In a recent post I discussed early Anglo-Saxon mortuary remains in the recently renovated room 41 of the British Museum. Here, I would like to report on the 3 fabulous and yet very different fragments of pre-Viking (8th and early 9th-century AD) Anglo-Saxon stone crosses on display at the British Museum. Two (Sheffield 1 and Lancaster St Mary 1) are within room 41, and the third, Lowther 1, is within the dome-covered court of the museum outside the BM book shop.
Comprehending these fragments is a challenge for three reasons.
- Inevitably given their context these stones are divorced from their locations of discovery. Specifically, they have been long disassociated from other sculpture from the same locations (for Lowther and Lancaster), their localities (for Lancaster this is the important concentration of the Lune valley around Lancaster) and region (the Sheffield monument’s associations with Peak District crosses such as Eyam) which are key to their interpretation.
- They are also separated from each other, making it difficult to apprehend their association and significance within the museum space.
- The captions accompanying them are accurate and informative but give no details of the biographies of these monuments in their journey to the BM and the history and character of their interpretation.
Despite being rendered striking timeless artworks rather than historical material culture by the manner of their display, recent years have seen all three pieces receive published scholarly attention in the pages of the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture:
- Lowther 1 in volume 2 in 1988 by Richard Bailey and Rosemary Cramp
- Sheffield 1 in volume 8 in 2008 by Elizabeth Coatsworth
- Lancaster St Mary 1 in volume 10 in 2010 by Richard Bailey.
Moreover, the visitor gets to see them with superb lighting in a fashion rarely afforded to sculpture in the outdoors, churches or many other museums. For these reasons, they constitute a valuable and pedagogically powerful triumvirate of stones, serving to introduce the public to pre-Viking stone crosses from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.
Lancaster St Mary 1
Discovered in St Mary’s churchyard, Lancaster, in 1807, this pale red sandstone cross is the upper part of a cross shaft and the cross head, with one horizontal arm missing. It is dated to the late 8th century AD.
The cross has interlace ending in an animal head at the base of the head. The boss and arms have drill holes that may have originally contained gemstones or other fittings.
Below is an three-line Anglo-Saxon runic inscription interpreted by David Parsons as ‘Pray for Cynebald Cuthberht’. This might be a short-hand for:
‘Pray for Cynebald and Cuthberht’
‘Pray for Cynebald, Cuthberht set up the memorial’
Below the inscription is a panel with two linked Stafford knots.
What is striking is that the accomplished work was only intended to be seen from one side only. The narrow sides have no decoration while the back-side (C has only an incised circle enclosing a smaller version of the form of the cross with a circular central depression. This is frustrating and confusing, since it isn’t at all clear what kind of location could be selected for such a monument. Perhaps it was installed within or without a pre-existing building, where the back broad side could hardly ever, or never, be viewed. Given its overt commemorative text, this may have been a memorial intended to mark an entrance to the churchyard or church/chapel (or similar threshold) rather than a grave-marker.
This monument is reported in Bailey and Cramp 1988: the volume 2 of the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture for Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire-North-of-the-Sands where one can find full details available free online. It comprises of two fragments which, despite subtle differences, are regarded as coming from the same monument. Edged by double roll mouldings, the cross-shaft is entirely made up of different but related fine vinescroll ornamentation
The caption is as
de-contextualised as the monument itself stating that crosses like this were ‘powerful images of the new Christian faith in the landscape of Anglo-Saxon England’. It is unlikely that this was a first generation Christian monument utilised to convert the landscape of pagans. This point aside, what is omitted is how the sculpture is best understood as part of an assemblage of pre-Viking and Viking Age sculpture from Lowther, Cumbria including impressive tenth-century hogback tombs. The monument is dated by the Corpus to the late eighth to early ninth century AD.
The only Anglo-Saxon stone cross fragment from Sheffield, it might have been the cross recorded in 1570 as being pulled down in the parish churchyard. It is a tapering sandstone cross-shaft with spiral scroll on the narrow faces B and D. Face C is largely gone (see below) and Face A has striking spiral scroll, below which is an archer.
Coatsworth’s discussion focuses on the parallels with Derbyshire and other west Yorkshire monuments. She also discusses the debate over the Christian iconographic reading of the archer figure as either a positive figure aiming arrows to represent the words shot by God, offering Salvation (the BM caption prefers this view), or as a symbol of the evil hunter of men’s souls, snaring those who might otherwise be saved.
This monument has a part of its biography written onto it – Face C has been hollowed out, possibly in the 19th century to make a hardening trough. However Coatsworth offers the interpretation that the cross received an earlier use as a sarcophagus giving the head-shaped depression at the narrow (upper) end. This is convincing to me and would disassociate this monument from the cross pulled down in the 16th century.
So the next time you got to the BM, don’t be overawed by all the early medieval metalwork, the stone sculpture on display is phenomenal too.