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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.


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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),
Aberdeenshire. 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, Aberdeenshire (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.


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