St Brynach’s church, Nevern, Pembrokeshire has produced two early inscribed stones dating to the 5th or early 6th centuries bearing Roman letters and ogam inscriptions (P 70 and P 71). In the parish, there are a series of cross-inscribed stones attributed to the 7th to 9th centuries AD (P 74-79). Yet it is the superb Nevern 4 monument (P73) that steals the show; it is evidence of a vibrant church with far-ranging contacts established at the site by the late 10th and 11th centuries but puts all the other monuments into shadow.
There is one monument that does deserve its own discussion and it is the only Viking Age monument from Nevern other than the unique free-standing cross. Found in 1904, this sculpted stone was reused as a sill within the south transept of the church and therefore it is simultaneously secure and exceptionally and naturally well-lit.
The Latin cross is comprised of interlace: two-strand plait with triangular cross-arms. A triquetra knot fills the top arm. The knotting of the stem creates a subtle distinction between a cross-head and its shaft.
Edwards regards this as originally intended to stand vertically, and so it might have been a grave-stone – since the strands at the bottom do not join and the bottom of the stone is blank. In terms of execution and date, she regards the decoration as shared with Nevern 4 and suggests a date in the late 10th or early 11th century and notes parallels in Ireland and western Scotland as well as in Brecknockshire.
Two thoughts come to mind about this monument:
- It may be broadly dated as comparable to the great cross Nevern 4, but it is also very different in scale, with only one known and visible decorated side. This means that it would have shared broad allusions to the great cross (whether it was raised first or later), and yet it was also distinctive. Was it an exceptional monument in its own right, raised to be contrasted with earlier simple crosses from the surrounding landscape and burial ground? Alternatively, was it one among many fairly modest but interlace crosses raised over Viking Age graves, rendered in stone, wood and perhaps even textile, to mark and mark out the graves of individuals and families? Either possibility makes me wonder whether there was a perceived relationship between the crosses and dead bodies beneath such stones;
- I think this cross represents the human body. I support this by noting the slender elegence of this form, its deliberate (I would argue) asymmetry, and its ‘lean’ to the viewer’s right. Ok, this last feature is not very clear in the photos I have taken because of the angle in which the stone now lies. However, it is very clear on the far-better photograph contained in Edwards’ book, taken presumably from a step-ladder face-on). Also, the fact that the cross doesn’t join at the bottom might imply legs. The triquetra knot in the top cross-arm might almost be facial in its characteristics. Together, these points make me wonder whether this is indeed a simple stylisation of the body – either the dead person or the crucified Christ as cross. I have discussed other anthropomorphic crosses elsewhere, as at Llanbadarn Fawr 2 (CD5). Indeed, if you look at the slightly later slab from Meifod recently discussed, you will see Christ depicted bending over within the top arm of a triangular-ended Latin cross. Moreover, the lean is the same way: to the viewer’s right and to the body’s left. Of course it is possible to see anything you want if you look closely enough at stone sculpture, but perhaps this was also a contemplative intention for Viking Age audiences? If so, were you supposed to see the body of Christ or imagine the resurrected body of the mourned deceased, or the conflation/relationship between the two, facing you when you engaged with the grave of the dead? If so, one wonders whether this was indeed every upright, or instead, a recumbent monument.
I am obviously aware of Victoria Whitworth’s inspirational work on the relationship of bodies and stones, both published and forthcoming as discussed here. Still, I’m not sure anyone has previously suggested Nevern 3 is an anthropomorphic cross to date. For details, I again refer to my source: the superb A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales Volume II South-West Wales by Professor Nancy Edwards.
Thanks to Will Rathouse and Victoria Whitworth for feedback on this post.