In a previous blog I discussed the Leeds Cross at St Peter’s Leeds, and my ongoing research to explore the material manifestations of the story of the magical smith Weland in Anglo-Saxon England. This follow-up blog discusses the Anglo-Saxon sculpture on display at Leeds City Museum because here Weland also makes an appearance.
Elizabeth Coatsworth’s 2008 Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture Volume VIII: West Yorkshire outlines 9 fragments of pre-Conquest sculpture known from Leeds. The previously discussed Leeds Cross is comprised of two of these: Leeds 1 and Leeds 6. Leeds 7 (8th/9th-century a fragment of cross-arm), Leeds 8 (late 9th-century fragment of shrine tomb or hogback) and Leeds 9 (9th or 10th-century inscription fragment) are all lost. This leaves four pieces – Leeds 2, 3, 4 and 5 – all of which are on display in Leeds City Museum following a redisplay in 2008.
Leeds 3 is a fragment of 8th- or 9th-century cross-shaft with plant-scroll.
Leeds 4 is a 9th-century fragment of cross-shaft with inhabited scroll and possibly depicting busts of saints holding books.
Leeds 2a-c are three sandstone cross-shaft fragments thought to derive from the same monument. These are represented in the Corpus volume by face and then the plates reproduce them out of any logical sequence in order to fit them neatly on the same page. Result: very difficult to get one’s head around them. Luckily, the museum has a partial solution of displaying them in vertical relationship with each other against a background of a hypothetical cross-shaft inspired by Leeds 2 but also by Leeds 1 and 6. Furthermore, adjacent they have a painted ‘replica’ of the same monument inspired by Leeds 1 and 2.
- Face D (narrow) has animal terminals at the base of the inthree-cord plait
- Face B (narrow) has cable mouldings on the edge and evidence of three-cord twist and a part of Stafford Knot
- Face C (broad) has a run of ring-knots and strands that might belong to a glide between knots.
- Face A (broad) is the most interesting for our purposes because the upper part has two frontal figure in robes, one holding a book, and below them is another fragment of a Weland flying scene comparable in broad terms to the Leeds 1 Weland scene.
I have a number of comments about this display and what it tells us, or more precisely, what it doesn’t tell us.
What is striking is that, while Leeds 1 and 2 show similar scenes, from similar-sized crosses and specifically from the same locations on the lowest panel of their broad faces, Leeds 2 shows further details of:
1) his tail feathers
2) his groin which either deliberately shows no genitalia for politeness, for simplicity, or perhaps because we are supposed to be seeing Weland’s rear.
However, comparison of the two depictions shows a series of differences that require further consideration:
1) The Leeds 1 Weland has four lines of feathers on his wing, Leeds 2 has only three, possibly due to Leeds 1 having more space for its scene;
2) Leeds 1, perhaps also because it has more space, is able to depict four discernible and different metalworking artefacts at Weland’s left (or right) foot while Leeds 2 has two similar items (anvils in blocks?) and a third repeating but discernibly larger between his right leg and tail feathers.
3) Weland’s foot is depicted on Leeds 1 as a short stump whereas on Leeds 2 he has toes which curl downward like bird’s claws over the horizontally lain anvil and block.
Which came first? Why the difference? Is this difference due to contrasting artisanal skill, the nature of the space afforded for the scene to fit, contrasting templates or different meanings inherent in the scenes?
The museum clearly has limited space within which to display these fabulous fragments and it is wonderful that they have thought about displaying them in relation to each other and while the Leeds 3 and 4 pieces are in conventional display cabinets, Leeds 2 is displayed in spatial relationship with which other set against a backdrop of a hypothetical cross and adjacent to a replica cross. The use of mirrors help views to see the cross’s many dimensions in a small space. There are however some key criticisms one might offer:
1) There is no explanation as to how the replica was created and how the scenes were recreated
2) The reference in the display’s caption to Weland as a ‘Viking hero’ is obviously a partial and misleading description; as my previous blog made clear the Weland legend has Germanic roots that pre-date the Norsemen and therefore why should this cross be seen as anything to do with the Vikings?
3) The date-range of the sculpture as ‘late ninth to early tenth’ for Leeds 2 on the captions is not grossly inaccurate but doesn’t quite chime with the more neutral and accurate tenth-century attribution of Coatsworth.
4) These crosses have chairs stuck up against them so that visitors can sit down and be subjected to the most banal overview of British early medieval history I have yet to encounter at any museum. As I explored the cross-fragments, this looped video made me rage to such a degree I almost forgot Weland and contemplated a Hulk moment instead.
5) The replica’s rendition of the Weland scene is simultaneously accurate in terms of modern perceptions of the Weland scene and yet utterly inaccurate in relation to the surviving fragments from Leeds 1. One could quibble that we don’t know either way whether Weland’s head was depicted en face or profile and whether the relationship between figures on Leeds 2 was the same as upon Leeds 1 or different. My point is that the relationship between the Weland figure and the female is precisely what we want it to be: a Victorian pacification of the scene and its inherent violence and domination. Weland is heroicly escaping his smithy carrying with him his swan-wife or the king’s daughter. The scene might imply his control of the woman in his shamanic act of transformation and escape, but the bird’s beak no longer grips her midrift. This is revealing and frustrating, since a full reconstruction of how the scene might have looked, closer to that suggested by Jim Lang in the 70s) (which is problematic in other regards admittedly, might have provided the basis for a fascinating discussion with visitors over the meaning of the scene. More on this in my future writings!
I could go on and make the point that the museum also displays a series of Saxo-Norman grave-slabs as ‘Anglo-Saxon’. I appreciate all this might be unfair; I wasn’t really there to critically appraise the display as a museologist. Still, I think the points above reveal the difficulties of simplifying and misrepresenting Anglo-Saxon sculpture. In their current display, I am not sure anyone visiting understands or appreciates what they are seeing, especially as the 2c Weland scene lives out its life behind the back of a chair.
In summary, visit Leeds City Museum and think through the fascinating fragments of sculpture for yourself and what they might tell us of the significance of Weland the Smith in tenth-century Anglo-Saxon England.