One of my aims in our four day jaunt around Lancashire and the Peak District, besides experiencing the landscape, was viewing Anglo-Saxon stone monuments. I already posted on a few at Heversham and Heysham at at Bakewell. We also stopped at Sandbach, Eyam, and Wirksworth, the first site an expected known one and the latter two more surprising for their Anglo-Saxon artifacts.
I must admit to not being able to take in Sandbach very well. It was a gray day, we were still damp from our foray onto the Heysham headland, and the crosses are very weathered, as well as behind a fence. Nonetheless, they are quite imposing monuments. The complex iconography I will trust to Jane Hawkes (The Sandbach Crosses: Sign and Significance in Anglo-Saxon Culture) and other scholars who have looked at it more closely. I think the crosses would have been easier to enjoy if still painted, as imagined by English Heritage.
Eyam in Derbyshire, famous as the plague village that heroically sealed itself off from outside contact in 1665, had three Angl0-Saxon stone monuments of interest: a cross, a font, and slabs. The outdoor cross is 8th century and missing a section, which made it look stubby by comparison to the Sandbach crosses (or Gosforth!). However, it was bedecked with angels, a quite reassuring monument if one is worried about death and the afterlife.
The font was a surprise, since we did not know it was there until we saw it across the nave, clearly recognizable as of Anglo-Saxon vintage (unlike the more Norman one near the entrance). It may look plain, but we were very excited to find it in a village we otherwise visited only for its plague fame.
The font raises all kinds of fun questions about baptism rituals and their iconography, which I heard about at Leeds from Carolyn Twomey (“Basins and Baptisms: The Material Culture in Early Medieval Britian”), in a session also featuring Victoria Whitworth, who may want to comment further as a stone specialist (among other things). I had not thought about other implements used in baptism, but apparently a spoon or ladle figures prominently as the device for pouring water over the candidate for baptism, as well as basins and other foot-bath like vessels in which they would stand–Jesus’ baptism is often shown this way. But full sized stone fonts like this one, hardly moveable, come later and replace that more portable system. I gather one holds an infant over the font while pour water over them with such a spoon, although I still think of William of Malmesbury’s apocryphal story of St. Dunstan baptizing the future King Æthelred Unready, who “shat” in the waters, presaging the difficulties of his reign! By the way, Google turns up a lot of St. Dunstan silver christening spoons, if any one is looking for one.
The slabs, back outdoors at Eyam, are likewise plain but evocative of the simple cross slab markers that might have been a much more common sight in the tenth century than the more famous and elaborate cross monuments.
Wirksworth offered an even more baffling stone artifact, apparently a coffin lid? The carved scenes are so complicated we picked up the brochure in the church just to sort it out, but even that left me confused on the possible sequence, assuming the scenes are meant to be a narrative. The stone was discovered in 1820, two feet under the pavement in front of the altar and face down over a stone vault with an intact human skeleton. The right edge of the stone is broken off, so we don’t have a full picture.
The church brochure labels the scenes A, B, C, D across the top, left to right, and E, F, G, H across the bottom from left to right. However, A, B, E, and F on the left end top and bottom make a more coherent narrative (Christ washing the disciples’ feet, the crucifixion, descent into hell, and ascension) than C, D, G, H on the right end, which are identified respectively as (C) the burial procession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, (D) presentation of Christ in the temple, (G) annunciation, and (H) “mission” (Peter, a boat, the BVM with baby Jesus holding a scroll and pointing to Peter). This last identification doesn’t fit as well with the Marian emphasis, which may be due to the missing bits. It still presents a sequence issue, unless you find a way to put H (bottom right) first, then move left to the annunciation, then up and right the presentation, then left to Mary’s burial, but that does not follow the clearer sequence found on the left end with A-B-E-F. Maybe we need to reinterpret the carvings?
Wirksworth also had a lot of bits of Anglo-Saxon stone work embedded here and there in its walls, sort of like a treasure hunt (unlike Bakewell, where someone gathered the pieces into a collage). Here is a rather embarrassed-looking Adam with serpent and fruit.
While these stone monuments complement my landscape view of the tenth century, I have to keep reminding myself that the vast majority of human artifacts–wood, textile, clay, glass–have not survived as well as stone. So what we see is more the monumental or exceptional and less of the everyday.