Recently I visited Bewcastle church, now in Cumbria and historically in Cumberland. Situated in a remote corner of the English north-west close to the Scottish border, this was the site of a Roman fort, Anglo-Saxon monastery, medieval castle and church. Historically, it is situated on important land routes and so its remoteness today is (partly at least) deceptive.
As an early medievalist, I am aware of Bewcastle first and foremost for its famous for a collection of Anglo-Saxon stone sculpture. The most prominent of which is the Bewcastle Cross (Bewcastle 1). The survival of such a remarkably fine piece of eighth-century sculpture might be taken to indicate the status of the site, but perhaps also the geographical distance of the monument from centres of Norman power and early modern puritanical iconoclasm.
The literature on the Bewcastle Cross is extensive. Here, I want to simply write a blog that introduces the reader to the key salient features and follow it up with some preliminary thoughts. I do this because (a) I visited and (b) I am thinking about it. No promises, no research project, just thinking. Obviously thoughts that are clear and insightful, possibly even pure genius, but just thoughts nonetheless.
Where is the cross located? The monument is thought to be in its original position to the south of a church that may overlie a pre-Conquest predecessor. In this position, it would have been prominently situated for anyone approaching through the entrance of the Roman fort from the south.
It is presumed to have once been a cross although it only survives as a cross-shaft. There is a debate about this that goes beyond the evidence to the paradigms and approaches we take to early medieval sculpture. Still, despite the lack of evidence either way, I think this remains the most likely scenario to regard the monument as a cross-shaft.
Details can be read on the website of the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture. Furthermore, Cramp has already written extensively summarising the interpretation of the monument here. Its precise date is uncertain, but it might plausibly be seen as a royal commemorative monument, possibly made by craftsmen from the Jarrow workshop and working in the same generation as the equally famous Ruthwell monument.
The west face might be regarded as the monument’s ‘front’, with three human figures identified as St John the Baptist, Christ in the Desert (standing on two beasts whose paws are crossed) and a secular portrait of a man holding a rod or stick with a hawk or eagle. A panel of runic text is situated above the portrait and below Christ. While there are other runic inscriptions, this fragmentary and hence unclear main panel, above the portrait, has been taken to be a commemorative text, honouring the dead person depicted below.
East Broad Face (C)
The opposite face to the human figures is taken up with ‘inhabited vinescroll’: a series of birds gnawing at grapes within scrolls of vine stem.
South Narrow Face (B)
There are possible runes at the very top, then a panel of interlace, below which is a plant trail inset into which is a sundial. Below this is another panel of interlace and then complex medallion scrollwork and finally a third panel of interlace at the very bottom.
North Face (D)
This face is least worn but difficult to see with a bright sun. There is a complex plant trail, below which is an interlace panel and then a chequer panel. Below these is a panel of interlace and then medallion plant scroll.
I don’t want to wade into the detailed iconographic debates about this monument but I do have some thoughts.
Archaeodeath Musing 1: Context
What strikes me about this monument is that it is unquestionably mortuary dimension, and yet I cannot simply imagine it operating as a grave-marker. It is therefore commemorative, but potentially a cenotaph, memorialising individuals living and dead who reside elsewhere close by in a mausoleum or grave, or perhaps at another locale in the ecclesiastical landscape. As Cramp notes, we cannot be sure that just because it is in a churchyard now, this was the original context; the graves are all post-medieval now and this needn’t be part of the minster burial ground.
Archaeodeath Musing 2: Time
Whatever its precise function, I would suggest that this is a monument intended to be engaged with during processions, to be walked around, looked up at, and interacted with during ceremonies, as well as serving to mark time during the routines of daily religious life and the passing of the seasons. The vegetal art also might be seen as part of this temporal, seasonal dimension.
The key thing about the monument is that it each side is distinct; as Rosemary Cramp observes, this is only matched at one other site in the historic kingdom of Northumbria: the cross from Easby. Indeed, it is a monument that cries out for isolation, at least in immediate terms of proximity. Otherwise, some of its sides might not apprehended let alone engaged with.
Furthermore, this distinctive quality makes us question whether it really does have a ‘front’ and ‘back’ but arguably three (possibly four) ‘fronts’. As such, it is a marker of time and space for those moving around it, and as a sundial, it marks the passage of the day and perhaps also the seasons. It is a monument for all seasons.
Archaeodeath Musing 3: Birds and Air
The third thing I want to say about the Bewcastle monument is that it has many aerial and avian themes. I am not only referring to the inhabited vinescroll and the portrait of a man with hawk in hand; so that both sides of the monument are bestowed with contrasting avian representations. In addition, the sundial that frames both of these avian representations takes us to another aerial theme of the sun’s passage. Linked together, the inhabited vinescroll involves vegetation full of birds, eating, chattering and awaking from the night with the breaking of the dawn in the east. As the sun passes through the sky, the portrait with his hawk is lit. Was there a link here to the time of the day and this activity? It seems to me that ascent and descent and the passage of the sun are key to understanding this monument. It makes me mused whether it is accurate and helpful to regard the male figure with a bird as a ‘portrait’ as such. Rather than a self-contained representation of a living or dead royal, is it instead part of an interplay with other scenes concerning ascension and other aerial themes?