An Anglian treasure
The Ruthwell Cross was carved in the first half of the 8th century, at a time when south-west Scotland lay within the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria.
The cross may have stood within a church, or more likely in the open air. It possibly served as a preaching cross – a focus to help priests bring the Christian gospel to their flock.
It is the most important work in Scotland of the Anglo-Saxon Jarrow–Monkwearmouth school of sculpture, and remarkably similar to the Bewcastle Cross, across the border in Cumberland.
The 5.5m high cross stood until 1644, when it was smashed up as an ‘idolatrous monument’. In 1802 the various fragments were reassembled, and in 1887 the cross was re-erected inside Ruthwell Church.
A New Testament lesson in stone
Two of the four faces are carved with New Testament scenes. Latin inscriptions describe the various panels. The south face has (from bottom to top): the Crucifixion; the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary; Jesus healing the man born blind; Mary Magdalene anointing Jesus’s feet; industrious Martha and contemplative Mary; and St John the Evangelist (this last was originally on top of the north face, but was reassembled incorrectly in 1823).
The north face has (from bottom to top): the flight (or return) of Mary, Joseph and Jesus from Egypt; St Paul and St Anthony breaking bread (symbolic of the spiritual nourishment of monastic life); Christ as the Judge of Righteousness; the Apocalypse Vision; St Matthew; and an eagle (symbol of Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension).
A poem in runes
The two other faces are carved with swirling vines with birds and animals eating the grapes, symbolising the Eucharist. Such designs are common on Northumbrian sculpture.
The vine scroll is surrounded by Anglo-Saxon runes (a twig-like alphabet). In 1840 these runes were deciphered as the text of an Old English poem, The Dream of the Rood
, which tells the story of the Crucifixion from the Cross’s point of view. One passage reads:
‘I raised the powerful king
The lord of the heavens
I dared not fall down …
They reviled us both together.
I was all stained with blood
Poured from the man’s side.’
Destruction and reconstruction
The Church of Scotland ordered the cross’s destruction in 1642, believing it to be ‘idolatrous’. The minister reluctantly obeyed. In 1771 the two largest fragments were hauled outside the kirk to make way for new pews.
They lay there until 1802, when the Rev Dr Henry Duncan had them re-erected in his manse garden along with another fragment found during grave-digging. In 1823, despairing of ever finding the missing headpiece, Duncan commissioned a local mason to carve a new cross arm. The reassembled cross was returned to the kirk in 1887, in a specially designed apse.
- The situation – in a quiet country kirk.
- The carved ornament – among the best in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.
- The figurative panels – brush up on your New Testament knowledge.