Sensibility and style in early Christian times

The Woodhorn Cross.
The Woodhorn Cross.

In about 779, an English nun called Hygeburg (or Hugeburc or Huneberc), of the monastery of Heidenheim in southern Germany, wrote a Life of St Willibald (c.700-787), one of several English missionary bishops to the Germans.

When he was three, Willibald became seriously ill. His distraught parents offered him to the Lord and prayed for him to be cured.

“And this they did, not in the church, but at the foot of the Cross, for on the estates of the nobles and good men of the Saxon race it is a custom to have a cross, which is dedicated to our Lord and held in great reverence, erected on some prominent spot for the convenience of those who wish to pray daily before it.”

The cross of Christ is often referred to symbolically in the New Testament epistles, and making the sign of the cross on your forehead was common by the second century. Because of the persecutions, however, pictures of crosses are not often found in early Christian art, unless in disguised forms.

But in 312, shortly before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, the future emperor, Constantine, looked at the sun and saw the cross of Christ above it. He took it for a sign, and won the battle.

His mother, St Helena, became an enthusiastic convert. She visited Jerusalem in 326, and at her bidding, Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, made a search and discovered the True Cross.

The first mission to the Northumbrians, that of St Paulinus, began in 625 and ended in 633 when his patron, Edwin, King of Northumbria, was killed in battle.

Oswald, an estranged nephew of Edwin, defeated Cadwallon of Gwyneth at Heavenfield, near Hexham, in 634.

He raised a wooden cross in the place where he intended to give battle and made his men kneel down and pray before it. There must have been many other wooden crosses made after that, but none of them have survived.

We have a fine collection of Anglo-Saxon stone crosses in Northumberland. One of the puzzling things about them is that, rather than the earliest examples being crude and the later ones better, the art of making them seems to have sprung into life in near perfection to be followed by a steady decline in artistic standards.

Who were the men who carved them? And where did they learn both their skill and the motifs that they adorned them with?

We don’t really know, but the Anglo-Saxons were expert wood-carvers, and would have been quick to learn stone-carving from the masons that St Benedict Biscop at Wearmouth and St Wilfrid at Hexham brought over from France.

As for the motifs they used, they came from Ireland, the Mediterranean and, in some cases, from the Byzantine empire.

The inspiration for geometrical patterns, such as interlace, may have been from manuscripts or metalwork and vine scrolls from the monuments lying about in former Roman settlements.

In her introduction to the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, Professor Rosemary Cramp suggests that, once established, the stonemasons would have been based in the larger monasteries, thus giving rise to ‘schools’, each with its own style.

Our earliest example is the Stamfordham Cross, c.750-800, now in Durham Cathedral. Not much of it is left. Its best face (pictured) is decorated with vine scrolls with bunches of grapes.

The vine scroll is symbolic. Jesus said: “I am the vine, ye are the branches.” The grapes represent the wine of Holy Communion.

Of about the same age is the Spital Cross, now in Hexham Abbey. It shows Our Lord’s crucifixion, with a soldier on each side, one (probably) offering him wine on a sponge at the end of a stick, and the other stabbing him in the side with a spear.

Slightly later is the Nunnykirk Cross, now in the Great North Museum. Only the lower half survives, but it is in remarkably good condition. Our picture shows an ‘inhabited’ vine scroll, with two birds facing each other and two animals colliding. One of them is biting one of the fruits, a fairly common trope.

The Rothbury Cross was made in the early ninth century. Part of it supports the font in Rothbury parish church. The rest is in the Great North Museum. In our picture you can see another inhabited vine scroll, but it is also notable for the detailed theological programme behind the pictorial scenes.

The Bothal Cross, of the tenth century, is again only a fragment and is, again, in the Great North Museum. It is, however, well preserved and finely carved, with a flat interlace pattern, very accurately cut. As displayed, it is actually lying on its side. The left hand end is the top.

The Woodhorn Cross is in the former church at Woodhorn. The design is clever, but the workmanship no longer so good.

The Ulgham Cross is of about the time of the Conquest. So little remains, it's amazing it can be dated at all.

What we know about the Anglo-Saxon crosses is necessarily technical, all about dates and styles and schools.

What we lack is any sense of what they meant to the ordinary people who knelt before them with their pressing needs, their hopes and their prayers.

Almost our only glimpse comes from Hygeburg’s description of a mother and father laying their sick little boy at the foot of a cross, “which is dedicated to our Lord and held in great reverence... for those who wish to pray daily before it”.

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