The Ruthwell Cross

Me at Caerlaverock Castle

Yesterday, on a madcap journey about the Scottish side of the Solway Firth, some friends, my wife, and I visited Sweetheart Abbey, Caerlaverock Castle, the Ruthwell Cross, and (accidentally) a section of Hadrian’s Wall. The most interesting of these items was, in fact, Caerlaverock Castle, being the only castle I’ve visited with a moat full of water.

But since this is my blog about Christian stuff, I’m here to talk about the Ruthwell Cross.

According to Historic Scotland, the Ruthwell Cross is a late-seventh-century (others say eighth-century) Anglo-Saxon stone cross erected in Ruthwell back in the days when this part of Scotland was part of the ancient kingdom of Northumbria. A few decades, then, after the Sutton Hoo ship burial with its very fine artefacts; probably within the lifetime of the historian/Biblical scholar/Latinist/antiquarian/monk Bede (saint of the week here).

St Wilfrid was alive and active at this time — the North of England and South of Scotland had been largely Christianised in this century through the efforts of people like Wilfrid and Sts Aidan (saint of the week here), Cuthbert (saint of the week here), and Kentigern/Mungo (saint of the week here). King Offa of Mercia (in the Midlands) has yet to be born, but his pagan predecessor Penda — last pagan king in England — is dead. We are still a century from the Vikings’ arrival as raiders in Northumbria, and less than a century from the (possibly) Ruthwell-inspired Dream of the Rood. Beowulf may have been written by the time the Ruthwell Cross was erected; then again, maybe not. The Ruthwell Cross is contemporary to the Lindisfarne Gospels.

All of this is the context of the Ruthwell Cross. The peoples of Britain are fighting one another, largely Christianised, producing world-class literature in both Latin and Old English, producing beautiful works of sculpture and manuscript illumination. The material culture of the Anglo-Saxon world of Northumbria bears the marks of its Celtic neighbours/enemies/subjects, the far-off Mediterranean world of Rome and Constantinople, and homegrown ‘Germanic’ images.

In what many of this isle would consider a far-off hinterland, someone erected this cross to the honour and glory of Christ, the true King and Champion:

North side of the Ruthwell Cross

I first heard of this cross in the Everyman Book of Anglo-Saxon Poetry that includes a translation of the poem inscribed on it in Anglo-Saxon runes. I had no idea it would be so . . . big (5.2 m tall). And full of pictures. And also have Latin on it. But it is and does and does. The faces are carved with images from the Gospels as well as a couple of saints, although I’m not sold that the image with ‘ST PAVLVS’ inscribed over it is actually Sts Antony and Paul because the rest are biblical. Maybe there’s more inscriptional evidence I could not figure out. The sides are carved with vine designs of high quality.

Anyway, here are some images from our trip to see the cross:

Security was tight at the Ruthwell Cross
I have the key!
Unlocking the door to Ruthwell’s church
We survey the wondrous cross
Top carving: Christ’s feet being anointed by Mary; Below: Healing the man born blind
South side of the Ruthwell Cross; people don’t know what the archer dude up top means. Maybe, ‘Archers are awesome’?
Side view of the vine motif
Christ glorified, from the north side of the cross
Vine carvings on the other side of the cross
Some of the runes that make up the poem, on the narrow edges

It is housed inside the local parish church at Ruthwell. This, as I understand, is about where it stood for 1600 years, until in the 1630s it was broken into bits and stored beneath the floorboards of the church because it is, apparently, idolatrous. In the 1800s it was removed and taken outside to the manse garden. Later that same century, it was returned to the interior of the church. The cross arms are missing, and what you see on it is a nineteenth-century carving that is not based on anything other than fantastic Victorian whimsy.

The Anglo-Saxon runes say this (taken from the BBC):

God almighty stripped himself,
when he wished to climb the Cross
bold before all men.
to bow (I dare not,
but had to stand firm.)

I held high the great King,
heaven’s Lord. I dare not bend.
Men mocked us both together. I was slick with blood
sprung from the Man’s side…)

Christ was on the Cross.
But then quick ones came from afar,
nobles, all together. I beheld it all.
I bowed (to warrior hands.)

Wounded with spears,
they laid him, limb weary. At his body’s head they stood.
They that looked to (heaven’s Lord…)

Like the Dream of the Rood, the Ruthwell Cross inscription combines the suffering of Christ on the cross with the marital values of Anglo-Saxon society. Such a blending of imageries is also visible in the poem Andreas as well as in Beowulf — the difference being that in Andreas a Mediterranean Christian tale is given Germanic warrior virtues, and in Beowulf a Germanic warrior tale is given a few Christian morals and references. In the Lindisfarne Gospels, the blend of Anglo-Saxon and Mediterranean is visual, not ideological.

Anyway, this blending shows the might of Christ, mocked on the Cross but still the great King. He is at once in control, choosing to mount the Cross, and at the mercy of others, wounded with spears. It is the great mystery of the Cross, put into a form that Anglo-Saxon culture could comprehend.

All in all, it was a delight to see this large, magnificently-carved monument from ages past. May we today find ways of communicating the timeless power of the Cross to our own culture.

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5 thoughts on “The Ruthwell Cross

  1. […] The Germanic-speaking peoples of western, northern, and central Europe are also imagined to be culturally monolithic in much the same way Celtic-speaking peoples are. This sort of ethnography is not precisely helpful when trying to understand a particular object or moment of history. Let us turn now to the Ruthwell Cross, which is in modern Scotland (early mediaeval Bernicia-Deira/Northumberland) near the Solway Firth. It’s very awesome and worth a visit — I’ve blogged about it here. […]

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