Volume I | Chapter 6 | Conclusions Back to catalogue index
by Rosemary Cramp, University of Durham

The foregoing discussions have only highlighted problems which are encountered in any regional study of Anglo-Saxon sculpture, but some familiar dilemmas are etched more sharply because of the nature of the literary and documentary evidence. This must be brought into comparable terms with the material evidence if mutual comparison is to be effected, and such comparison is necessary, if the elusive relationship of craftsmen and patrons, the organization of production, and the role of individuals are to be properly assessed.

The normal documentary progression for southern England, whereby the evidence becomes more specific and voluminous in the tenth and eleventh centuries, does not here apply. For the seventh and first quarter of the eighth century the towering testimony of Bede's Ecclesiastical History is supported by saints' lives such as those of Wilfrid and Cuthbert. These provide not only information which is of chronological importance, such as the foundation dates of churches and monasteries, but also evidence for the importation of craftsmen and works of art and even for how such works were viewed by their contemporaries. The didactic nature of Christian art specified in the Lives of the Abbots is further reflected at Jarrow in slab no. 16 and possibly in the development of the cross as a mechanism for conveying teachings, and forming a new relationship between artifact and observer.

The description of Aethelwold's cross, and the subsequent devotion to it, reinforce the idea that the earliest crosses were produced within the monastic precinct, possibly by monastic craftsmen who would have been conscious of their symbolism in a way that those working in secular workshops supposedly would not. The name of Myredah from the Alnmouth cross may tell us something of the origins of the carver but not of how or where he worked or for whom. Archaeological investigations in the post-war period have produced sculpture in primary contexts for this area at Jarrow — and this is helpful for dating and localizing motifs in the early period — but for the period where the documentary evidence relies solely on the later Durham histories, no sculpture has emerged in an archaeological context. It becomes therefore harder to understand the distinction between the craft tradition and symbolic consciousness, between maker and patron.

Important changes in the social scene produced high quality — even outstanding — stone sculpture at the beginning of the period under review; equally fundamental social changes took place in the ninth and tenth centuries in this area, so that it is sometimes difficult to define the interaction between the tastes, accumulated experience and beliefs of craftsmen, patron or public.

The painstaking copying of existing monuments, such as Auckland, Tynemouth or possibly Aethelwold's lost masterpiece, could have been undertaken by indigenous craftsmen following accepted models, or by immigrant craftsmen carrying out the mandates of conservative patrons. Who is to say if the apparently Christian and Scandinavian motifs on the Sockburn hogback were seen in the same way by the carver and his public? The linked figures holding books and crosses at Aycliffe and Gainford, fragments of vine-scroll or even animals, can be seen as uncomprehended copies, or familiar short-hand.

This area, which at the beginning of the story was central to the reflections of contemporary European art, became increasingly peripheral and out-of-touch. Even the shock-waves of the establishment of the northern Danelaw had diminished by the time they reached the river Wear. Nevertheless the visual symbols of Viking art were adopted and reinterpreted. Sometimes possibly they lost as much in the translation as the symbols of the Early Christian world had done when communicated by the Bernician religious. However, there are at least enough surviving examples to remind one that such problems do exist and must be accounted for.

Back to catalogue index