Posted by: kljolly | September 22, 2015

Cuthbert’s Coffin

I have spent the last hour or so over lunch trying in vain to answer a question that should be simple, that I should know the answer to, or at least be able to find in the books, articles, and online resources I have within reach:

Which end is which of the reconstructed Cuthbert coffin?

If the apostle’s side is facing me and the five archangel side is opposite, which way is Christ in Majesty (with the four evangelists) on the lid, head to my left or right?  And which end of the coffin has the Virgin and Child and the other the two archangels, Michael and Gabriel?

Cuthbert's Coffin (World Heritage)

Cuthbert’s Coffin (World Heritage)

I have BEEN there and can’t find any online pictures that indicate which is which or that show enough of an angle to guess.


  1. The lid shows Christ with the symbols of Matthew and Mark above His head and those of Luke and John at His feet. This lid is now a sort of jigsaw of old bits of wood of various sizes. The little square piece incised with the front paws of Mark’s lion juts out from the main body of the jigsaw and almost touches the edge of the new lid. On the photo above this is on the right, just above the head of St. Peter. The representation of Christ is oriented, therefore, head to the right and feet to the left.
    It’s easier to see on:

  2. Thanks, Seumas. So with the apostles facing us in that picture, Christ’s head on the lid is to the right. The end piece on the right looks more like the shape of the two archangels’ fragment rather than the Virgin and Child (can’t see the actual incised images, but the broken edge of the wood seems to match the drawings I have of the archangel end).
    So, if the coffin was placed in the east end of the church, would you place it vertical with the head to the east, or horizontal, with the head north or south?

    • I agree, the end piece on the right does not look like the Virgin and Child panel; however, the bits we can see of the end piece on the left do: the 4 right-hand edge bits of the jigsaw are just visible, showing a wide central gap between bits 2 and 3, and narrower gaps between bits 1 and 2, 3 and 4. This tallies with R. I. Page’s reference (in his discussions of the inscriptions on the coffin) to the Archangels Michael and Gabriel being at the head end, and Mary and Christ at the foot end.
      The coffin would presumably be placed with the feet of the saint to the east, head to the west, according to Christian tradition (so that on resurrection he would be facing in the right direction to see the Second Coming). I think that is how James Raine found him when he opened St. Cuthbert’s tomb in Durham in 1827.

  3. Excellent. So, head of Christ and of Cuthbert’s body on west end, two archangels on west end, Virgin and Child on east end, apostles on north side and 5 archangels on south side, right?
    I had imagined the coffin sideways like an altar rather than like a burial.

    • Right, but, not being a historian, I may be prone to anachronistic thinking, influenced by the layout of the shrine at Durham.
      Eschatological considerations aside, a west-east orientation with the coffin at least 10ft from any wall would optimize the use of space in a rectangular building. This would allow for gatherings and processions around on solemn occasions. Like you, I see the coffin at the eastern end of the church, but with the altar at the saint’s head with a narrow, but dignified space between altar and coffin.

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