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.
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.
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] (https://www.bewcastle.com/bewcastle-cross; accessed 19th May, 2023).