passionate and serious faces (Ibid.:111).

The House of the Holy Family

The life of the Holy Family, whose secrets so many painters wanted to represent, was passing in one of the modest houses of Nazareth, one of those that can still be seen today (Rops 1944:111). There is usually only one room inside them; there is a sweet smell of oil in the air; smoke from the fire often comes out only through the door; in the evening, a clay lamp placed on an iron candle, or on a stone protruding from the wall, casts a dim light (Ibid.:111).

In the modern town of Nazareth, there are plenty of monuments ascribed to the times of Christ Child: the Basilica of Annunciation with said remains of the house of the Virgin Mary, the Mary’s Well or Joseph’s workshop. Based on various archaeological excavations, it is assumed the Holy Family’s house looked like the one in which the Archangel Gabriel announced Mary she would conceive and bear the Son of God (today overbuilt with the walls of the Basilica of the Annunciation); it was probably largely underground, embedded in the soft local limestone; God’s Child was to walk up its rather primitive stairs, in the contemporary Basilica, they are today decorated with mosaics (Rops 1944:111-112).


Jesus received the education that all young Israelites received; it seems that at that time there were whole cycles of studies described by the Talmud (Rops 1944:112). They were dependent on the synagogue, and they were led by a hassan, someone like a sacristan, perhaps the administrator of a venerable place, where the faithful gathered (Ibid.:112). In the bejt-haseter, an elementary school, boys, sitting around the great scroll of the Law, repeated the verses of the Torah in chorus until they had memorized them perfectly (Ibid.:112).

Probably, the adolescent Jesus did not pursue further studies in one of the rabbinical schools that existed near Nazareth (Ibid.:112). This assumption is supported by an openly expressed amazement of Jesus’ family members and acquaintances who heard his wise preaching in God’s matters (Ibid.:112).

Finding in the Temple

Jesus, therefore, grew up in Nazareth living in a modest house with his mother and adoptive father, Joseph, and after his death, He lived in the company of numerous cousins (Rops 1944:113). The canonical messages regarding this period are limited (Ibid.:113): “And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him” (Luke 2:40). And only one episode of this time is known from the Bible; namely, the one that happened in the twelfth year of Jesus’ life, when a young Jew was becoming a man and a “son” of the Law (Ibid.:113).

Christ among the Doctors, c. 1560, by Paolo Veronese. Public domain. Colours intensified. Painting source: “Finding in the Temple” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The event in question is the famous scene from the Temple; Mary and Joseph, as devout Jews, went to Jerusalem every year for the Passover (Rops 1944:113). Perhaps for the first time they took the Son with them (Ibid.:113). In the evening of the first day of their journey back, Joseph and Mary were looking for Jesus among their friends and relatives (Ibid.:114). They did not him all day, but assumed that he had joined some group of relatives or friends (Ibid.:114). Extremely worried, they returned to Jerusalem and it took them three days to finally find Him in the Temple (Ibid.:114). In its cloisters, surrounded by a circle of students, the wise men taught; the children squeezed into the crowd of listeners and were sometimes allowed to ask questions (Ibid.:114).

The twelve-year-old Jesus, however, was not among the listeners but sat among the wise men of Israel (Rops 1944:114), and “[everyone] who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). “When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you ‘.’ Why were you searching for me? ‘ [Jesus] asked. ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ “(Luke 2: 48-49). Jesus’ words show that He is fully aware of his mission. There is also the teaching of the Gospel that whoever wants to follow Christ must sever all human ties and bonds (Ibid.:114).

‘Unofficial’ God’s life

This one and only event in Jesus’ childhood, described in detail in the Bible, though so eloquent, has not satisfied yet the curiosity of the crowds since the first centuries of Christianity through the Middle Ages to the present day (Rops 1944:114).

New Testament Apocrypha. First page of the Gospel of Judas (Page 33 of Codex Tchacos). Uploaded by WolfgangRieger (2009).”The Gospel of Judas. Critical Edition”. Washington 2007. Public domain. Photo source: “Infancy gospels” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

There are yet other ancient records of Christ’s life but apocryphal, that is to say officially rejected from the standard Bible, though not sanctioned by the Church (Robinson et al. 2008:118). “In everyday conversation ‘apocryphal’ refers to a story of doubtful authenticity, but one that is nevertheless told frequently, perhaps even believed widely. The New Testament apocrypha are books accepted by neither Catholic nor Protestant faiths, although artists and theologians have used them as sources of information and ideas” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown).  Especially in the Middle Ages, the apocrypha was used to elaborate on gaps in the Gospel stories, which were thought fairly sparse in details about the life of Christ (Robinson et al. 2008:118; see Casey 2007; Austin Date unknown). “Apocryphal stories, [such as the one] based on the dream of Pilate’s wife, […] or of the forging of the nails for Christ’s crucifixion were [therefore] incorporated into medieval mystery plays and were an integral part of the imaginative religious experience” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). The light and colour used in the art of churches and cathedrals additionally embellished the words heard from priests during their homilies; by various artistic expressions, people who everyday experienced poor and hard conditions, could admire the splendour and dignity of the image of the mighty and omnipresent God who yet became Man and suffered for the sins of mankind. At the time, when Biblical stories were accessed in paintings and sculpture for the illiterate populace, their main characters were treated similarly to modern celebrities, and like today, common people wished to know more details about their lives than the official version of the Church was able to offer.

Jesus between His years five and twelve

“One of the most frustrating  absences in the Gospels is the early years of Christ’s life, [that id to say when He is between five and twelve. In the Bible, “Christ is encountered as an infant and then later as an adolescent disputing with the doctors of the law in the Temple but no mention is made of His upbringing or his relationship with his parents” (Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Nazareth,1842. In the Holy Land Book. Image by David Roberts. Public domain. Photo source: “Christ Child” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the eyes of contemporary people, this gap had successfully been complemented by the apocryphal Infancy Gospels, believed to have been written anonymously by early Christians from the second century AD., who imaginatively tried to create their own fictional version of what Jesus’ childhood might have been like (Casey 2007:3). Yet these imaginary pictures were quite successfully interwoven with the canonical portrayal of Jesus’ life (Ibid.:3-4). Simultaneously, the apocrypha author built up the stories around their own experiences in the process of the development of Christianity (Ibid.:3; see Elliott ed. 2005).

Anecdotes about the Christ’s Childhood

Surely, the Infancy Gospels had circulated in oral tradition before a series of their written compilations appeared (Casey 2007:4). From the very beginning, however, all of them shared several cohesive narrative elements (Ibid.:4). Central to this genre is the Gospel of Thomas dating back to the second century (Ibid.:4). It “describes the doings of Jesus during his boyhood, no record of which exists in the canonical gospels.  According to Thomas, Jesus proved to be an infant prodigy at school, instructing his teachers in the unsuspected mysteries of the alphabet and astonishing his family and friends by the miracles that he performed” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown). The Infancy Gospels tell a lot of different anecdotes about this unknown period of Christ’ childhood (Rops 1944:114-115). Some of them are famous and charming; Jesus, playing with His companions, makes birds out of clay, and then gives them life, and when He claps his hands, the wonderful creatures start flying in the air (Ibid.:115). Jesus is also playing with the other children at the entrance to the grotto, and then suddenly two huge snakes come out of it; the joyful flock runs away screaming, only Jesus remains and calmly orders the dangerous beasts to place their heads under the feet of His Mother, Mary (Ibid.:115).

Jesus (on the right) animating the clay bird toys of his playmates. Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk, Germania, 14th century. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Nazareth” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Apocrypha also attributes many miracles to Christ Child (Rops 1944:115). Many of them are modelled on the miracles of the canonical Gospels; they tell that one seed Child Jesus planted is enough to feed an entire city in times of famine (Ibid.:115). Another time, the Apocrypha depict the young worker who is resurrected by Christ (Ibid.:115). Other miracles are rather magical; Jesus, riding the mule, turns the spell on him and the animal becomes a beautiful youth again (Ibid.:115). Another miracle tells that as the little Christ calls out, the salted fish begins to roll and flutter (Ibid.:115). Another time at school, when a teacher starts teaching Jesus the alphabet, the Child proves that he can do it, even though he has not learned it before (Ibid.:115).

Other apocryphal miracles can seem utterly repulsive while being attributed to the Son of God; when the same teacher wants to punish his rebellious Student, he sees at once that his hand is withered (Rops 1944:115). In turn, to show off His power to His playmates, Jesus turns one of them into a ram, another, who poked Him, becomes stroke dead (Ibid.:115).

Apocrypha in art

In the eighth or ninth centuries, the Gospel of Thomas was furthermore compiled with the Protevangelium of James, including the Apocrypha of the Virgin Mary (Casey 2007:4).  As such, it formed the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (Ibid.:4; see Elliott ed. 2005). And when the cult of the Virgin Mary had grown since the twelfth century, an interest in her Parents’ lives and the Holy Family with the Christ Child in the center also raised, and so did the interest in the Apocrypha, which was mainly reflected through art in the whole Christian world (Robinson et al. 2008:118). As such all these, more or less known apocryphal fairy tales served especially as a source of inspiration for the painters and sculptors of the Middle Ages; paintings and mosaics of small churches and images of Gothic cathedrals are full of memories of these Christian legends (Rops 1944:115).

Saint Anne ( circa ninth century AD). Nubian wall painting. By unknown author. The National Museum in Warsaw. Public domain. Source: “Saint Anne (wall painting)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It is enough to mention a set of wall paintings created inside the Nubian church of Faras, with the representations known ultimately from the Apocrypha. Among them, there is the eight century’s famous representation of the Virgin Mary’s Mother, Saint Anne with her mysterious gesture of pointing her index finger to the lips (see: Saint Anne of Nubia – “it will make you speechless”.). “Scenes such as these are [also] depicted in the [fourteenth century’s] Tring Tiles” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown).

Medieval apocryphal writings

With the late twelfth century, an increased fascinations with the humanity of the Christ, especially with His childhood, had further inspired the creation of a large number of manuscripts, which mainly originated from the writings of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, many of which were written in vernacular languages (Casey 2007:4). Such extensive compilation of the Infancy stories, along with the French manuscript Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38.8 (circa 1325), combined of the Anglo-Norman manuscript, Les Enfaunces de Jesu Crist and an Apocalypse manuscript, were apparently the foundations of the now lost model for the Tring Tiles (Ibid.:4-5). Although the Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38.8 is the most complete medieval illuminated manuscript with the Infancy Gospel stories, its illustrated simple and miniature figures significantly vary with the style of highly expressive and highly caricatured images on the Tring Tiles (Ibid.:5).

Red clay tiles

The Tring Tiles, ceramic pieces of 3,5 centimetres in thickness, were made in the technique known as sgraffito, an expensive hand-worked process popular especially in France (The British Museum I 2021; Austin Date unknown), which involves “decorating ceramics [where] a substrate, usually ‘slip’, is incised to reveal the contrasting ground underneath” (The British Museum I 2021). Obtained in this way slip-decorated designs on the tiles were additionally lead-glazed (Ibid.). The group of tiles was uncovered during the late Victorian (the mid-nineteenth century) restoration of Tring Parish Church in Hertfordshire, which has given the tiles its name (Casey 2007:7; Austin Date unknown).

Four of the Tring Tiles preserved by the British Museum; Room 40 in the Medieval Gallery. Image cropped and colours intensified.. Photo source: Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles.

“Although the tiles were, for the most part, found in a curiosity shop in Tring” (Munday 2018), it is not sure if they had originally been laid down in the church or only preserved or applied there after being moved from elsewhere, even from abroad (Austin Date unknown; Munday 2018). “More research into the origins of the tiles needs to be done, for the mystery is still far from solved” (Ibid.). Nevertheless, “the peculiar character of their sgraffito design, may suggest that they were produced in the east of England, where this technique was popular on pottery” (British Museum II 2021).

Having been found, the tiles were continuously passed through many hands before achieving their final place: nowadays, ten complete tiles and a few fragments are known, of which the eight are preserved in the British Museum and the two, saved by a local resident, are displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum (The British Museum I 2021; Casey 2007:7-8; Austin Date unknown).

Still their number is not complete; the tiles must have been part of a much larger scheme, unfortunately now lost (Robinson et al. 2008:118). Their condition is surprisingly good, and for this reason, it is believed that the tiles had never been walked on in a pavement of the church floor but were possibly used as a frieze set on the walls of the chancel (Austin Date unknown; the British Museum I 2021). What message were they to convey?

Featured image: The Wedding Feast at Cana (Fig.4), represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021). The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology;
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


“Saint Anne (wall painting)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

“Christ Child” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

“Finding in the Temple” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

“Infancy gospels” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

“Nazareth” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

Austin W. (Date unknown). The Mystery of the Tring Tiles. Available at <>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].

Casey M. F. (2007). “The Fourteenth-Century Tring Tiles: A Fresh Look at Their Origin and the Hebraic Aspects of the Child Jesus’ Actions”. In: Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, Vol. 2, Issue 2, pp. 1-53. Available at <>. [Accessed 22nd January, 2021].

Elliott J. K. ed. (2005). The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation Based on M. R. James, pp. 88-99. Oxford University Press.

Munday A. (2018). “The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Tring Tiles”. In: A Writer’s Perspective. Available at <>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].

Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles. Available at <>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

Robinson et al. (2008). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Masterpieces. Medieval Art. pp. 118-119. London: The British Museum Press.

Rops D. (1944). Dzieje Chrystusa [Histoire Sainte – Jesus et Son Temps]. Starowiejska-Morstinowa Z. trans. Warszawa: Instytut Wydawniczy Pax.

The British Museum by means of Google Arts&Culture (2021). “Take a Virtual Tour in the Room 40; Medieval Europe AD 1050–1500; The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery”. Available at <>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].

The British Museum I (2021). “The Tring Tiles; museum number 1922,0412.1.CR.” In: The British Museum. Available at <>. [Accessed 22nd January, 2021].

Weitzmann K., ed. (1979). “Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century: Catalogue of the Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 19, 1977 through February 12, 1978.”, p. 524; statue: 469. Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.). In: MET Publications. Available at <>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

Pictish Symbol Stones: from Pagan Beast to the Cross

Stone relics of monumental sculpture are characteristic of Ireland, Scotland, northern England and other smaller islands scattered around the British Isles (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Scottish stelae, also called Pictish symbol stones, are categorized in terms of their development periods (Ibid.). About three hundred and fifty examples of similar Pictish stones have survived to our times, mainly on the eastern side of Scotland (“Pictish Stones” 2015). They had been covered with various symbols or designs by being incised or carved in relief (Ibid.).

Stelae appeared between the fifth and ninth centuries, since the heyday of the Pictish kingdom in northeastern Scotland, till the times, when the Celtic Picts were undergoing a progressive process of Christianization (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Although stelae variations of the early Christian period belong to a wider Insular tradition of monumental stones such as High Crosses, typical of the Hiberno-Scottish monumental sculpture, pagan examples of such stelae are unique only to Scotland (Ibid.). The purpose and meaning of the earliest stones are only slightly understood (Ibid.). They may have been territorial markers, personal memorials with symbols for individual names or clans, or funeral stones associated with certain burials (Ibid.).

“Many stones have now been taken into museums to preserve them, but there are a number which still stand outside” (Historic Scotland 2020).

Inscribed Pillars and Symbol Stone Slabs

Scotland has a heritage of standing stones which mark the landscape all over the country (Short 2016). There are, among all, standing stones of considerable antiquity, such as menhirs, large pillar stones and boulders (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Some are with ogham inscriptions, which originated in Ireland (in the fourth century AD or earlier) and later were spread to other areas of the British Isles, including Scotland (Connelly 2015:ii, 5). The Ogham script was a form of lettering based on the phonetics of the Irish language (Short “Part 2” 2016). Pictish and Welsh variations of the twenty-letter Ogham alphabet were evolved as the script spread from Ireland (Ibid.).

The so-called Pictish symbol stones or stelae are unique to Scotland and appear in the north and east of the country (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). The Picts apparently shared their ancient myths and mysteries by means of symbols they incised or carved on the earliest examples (Short 2016). The remains of the Bronze Age stone circles, such as that at Broomend of Crichie, and others in the area, show that settled communities had lived in this area long before the Picts arrived during the Iron Age (Ibid.). The latter were first noticed by the Romans in 297 AD (Parrott-Sheffer 2020). Generally, it is thought that Stone and Bronze Age circles were memorials to the dead (Short 2016). The Bronze Age stone circle at Broomend of Crichie was originally composed of six stones, two of which are still in place (Ibid.). One of the currently standing stones is quite different from the others around (Ibid.). Although it is dated back to the Bronze Age and may have come from a recumbent stone circle to the north of the site, it is covered with two carvings belonging already to the fifth or sixth century Pictish symbols (Ibid.). There is a beast or an elephant like animal in the upper part of the stone and the crescent and V-rod below (Ibid.).

Accordingly, the Picts reused far older menhirs and stone boulders as a display of their own symbology, apparently carved for a specific purpose (Forbes 2012). Additionally, “some scholars suggest their ancient creators may also have painted the stones, bringing out in vivid colours their carved salmon, ravens, wolves, boars and even a battle scene” (McKenzie 2017). Experts from Historic Environment Scotland (HES) claim that the Pictish artists would have used minerals and plants to add paint their carvings (Ibid.). “But sculptures found so far have stood outside for more than 1,000 years so any pigment is likely to have been ‘scrubbed away’ by long exposure to the effects of the sun, rain and wind” (Ibid.). Pigments have yet survived on Pictish metalwork and contemporary stonework from Northumbria and Mercia (Ibid.). Colour is also a strong feature of Hiberno-Irish Christian manuscripts such as the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells (Ibid.).

Alongside another Pictish fish-like symbol, there is the crescent with the V-rod. Sculptor’s cave near Lossiemouth on the Moray Firth. Photo posted by thelonius©. Photo source: Julian Cope (2009). “Sculptors Cave. Rock Shelter”. In: The Modern Antiquarian.

Pictish symbols were mainly carved on standing stones although a small number appeared on jewellery and some of the earliest were carved on cave walls in Fife and at the Sculptor’s cave near Lossiemouth on the Moray Firth (Short 2016). The latter is decorated with one of the key Pictish symbols, namely the crescent with the V-rod (Ibid.). The stela belongs to the Class I of the Pictish stelae, according to the classic study of the Pictish symbol stones by J. Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson, entitled Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Ibid.). In 1903, the authors for the very first time properly arranged a large group of various Pictish stone slabs by dividing them into three subsequent classes.

Class I of the Pictish stelae

The earliest category, falling in the so-called Class I, are the oldest irregular stone slabs (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Their surface is natural and undressed so it was not smoothed or shaped in any way (Short 2016). The sculptor has created a simple outline of the symbol using a punch and a hammer (Ibid.). A chisel was also used to make a deeper and wider line, which was then smoothed out probably by rubbing with a stone tool. This style of carving is referred to as incised carving (Ibid.).

Some of the Pictish symbols known from the Class I and II of standing stones. Drawings source: The Highland Council Archaeology Unit (2017). The Highland Pictish Trail. PDF, p.3.

Stelae of the Class I appeared in the sixth to the nineth century, which have no counterparts in terms of form or decoration in art in other island areas (“Pictish Stones” 2015). Considering the time of their appearance, they correspond to the earliest period of the monumental Scottish sculpture (Ibid.). At that time, Pictish stelae do not yet have decorations in the form of a Christian cross symbol, but pictograms referring mainly to the mysterious Celtic pagan symbolism (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). They are simply incised into the rough stone surface (Ibid.). The predominance of the shapes of a horseshoe, inverted letter “L”, single or double discs integrated into the sign of inverted letter “Z” (the so-called Z-rod), which is accompanied by even more enigmatic symbols resembling a mirror, or a key and a comb, as well as a crescent shape with two straight lines crossing it, in the shape of the letter “V” (the so-called V-rod) (Ibid.). Those letters’ lines usually end with floral symbols, similar to open flowers and buds. Such a spectrum of abstract signs has not yet been identified (Ibid.).

Pictish symbol stone (Class I) at Saint Fergus’ Old Church in Dyce, Aberdeenshire. Photo source: Kimberly Borchardt (2020). In: “Pictish symbol stone at Dyce, St Fergus Church.” In: Historic Scotland. Pinterest.

There are also naturalistic figures  found in the repertoire of the Class I stones (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). Among others, there are usually incised zoomorphic images of both realistic and mythical animals (Ibid.). There are some legendary beats, wolves, deer (or horses), birds or the sign of fish, which is believed to be a pagan symbol of the salmon of wisdom, known from Celtic myths (Ibid.). All the symbols certainly refer to old pagan traditions and perhaps, at that time, some aspects of the symbolic dimension of the Christian religion may have been already introduced in the Scottish system of beliefs (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). However, there is no evidence of such an interruption in art of the Class I (Ibid.).

In the ruins of Saint Fergus’ Old Church in Dyce, Aberdeenshire, there are two Pictish stelae that have been re-erected inside it (Short 2016). One of them, is also a perfect example of the Class I (Ibid.). Both symbols incised in the stone: the Pictish beast in the upper part and the double disc with the Z-rod appear simple and uncomplicated (Ibid.). Still they both show a remarkable degree of artistry and skill (Ibid.).

Class II of the Pictish stelae

Stones of the Class II are more or less rectangular in shape (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). They are usually referred to as cross slabs as they feature visible Christian symbols, especially crosses, on one or both sides of stelae, which are always accompanied by the Pagan geometrical and abstract motifs, known already from the Class I (Ibid.). Although the Christian Latin cross predominates, such stelae also display hagiographical and biblical stories (Ibid.). They are equivalent to the so-called early Irish high crosses and stone slabs with Christian imagery.

Class II symbols stones were carved in the eighth and nineth centuries although there was a period overlap between Class I and Class II (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). Both classes represent the Pictish art in its prime (Short 2016). 

Aberlemno II Kirkyard Stone (Class II),
Angus. Photo by Anne Burgess (2006). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo source: “Aberlemno Sculptured Stones” (2019) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In contrast to the incised representations of the Class I, the Class II is characterized by carvings in relief (Short 2016). Accordingly, objects were carved proud of the background surface, which has been chipped away all around it (Ibid.). All the depictions in relief, with the Christian cross in the center, are additionally filled in with various designs and are characterized by more detailed and intricate iconography than it is present in the Class I (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Among them, there are variations of geometric decorations, including Greek meanders, stylized floral-zoomorphic motifs, spirals, plaits and scrolls similar to the illuminated version of designs adorning the Hiberno-Scottish manuscripts and the metallurgy objects of religious significance (Ibid.).

The second Pictish stela at Saint Fergus’ Old Church in Dyce belongs to the Class II (Short 2016). Although the cross occupies here the central position, there are also four pagan symbols, known mainly from the Class I: the crescent with the V-rod, the double disc with the Z-rod, the mirror case and a triple disc (Ibid.). Another example of the Class II is found in Aberlemno, Angus (Ibid.). It is the so-called Aberlemno II Kirkyard Stone with a wonderful and impressive relief of the Christian Latin cross on the front. The sculptor has created a high relief design with beautiful scroll-work and an imagery of mythical and real animals around it (Ibid.).

Class III of the Pictish stelae

Class III is now completely free of the mysterious idiomatic Pictish pagan symbols, which are so numerous in the Class I and II (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016).

The Camus Cross (Class III), East face (the tenth century), Carnoustie, Angus. The Standing stone in the form of the Latin cross with exclusively Christian scenes. Photo by Catfish Jim and the soapdish at English Wikipedia (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Camus Cross” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The stones can be cross-slabs, recumbent grave markers, free-standing crosses, such as fully developed High Crosses in Ireland, and composite stone shrines (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Signs adorning the stones are easier to be interpreted because they are entirely set in the Christian context (Ibid.). In addition to images of Christian symbols, the Class III also contains figural representations of people and animals, occurring in the real and mythical worlds (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). Pictish stelae of the Class III developed dynamically between the eighth and ninth centuries (Ibid.). Such examples also appeared in the tenth century (Ibid.). The later Pictish sculpture approaches English and later European iconographic traditions (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887).

The Class III examples have got a wider range of figures and ornamentation carved in relief but, as underlined above, they have no pre-Christian Pictish symbols carved (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). They stared to appear in Scotland at the time, when Pictland was under intense pressure and ultimately conquered and colonized by the Gaels of Dalriata (Short 2016). 

Pagan Pictish symbols (Class I and II)

The Class I and II of the symbol stones contain symbols from a recognizable set of standard ideograms, that is to say a graphic symbol that represents an idea or concept, many of which are unique to Pictish art (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). One of the most striking characteristics of those two classes is the fact that Pictish symbols are almost always arranged in pairs or sets of pairs (Ibid.). The symbols cover a wide range of geometric shapes and patterns (Ibid.).

Some of the Pictish symbols of the Class I and II standing stones. Drawing posted by aimee leah (2020). “Pictish Stones”. In: Pinterest.

As it is mentioned above, Pictish sculptors were also fascinated by the zoomorphic figures and they depicted both, naturalistic animals and mythical creatures. Among them, there are representations of animals such as the snake, adder, salmon, wolf, stag, eagle, as well as the so-called mythical Pictish beast (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). Anthropomorphic characters were also part of the Pictish sculptor’s repertoire, they do not appear very often though. The exact number of Pictish symbols is uncertain as there is some debate as to what actually constitutes such a symbol (Short 2016). Generally, there are between forty and fifty symbols depending exactly on how they are defined (Ibid.).

Kintore Pictish Stone by Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service on Sketchfab.

Crescent with the V-rod and double disc with the Z-rod

Crescent is one of the key Pictish symbols, usually found in a combination with an overlaid V-rod (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). As such it usually appears in the proximity of other symbols, particularly with the double disc and the Z-rod (Ibid.). Double disc, in turn, can be seen alone or, more typically, overlaid with the Z-rod (Ibid.). As a matter of fact, the Crescent and the V-rod symbol appears most often of all (Short 2016; Cowie 2019).

Key Pictish symbols known from the Class I and II of standing stones. Drawings source: The Highland Council Archaeology Unit (2017). The Highland Pictish Trail. PDF, p.3.
This Class I Pictish symbol stone has the double disc symbol above a snake-with-Z-rod. Photo and caption posted by June Young Shin (2020). “The Newton Stone I”. In: Pinterest.

Second in their frequency of occurrence on Pictish stelae are the double disc and the Z-rod symbols (Short 2016; Cowie 2019). Some researchers think that the double disc and the Z-rod symbol depicts a lightning strike between two thunder clouds (Ibid.). If there is any underlying meaning of the symbols, it remains unclear (Ibid.). It has also been suggested that it is a bird’s eye view of two adjacent round barrows used for some Pictish burials (Ibid.). Some other scholars believe that it is a symbol for the deceased Pictish king (Ibid.). In this sense, the double disc and Z-rod would have represented a broken spear signifying death (Ibid.). Accordingly, the crescent and V-rod would have been a symbol for a lesser royal and would have signified a broken arrow meaning death (Ibid.). As Z-rod sometimes appears in a combination with a serpent, such a symbol may be understood as the notion for a king’s magician or wizard (Ibid.).

Beast of the Picts

Broomend of Crichie Stone Circle: ‘Pictish beast’ (sometimes called an ‘elephant’) above, and a crescent and V-rod below. Photo by Anne Burgess (2017). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo source: “Broomend of Crichie stone” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia (2019).

The Pictish beast, which is the third most common of all the Pictish symbols (Shorts 2016; Cowie 2019), has been linked both to a seahorse, a dolphin and even to an elephant-like creature (Short 2016). However, art historians specialized in Pictish iconography do not think that it is an attempt to represent a real animal (Ibid.).  In their opinion, it is an imagery of a mythical creature that encompasses the elements of land and water, possibly in the form of a sea-monster (Ibid.).

One of the most frequent Pictish symbols, known as the Pictish Beast. Original drawing from 19th century work by John Romilly Allen´s “Early Christian Monuments”. Drawing uploaded by Struthious Bandersnatch (2013). CC BY-SA 1.0. Source: “Pictish Beast” (2013). In : Wikimedia Commons.

Mirror and the comb

Two symbols, which almost always appear together are referred to as the mirror and the comb. Such a pair is usually found near the three previously described symbols (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016).

The mirror and the comb symbols are both represented, for example, on the Maiden Stone also known as the Drumdurno Stone, near Bennachie in Aberdeenshire (Short 2016). It is a cross slab with carvings in relief and therefore it belongs to the Class II of Pictish symbol stones (Ibid.). Here, the paired symbol is situated at the lowest part of the stone (Ibid.). Above, there is the so-called Pictish Beast and, at the top, some zoomorphic figures appear (Ibid.). On the other side, the stela represents the Latin Cross (Ibid.).

The Maiden Stone also known as the Drumdurno Stone, near Bennachie in Aberdeenshire. Drawing source: “Maiden Stone” (2020) In: Wikiwand.

The mirror and comb are not regarded as one of the main Pictish symbols but they are thought as a subsidiary symbol signifying the female gender (Short 2016). As such they may have represented a woman who has raised the stone in memory of a deceased husband or a woman who was herself memorialized or remembered by the stone (Ibid.).

Cross slab at Hilton of Cadboll on the Moray Firth with the Hunt scene and the paired symbol of the Mirror and the comb. Photo cropped. Photo source: Joan Pearson (2020). Photo source: Farrar, S. Pearson, J. (2020) “Hunt scene, Hilton of Cadboll Pictish Stone”. In: Pinterest.

On the cross slab at Hilton of Cadboll on the Moray Firth, there is a wonderful depiction of a horse, a woman is riding side saddle (Short 2016). The adjacent mirror and comb seems to confirm the gender connection (Ibid.). Such theories on the mirror and comb reflect the idea of many early scholars that the Picts were the matrilineal society (Ibid.; see Jackson 1984). On the other side, however, the symbols are also represented by the side of other anthropo-zoomorphic figures with no analogies to any female aspect (Short 2016). In this context, the theory of the Picts’ matrilineal society has been challenged (Ibid.). Nowadays, many art historians reject the idea that the Picts traced their descent through the female line (Ibid.). Some recent thinking interprets the mirror and comb symbols not as a statement of gender but as a simple declaration of who is buried beneath or who was memorialized by means of a given stone slab (Ibid.). Yet the true meaning of the symbols remain uncertain (Ibid.).

Triple disc

The symbol is constructed from a larger central circle or disc flanked by two smaller circles/discs on either side. It is sometimes shown with a “bar” bisecting all three circles or with concentric circles inside the largest disc (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Notably, it is represented near the crescent with the V-rod. However, there are also other symbols accompanying the Triple Disc symbol (Ibid.).

Glamis Manse Pictish Stone (Class II), Angus. Drawing from Simon Andrew Stirling (2015). The Grail: Relic of an Ancient Religion. UK: Moon Books. (Page unknown).

The Triple Disc is sometimes referred to as cauldron seen from above, which is explained by its shape and practical or religious function it may have for the Celts (“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020; see Lost Myth of the Gundestrup Cauldron – Wild Hunt, Sacrifice and Rebirth). Such an analogy of the Triple Disc symbol to a cauldron may be noticed on Glamis Manse Pictish Stone (Class II), Angus, where it is depicted below the left arm of the centrally positioned cross (Stirling 2015). The three-dimensional depth of the container is suggested by two pairs of human legs sticking out of it (Ibid.). The Triple Disc is visible on the opposite side of the cross staff, diagonally to the cauldron on the left, and it is interpreted as a two-handled cauldron seen from a different perspective (Ibid.). In this context, the Triple Disc “has also been termed crater, [libation] vase and water container” (“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020). On the other side, the cross bar joining the three circles suggests a means of carrying (Ibid.).

“Complementing other key [symbols] on the Pictish Stones, the Triple Disc may represent the Zodiac with Cancer and Capricorn Constellations (the gates from and to Heaven) 180° apart. They coincide with the summer and winter solstices” (“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020). In this context, the symbols may have been connected to early astronomical calculations (Short “Part 2” 2016).

Endless debate

The sculptured symbol stones have for very long time been the main focus of popular interest in the Picts and so they have become a source of almost endless discussion and controversy (Short 2016). What was their meaning and purpose? What do they actually mean? What message is being conveyed by the symbols? What are they actually for? Is it close to uncovering the symbol code? (Ibid.) For centuries, similar questions have baffled experts and amateurs alike (Ibid.).

One of the key problems in interpreting the Pictish stelae of the Class I and II, is the lack of contemporary documents, which would explain their meaning or purpose, or which would even refer to them by giving them any iconographical background (Short 2016). The arguments over the Pictish symbols are a timely reminder that while the symbols themselves are carved in stone, their real meaning and purpose are certainly not (Ibid.). Yet it can be assumed that Pictish Symbols tend to complement one another and collectively conceal but also reveal some truths (“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020).

Iron tools

The so-called iron tools on the Dunfallandy Stone (Class II). Photo source: Historic Scotland (2020) “Investigating the Dunfallandy Stone”. Information for Teachers”. In: Historic Scotland Education (PDF), p.5.

For many scholars, the Pictish symbols are purely abstract or mythical (Short 2016). As such, they remain resolutely enigmatic (Ibid.). However, a few of them seem rooted in a real world (Ibid.). For example, there are the so-called tools represented on the Dunfallandy Stone (Class II), which is situated atop a mound south of Pitlochry (Ibid.). Among the representations of tools, scholars recognize hammer, tongs and anvil for beating metal (Historic Scotland 2020). All of them are depicted at the bottom of the stone, below the horse (Ibid.). Possibly the stone itself was connected in some way with a blacksmith or someone who worked with iron (Short 2016; Historic Scotland 2020). Nevertheless, the number of real objects represented on the symbol stones is rather limited. 

Burial memorials with mythological or religious meanings

The Pictish symbols are present exclusively on the stelae of the Class I and II (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). They have been interpreted in a number of different ways and on a number of different levels (Short 2016). Initially, it was suggested that the symbol stones were memorial stones to deceased members of the Pictish elite and so the symbols carved on them were representations of their belongings or badges of office (Ibid.). The symbols were suggested to have been worn as tattoos by the office holder during their lifetime (Ibid.). After their death, the tattooed symbols were subsequently carved on a standing stone as a memorial to the deceased (Ibid.).

The mysterious imagery of the Class I stelae could also express the Pictish intricate system of beliefs, like in the case of the Triple Disk, its symbolic association with a cauldron and a religious meaning of the cauldron itself  (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Stirling 2015). Nevertheless, the Celtic pagan religion, as much as its symbols, are of unknown meaning and any attempts of their identification or interpretation are based only on speculations. Simultaneously, like in the case of Irish High Crosses, on the Class II stones various Christian depictions are accompanied by the Pictish ones. In such a combined context, the former may be for scholars key to the translation of the pagan symbols and a way of better understanding of the Pictish religion and mythology.

Territory markers

Some scholars believe that symbol stones represented marriages between the two members of different Pictish lineages, which were part of the Picts’ ruling elite (Short 2016; see Jackson 1984). This theory also seems to explain why most symbols appear in pairs and why a small number of symbols were disproportionately represented on the stelae (Ibid.). In this view, symbol stones were probably erected and carved as territory markers (Ibid.).  

Craw Stane stela (Class I), situated on top of a hill near Rhynie. Photo source: Dmitriy Smyatkin (2020). “Picture Craw Stane Pictish Symbol Stone – Scotland”. In: Pinterest.

The gateway to one of the Pictish fifth or sixth century high-status residences was marked by the Craw Stane stela, situated on top of a hill near Rhynie (Short 2016). The stone belongs to the Class I and shows fish (possibly a salmon) and the Pictish Beast, incised on the south-facing side (Ibid.). According to the theory given above, both symbols may stand for the two Pictish royals having occupied the residence (Ibid.).

On the other hand, another stela, Tillytarmont Stone, was discovered on the spot, where two rivers meet (Short 2016). Some of rivers and streams became boundaries between Scottish medieval parishes and possibly they even reflect ancient territorial divisions established yet in the times of Picts (Ibid.).

Pictish hieroglyphs

Could there be a Pictish Rosetta Stone, which would unlock the symbol code of the Picts, like the Rosetta Stone helped to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs? (Short 2016).

Another theory emerging among modern researchers suggests that the symbols were not any badges of office, nor did they represent alliances between different lineages (Short 2016; see Jackson 1984). In fact, they may stand for the characteristics of language or pictographic system of writing (Short 2016). Simply speaking, they should be read as Pictish royal names (Ibid.). Therefore, the most frequently occurring names in the lists of Pictish kings may equate to the most frequently carved Pictish symbols (Ibid.). It can actually be examined by comparing the context of stelae, which include both, the symbols and accompanying them inscriptions, which are mostly in the mentioned above Ogham script (Short 2016; Short “Part 2” 2016). About two hundred and fifty symbol stones feature such inscriptions alongside the symbols, like on Brandsbutt Stone in Inverurie.

Apart from the Ogham script, there is also an enigmatic writing found on one of the Newton Stones, Aberdeenshire. The ancient monolith is inscribed with an engraved message written in a mysterious language (Cowie 2018). It is accompanied by the Ogham inscription visible on the same stone and also by two Pictish symbols incised on the other Newton Stone standing nearby (Ibid.). Initially claimed to be of oriental origins, (Ibid.) the writing “has never been accurately identified and it has become known in academic circles as the ‘unknown script’ [or just a modern forgery]” (Ibid.).

Generally, the results of comparative studies between the symbols and the accompanying them inscriptions are not conclusive and therefore they are often contested (Short “Part 2” 2016).

Astronomical code

Quite a radical theory proposed by Iain W. G. Forbes (2012) is that the Pictish “symbols are actually astrological in nature and relate to specific astronomical events in the night sky.” Such a suggestion has already appeared above, in an interpretation of the Triple Disc and its relation to the Zodiac (“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020).

In the context of particular monuments, the paired symbols (Forbes 2012), such as the double disc with the Z-rod, “might be a graphic representation of a specific auspicious alignment of the Sun, Moon, or planets, and effectively proclaiming a divine blessing on whatever endeavour or event was marked by the stone” (Ibid.). After the engineer, Dr. Martin Sweatman, one of the most repetitive Pictish symbols in different combinations may be the notions of celestial objects or important astronomical events (Cowie 2019). Accordingly, the Crescent may represent the Moon, while the Double Disk – the summer and winter solstice (Cowie 2019). Simultaneously, the Pictish Beast would stand for Gemini, which is the summer solstice constellation (Ibid.), as on June 20th, the sun moves out of the constellation Taurus the Bull and into the constellation Gemini the Twins. Furthermore, Dr. Sweatman claims that the Pictish Beast would be an analogous symbol to the ibex-like creature from Pillar 43 at Göbekli Tepe, in Turkey, which is also believed to represent Gemini (Ibid.).

It is also possible that potentially sacred Pictish symbols were created by ancient Celtic druids and so they would be a link to a wider system of Celtic beliefs and tradition (Forbes 2012). In this view, the Pictish astrological code could not have been made in isolation (Ibid.), “but rather represents the vast vestiges of a form of astrology once widespread across Eurasia” (Ibid.).

Perplexing study

After millennium, Pictish symbol stones still have a power to fascinate and engage people in an endless attempt of their deciphering (Short 2016). So far there has been no agreement or a credible theory regarding their meaning or purpose (Forbes 2012). Nonetheless, most scholars agree that they all must convey some significant messages (Ibid.). If so, the Pictish symbols could be key to general understanding of the Celtic society and culture (Ibid.). For now, the symbols raise more questions than answers, remaining one of numerous ancient mysteries that historians and archaeologists need to face (Ibid.).

Are there any other convincing ideas and explanations what the symbols’ message of the Pictish stone slabs could be?

Featured image: Historic Scotland (2020) “Dyce Symbol Stones”. In: National Record of the Historic Environment Scotland.


“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” (2020) PDF, p. 75. Available at  <>. [Accessed on 24th April, 2020].

“Pictish Stones” (2015) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Allen, J.R, Anderson, J. (1903) “Archaeological photograph of 1903”. In: “Brandsbutt Stone” 2019. In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at  <>. [Accessed on 24th April, 2020].

Allen, J. R, Anderson, J. (1903) Early Christian Monuments of Scotland. Balgavies, Angus: Pinkfoot Press.

Connelly, C. J. (2015) “A Partial Reading of the Stones: a Comparative Analysis of Irish and Scottish Ogham Pillar Stones”. In: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee UWM Digital Commons. Available at <>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Cowie, A. (2018) “Deciphering The Newton Stone’s Mysterious ‘Unknown Script’.”In Ancient Origins. Available at <>. [Accessed on 25th April, 2020].

Cowie, A. (2019) “Scottish Prof Links Mysterious Pictish Symbols and Distant Gobekli Tepe Signs”. In: Ancient Origins. Available at  <>. [Accessed on 25th April, 2020].

Drawing: “Maiden Stone” (2020) In: Wikiwand. Available at <>. [Accessed on 25th April, 2020].

Drawing: “Mirror and Comb”. In: Forbes, I. W.G. (2010) “The Pictish Mirror and the Comb symbols in Sky Divination”. In: The Last of the Druids. Available at <>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Drawing: “Pictish Beast” (2013). In : Wikimedia Commons. Available at <>. [Accessed on 24th April, 2020].

Drawing: Leah, A. (2020) “Pictish Stones”. In: Pinterest. Available at <>. [Accessed on 24th April, 2020].

Drawings: The Highland Council Archaeology Unit (2017) The Highland Pictish Trail. PDF. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Farrar, S. Pearson, J. (2020) “Hunt scene, Hilton of Cadboll Pictish Stone”. In: Pinterest. Available at <>. [Accessed on 25th April, 2020].

Forbes, I. W. G. (2012) The Last of the Druids: The Mystery of the Pictish Symbol Stones. Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing.

Historic Scotland (2020) “Investigating the Dunfallandy Stone. Information for Teachers”. In: Historic Scotland Education (PDF). [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Jackson, A. (1984) The Symbol Stones of Scotland. Stromness, Orkney: The Orkney Press.

June Young Shin (2020) “The Newton Stone I”. In: Pinterest. Available at <>. [Accessed on 25th April, 2020].

Kintore Pictish Stone by Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service on Sketchfab. Available at <>. [Accessed on 25th April, 2020].

McKenzie, S. (2017) “Scotland’s carved Pictish stones re-imagined in colour”. In: BBC News. Available at  <>. [Accessed on 25th April, 2020].

Parrott-Sheffer, C. (2020) “Pict People”. In: Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at <>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Photo: “Camus Cross” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at  <>. [Accessed on 25th April, 2020].

Photo: “Broomend of Crichie Stone” (2019) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Photo: “Hilton of Cadboll Stone” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Photo: Borchardt, K. (2020) “Pictish symbol stone at Dyce, St Fergus Church.” In: Historic Scotland. Pinterest. Available at <>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Photo: Cope, J. (2009) “Sculptors Cave. Rock Shelter”. In: The Modern Antiquarian. Available at <>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Photo: Historic Scotland (2020) “Dyce Symbol Stones”. In: National Record of the Historic Environment Scotland. Available at <>. [Accessed on 24th April, 2020].

Photo: Seaboardgàidhlig (2015) Tillytarmont Stone. Available at <>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Photo: Smyatkin, D. (2020) “Picture Craw Stane Pictish Symbol Stone – Scotland”. In: Pinterest. Available at <>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Photos: “Aberlemno Sculptured Stones” (2019) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Short, A. (2016) “Picts: Part 1- Symbols and Signs.” In: Short, A., Scott, N. (2016) Dip in Video. Available at <>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Short, A. (2016) “Picts: Part 2- Symbols and Statements.” In: Short, A., Scott, N. (2016) Dip in Video. Available at <>. [Accessed on 24th April, 2020].

Stirling, S. A. (2015) The Grail: Relic of an Ancient Religion. UK: Moon Books.