Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Ruthwell Cross

 Previous blog entries related to this note: 
  1. Jesse Tree Wood: Trunk, Vine, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit-Part 5 [Ruthwell Cross]
  2. Jesse Tree Wood: Trunk, Vine, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit-Part 6  [Dream of the Rood]

The Ruthwell Cross is usually considered with the Bewcastle Cross and the Brussels Cross because they all contain Old English runic inscriptions. I have mentioned both the Ruthwell and Brussels crosses and their inscriptions that reference the poem Dream of the Rood previously. No point in repeating. Both the poem and the two stone crosses, Ruthwell and Bewcastle, all seem to date from the 8th century. The Ruthwell Cross with its conscious use of sculptural references to Christian iconography and its use of vine scrolls with flowers, fruit, birds makes Christian the use of motifs that were previously pagan.

The Ruthwell Cross is a large, seventeen foot, standing cross, made in Northumbria on the border with Pictish territory in the 8th century. The cross now stands in a church in Dumfriesshire, south-west Scotland. The cross lost its tops and horizontal cross bar or transom when the cross was pulled down and smashed in 1644 during the iconoclasm of the English Civil War because the cross was considered idolatrous.  The cross probably stood near where it is currently located in Dumfriesshire, Scotland though the lower carvings suggest that the cross was moved once.  When the cross was re-erected in the 19th century, a new transom was carved with part of the old top. 

In 2014, a Viking hoard of silver, gold, crystal and silk was found on Church of Scotland land not far from the site of the cross. (Galloway Hoard). According to the BBC account, the objects in the hoard were accumulated over a hundred or more years before they were buried. Their origins include not only Irish silverwork, Anglo-Saxon brooches, but also a Carolingian silver-copper alloy pot and Byzantine silk.  There are coins, arm rings, ingots, a silver cross, a gold pin that resembles a crane or heron, among other objects. Apparently buried in the corner of a wooden building, the trove was buried at two levels.  The building is not far from the ruins of a monastery.  But what relationship the building within its double ditched enclosure had with the nearby monastery is not known. It seems probable that the Viking building was constructed after the destruction of the monastery. The hoard was buried in the late 800s or early 900s. Some of the objects such as the silver cross of Irish design, the Carolingian lidded silver alloy pot (perhaps a ciborium), the Byzantine-style gold reliquary, and the silk fabric certainly suggest that some of the objects were looted from a church and/or monastery.  Other objects would have come from high status men and women. The burial of the hoard could have been linked to unrest as a result conquest on York and Northumbria in 927 by the Anglo-Saxon king Athelstan or Æthelstan.  Another hoard from a somewhat later time period called the Vale of York hoard is more clearly linked to Æthelstan’s northern victory.

 Anglo-Saxon silver brooch from the Galloway hoard. There is fabric still attached to the broach.

This small pendant with its Byzantine granulation gold might once have been a reliquary containing a bone from a saint or some other holy relic.

Another archeological dig just west of Dumfries on Trusty’s Hill in 2012 revealed a nucleated fort built about 600. Among the buildings on the site is a metalworking shop where bronze, silver, gold and iron was found. It is suggested that this was a royal household that controlled the farming, animal husbandry, and perhaps mining in the wider Fleet Valley. Pictist language carvings found on and near the site have not been translated.

My point in mentioning the Galloway hoard and the finding of a royal fort (perhaps even Rheged) is that the Ruthwell Cross was not located in a distant and obscure backwoods crossroad. [Rheged is generally taken to mean a kingdom in what is now Cumbria.  The stronghold found at Trusty's Hill may have represented a center of power in the early 7th century.] Though this area is north of Hadrian’s wall, there were roads and ports.  The Picts were trading with Ireland and continental Europe. The monks and stone masons who erected and carved the Ruthwell cross were addressing people with an established culture, language and writing.  These are hardly backward barbarians even if the name Pict derives of Latin for painted people. These people were literate, cultured, and a political elite. The conversion of the social and political elite to Christianity was the pattern for conversion from paganism that was well established in Ireland and by the Gregorian mission to Kent.

The Ruthwell cross includes texts in Latin that would have been understood by the clergy and runes by literate Anglo-Saxon monks and probably the Picts. The Old English runes on the Ruthwell Cross are quite different from Pictish runes that has not been translated.  The Latin verses appear on the sides of the cross with biblical carvings, now north and south, though these would have been the east and west faces.  The Old English runic writing appears of the sides of the cross with vine and animals, that are now east and west sides of the cross, though these should be the north and south faces. 

 The north and south faces contain lines of poetry in Runes that are close to the Dream of the Rood as we have it from a late 10th or early 11th century manuscript in the Vercelli book.  The Dream of the Rood poem does not call the Cross of Jesus a Tree of Life as does Cynewulf’s Elene.  The date of Cynewulf’s Elene is uncertain, perhaps 9th or 10th century. Elene is a retelling of Helen’s search for and finding of the True Cross written in West Saxon and some Angle. In any case, Éamonn Ó Carragáin has made a strong argument for the interpretation of the Latin verses, runes, carvings and the vine scrolls with leaves, flowers and fruit as representing Baptism and the Holy Eucharist.[i]  The vines and fruit represent the Garden of Eden and the Holy Eucharist (and by extension the sacrificial death of Jesus for our sins) for Christians.  For the pagan Picts, their belief in sacred trees or the presence of spirits in the tree, would easily understand the scrolled vines as representing something sacred. The vine-tree links heaven and earth, the spiritual and the concrete for both pagans and Christians. As such, it would have been a useful tool for conversion to Christianity of the pagan tribes of Northumbria.
Detail of north (now east) face of the Ruthwell Cross.  From the Visionary Cross Project.

The runic inscription is in the Old English language. It reads: (across the top) [+ ond]gere; (down the right side) dæ hinæ god almeittig · þa hewalde on galgu gistigamodig f[ore] [allæ] men [b]ug … [ahof] ic riicnæ kyniŋc · heafunæs hlafard hælda ic ni dorstæ [b]ismærædu uŋket men ba æt[g]ad[re i]c [wæs] miþ blodi bist[e]mi[d] bi[got][en of þæs gumu sida]… Translation: ‘Almighty God stripped himself when he wished to mount the gallows, brave in the sight of all men. I dared not bow. I [raised aloft] a powerful king. The Lord of heaven I dared not tilt. Men insulted the pair of us together. I was drenched with blood [begotten from that man’s side].

Detail of south (now west) face.

The runic inscription is in the Old English language. It reads: (across the top) [+k]ris[t] wæs on; (down the right side) rodi hweþræ þer fusæ fearran kwomu æþþilæ til anum ic þæt al bi[h][eald] s[aræ] ic w[æ]s · mi[þ] so[r]gu[m] gi[d]rœ[fi]d h[n]a[g]…; (down the left side) miþ s[t]re[l]um giwundad alegdun hiæ [h]inæ limwœrignæ· gistoddu[n h]im [æt] [his] [li][c]æs [hea]f[du]m [bih]ea[ld]u[n h]i[æ þ]e[r]… Translation: + Christ was on the cross. But eager ones came hither from afar. Noble ones came together. I beheld all that. I was terribly afflicted with sorrows. I bowed [to the hands of men], wounded with arrows. They laid him down, limb-weary; they stood at the shoulders of the corpse. They looked upon the Lord [of heaven].

These stone crosses would have been painted. It is fun to imagine the vines and leaves in green, colored flowers and fruit. I wonder how the birds and creatures would have been painted?  The biblical scenes on the cross would have been painted as well, making interpretation of scenes and symbols much easier than now when the stone is so worn. The painted high cross at the National Heritage Park is not as colorful as the Ruthwell cross would have been.
The painted high cross at National Irish Heritage park.

In summary, it seems as though the Ruthwell Cross stands at a special point in time when the green vine scrolls at are carved on the stone cross bring to mind not just the symbolism of the wooden cross as an instrument of death and sacrifice, but also the cross as green and living Tree of Life. That phrase was not yet applied to the Cross of Jesus in the early 8th century, as far as I am able to discern. It seems clear to me that the idea of the cross as having a life of its own and being a force for giving life-sustaining salvation is already firmly established even if the words Arbor vitae or Lignum vita were not yet applied to the concept.

Next I plan to write a bit about the Bewcastle Cross. The Bewcastle Cross and the Ruthwell Cross both share curious carvings of Jesus Christ with his hands in front  standing on the snouts of two fantastic animals without sword or spear.

[i] Éamonn Ó Carragáin. Ritual and the Rood: Liturgical Images and the Old English Poems of the Dream of the Rood Tradition. (2005) London: The British Library.

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