The Northumbrian Church in the 7th and 8th century. Can the study of sculpture help in understanding its theological matters and priorities?

Scientific Essay 2010 12 Pages

Theology - Historic Theology, Ecclesiastical History


In recent years it has been recognised that Anglo-Saxon sculpture may provide a critical insight into the life and practice of the Northumbrian church. As a result, the latter half of the twentieth century saw a considerable resurgence of interest in Anglo-Saxon sculpture, particularly that in Northumbria. This has been further reinforced by the fact that Northumbrian sculpture exists in surprising quantity,[1] and some of the earliest and finest examples of Anglo-Saxon stone sculpture are Northumbrian in origin.[2] In the 7th and early 8th centuries, most decorative effort went into the enrichment of churches internally and externally, however, from the middle of the 8th century onwards, more emphasis was given to external sculpture, and in particular, free-standing crosses.[3] This can be seen in surviving examples, where the sculpture is of excellent quality; the crosses are amongst the most sophisticated monuments of early mediaeval Europe.[4] Whilst there is a vast corpus of smaller or fragmented works, the free-standing crosses are arguably the most important sources for determining sculptural priorities due to their scale and detail; it is therefore on these crosses that this study will place its primary focus. The three most complete are Acca’s cross, Hexham (c.740); the Ruthwell cross (c.750) and the Bewcastle cross (c.750).[5] Each of the surviving crosses differs, both in terms of their execution and the insight that they are able to provide into the theological priorities and practice of the Northumbrian church (see attached appendix for images). Acca’s cross, for instance, is notable because its three visible sides, covered with vine-scroll, are carved in a considerably different style to each other, however the vine-scroll itself tells us comparatively little about theological praxis. The Bewcastle and Ruthwell crosses, however, with their coverings of biblical images and inscriptions, particularly illustrate the intellectual background and theological context of Northumbrian Christianity.[6] Sculpture makes a prominent public statement and reflects historical priorities and social values; as a result, to what extent this sculpture throws light on the theological understanding and priorities of the Northumbrian church is of considerable interest.

Whilst the majority of Northumbrian sculpture is difficult to precisely date, much of the existent sculpture dates from after c.650, and written sources of the period provide an insight into its origins and design methodology. Bede recounts, for example, how Benedict Biscop brought back stonemasons from Europe,[7] after which sculpture was produced in quantity, and certainly before Biscop, sculpture was not prevalent on the same scale as during and after his lifetime. Written sources also confirm the importance of sculpture and symbology in the 7th and 8th centuries; “dressed” stone appears to be a sign of wealth and prestige, and highly regarded.[8] Written and sculpted sources are closely related during this period, and there is certainly some degree of correlation between imagery used on statuary and written manuscripts, as evidenced in a stone bird’s head found at Jarrow and a similar illustration in the Lindisfarne Gospels.[9] This seems to suggest that sculptural forms would share the same priorities and understandings as the written word in the Northumbrian church. This can be seen in the theological understanding of the cross in this period, in particular its increasing centrality as virtuous symbol and sign of victory. For example, Bede records that a wooden cross was erected by Oswald after the battle of Heavenfield in 663;[10] it was said to have miraculous powers. Similarly, the Lives of the Abbots also records that the image of the cross was venerated by Ceolfrith on his pilgrimage to Rome,[11] and after the death of Wilfrid, monks are recorded to have made a cross at which miracles were later performed.[12] The form of the cross is clearly evident in stonework, both on pictorial carvings and also the shape of the monuments themselves. The assertion that the cross was considered to be theologically central in this period can also be seen on the inscription of the Ruthwell cross which is commonly thought to comprise a part of the longer poem the Dream of the Rood; from the fragments of the inscription remaining, it is clear that the cross is presented as a fundamental character in the crucifixion story, speaking in the first person and suggesting the rood’s role in the redemptive process. This understanding is confirmed by a cross slab found at Jarrow, which is inscribed “in this unique sign, life is returned to the world”,[13] suggesting that the cross itself is an agent of salvation, or at the very least a central symbol of new life and eschatological hope. Concurrent to the development of the centrality of the cross as salvific agent was an increasing understanding that the cross was representative of the tree of life, and this is also clearly evident on Northumbrian sculpture. Vine-scrolls are symbols of Christian doctrines of the passion and redemption; by imbuing the cross with this decoration, the sculptor is suggesting that the cross is naturally intertwined with the redemptive process. This appears to have been reflected in Northumbrian theological thought; Bede, in his commentary on Luke, suggests that “the humility of the Saviour at is incarnation is like the mustard seedthe body of the Lord which grew and became a treeand the branches which the tree spreads where the birds rest are the preachers dispersed throughout the world”[14] Here, Bede equates the form of the tree with the body of Christ and the ministry of the Church. Much sculpture, in particular Acca’s Cross, expresses this Christological and crucicentric understanding.

Northumbrian sculpture also appears to suggest that the Northumbrian church regarded the Eucharist as theologically central to the life of the church, and the sculpture seems to suggest that the Northumbrian Church increasingly saw the Eucharist at its heart. For example, the vine-scrolls found in abundance on Acca’s cross and elsewhere can be seen as a symbol of the Church in union with Christ, or the sacramental presence at the Eucharist,[15] and there is at least one example of vine-scroll emanating from a chalice-like construct on the Bewcastle monument (B7).[16] The inclusion of the Agnus Dei on Ruthwell and Bewcastle (R9, B1) are also possibly Eucharistic references- the Agnus Dei being a metaphor for the offering of Christ. These images are placed towards the top of the crosses, indicating their importance. The panels of the Ruthwell cross appear to reflect this understanding, and contain Eucharistic imagery; for example Christ is seated above the panel in which is depicted the desert where Paul and Anthony broke bread together (R11)- clearly a scene of a Eucharistic nature.[17] This understanding is reinforced by some written sources. Certainly by this time the daily reception of the Eucharist had taken on some significance;[18] for example Bede recounts that Caedmon is assertive in giving his followers the Eucharist daily.[19] As a result, it appears that an emerging understanding of Eucharistic centrality was present in the Northumbrian church. This arguably marks the beginning of a process of Eucharistic centralisation that was to culminate in the doctrinal maturation of Eucharistic theology in the twelfth century.[20]

A third distinguishing feature of Northumbrian sculpture is that it clearly illustrates the concept of Christus Victor, and this appears to have been a deeply embedded theological understanding of the Northumbrian Church. It is not difficult to imagine this as being the case in a society where war was an everyday reality and the image of the heroic victor was both socially and politically important, portraying a sense of power and authority important to Northumbrian social structures. Further, the concept of “victory” also appears to have been considered a virtue in and of itself- Bede, when writing of Cadwalla, laments that he does not behave like a victorious king, but rather a tyrant, implying that victory and virtue are interrelated.[21] The prevalence of the Church to think of Christ as victor is evidenced in sculpture in that the scenes depicted are often of Jesus’ miracles (e.g. the healing of the blind man, R5) and frequently, his dominance over beasts (e.g. R1, B3), suggesting his unparalleled authority over the natural world and created order. This image of Christ as conquering hero is reinforced by the poetic inscription on the Ruthwell cross, widely considered to be a part of the larger work the Dream of the Rood. From the fragments of the inscription remaining, Christ is referred to as “brave in the sight of all men” and “a powerful king”, and the poem goes on to describe Christ in explicitly heroic terms (e.g. the “young hero” [line 39]; “bold and courageous” [41]).[22] Therefore the free-standing cross, through proclamation of Christ as victorious hero, appears to have been used as the new sign of victory, very much like the Roman storied column.[23] The use of images from Jesus’ life suggests a narrative account of his life, ministry and death, each within the context of his triumphal resurrection; the crosses commemorate Jesus’ battle and ultimate victory over death. This can also be seen in how Christ in radiant triumph is invariably carved towards the top of any monument (R10, B3). The very architecture of the free-standing cross, in particular their height, suggests a “majestic mounting” of Christ’s victory,[24] and as mentioned the cross itself is also linked directly to Christ’s victory as an agent of salvation. For example, the Dream of the Rood describes the cross as the “victory tree” (line 13),[25] and Christ in majesty invariably wears a crossed halo,[26] suggesting a correlation between the understanding of Christ, the cross and victory. Conversely, images of the crucifixion are comparatively uncommon;[27] when they do appear, they are often on lower areas (such as the cross base found at Hexham[28] and Ruthwell panel R7). This suggests that the Northumbrian church did not concentrate its theological thought upon the actuality of Christ’s death, and instead concentrated on his image as triumphant king, as described above. The Ruthwell cross in particular appears to project an impression of Christ in majesty rather than in suffering,[29] and other sources (e.g. the wooden carving on Cuthbert’s coffin c.698) reflect this understanding. This is in interesting contrast to mediaeval developments, where Christological focus was shifted onto the crucifixion. Overall, the idea of Christus Victor, and a vocation to portray Christ as heroic conqueror, rather than suffering servant, certainly seems to have been a deeply held theological understanding of the Northumbrian church.


[1] R. Cramp, Studies in Anglo-Saxon sculpture, (London: The Pindar Press, 1992), 21.

[2] J. Hawkes, Reading Stone in C. E. Karkov and F. Orton (ed)., Theorizing Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture (Morgantown [West Virginia]: West Virginia University Press, 2003), 6.

[3] Cramp, Studies in Anglo-Saxon sculpture, 25.

[4] D. Rollason, Northumbria, 500-1100: Creation and Destruction of a Kingdom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 19.

[5] Cramp, Studies in Anglo-Saxon sculpture, 31.

[6] Cramp, Studies in Anglo-Saxon sculpture, 33.

[7] Bede, Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow in J. F. Webb, The Age of Bede (London: Penguin, 1998), c.5,191.

[8] Stephen, Life of Wilfrid in J. F. Webb, The Age of Bede (London: Penguin, 1998), (c.22), 130.

[9] Cramp, Studies in Anglo-Saxon sculpture, 23.

[10] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People (L. Sherley-Price, trans., revised by R. E. Latham, London: Penguin, 1990), III, 2.

[11] Bede, Lives of the Abbots, (c.17), 205.

[12] Stephen, Life of Wilfrid, (c.6), 181.

[13] R. Cramp, Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture in England [Vol.1: County Durham and Northumberland] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 112-113.

[14] G. Henderson, Bede and the Visual Arts in Bede and His World: The Jarrow Lectures (vol. 2) 1979-1993 (Aldershot: Variorum, 1994), 523.

[15] Cramp, Studies in Anglo-Saxon sculpture, 31.

[16] J. Lang, The Anglian Sculpture of Deira: The Classical Tradition in Bede and His World: The Jarrow Lectures (vol. 1) 1958-1978 (Aldershot: Variorum, 1994), 857.

[17] E. O’Carragain, The Necessary Distance: Imitatio Romae and the Ruthwell Cross in J. Hawkes and S. Mills, Northumbria’s Golden Age (Stroud [UK ]: Sutton, 1999), 192.

[18] The Anonymous Life of Abbot Ceolfrith (c.33), 225.

[19] Bede, Ecclesiastical History (IV, 24).

[20] M. Rubin, Corpus Christi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 347.

[21] Bede, Ecclesiastical History (III, 1).

[22] J. A. Glenn, The Dream of the Rood (online). Available from: http://www.english.ox.ac.uk/oecoursepack/rood/index.html [last accessed 01/03/10].

[23] Cramp, Studies in Anglo-Saxon sculpture, 25.

[24] Cramp, Studies in Anglo-Saxon sculpture, 37.

[25] J. A. Glenn, The Dream of the Rood.

[26] Lang, Anglo-Saxon Sculpture (Aylesbury [UK]: Shire Publications, 1988), 20.

[27] Lang, Anglo-Saxon Sculpture, 22.

[28] Cramp, Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone, 176.

[29] R. Cramp., The Evangelist Symbols and their Parallels in Anglo-Saxon Sculpture in R. T. Farrell, Bede and Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1978), 128.


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Title: The Northumbrian Church in the 7th and 8th century. Can the study of sculpture help in understanding its theological matters and priorities?