Volume III | Chapter 13 | Techniques of Production of the MonumentsNext Back to catalogue index
by James Lang

Since the production of carved stone monuments was an Insular habit, and was not attempted in most of Scandinavia before the tenth century, the methods and principles of cutting designs prevailed from the Anglian period throughout the Anglo-Scandinavian period. This is not to say that there is unbroken continuity in the production of sculpture, nor that the techniques employed by later carvers were necessarily learnt from Anglian sources. Traditional Insular methodology was simply constant throughout the pre-Conquest period.

Some of the earliest pieces among the York Minster stelae are very finely dressed, possibly with an abrasive stone, their fine-grained limestone responding to subtle tooling. Two degrees of dressing are observable, a slightly rougher version sometimes reserved for a single face, which might have been concealed in some way: no. 13 (Ills. 52–5), for example, has one face distinguished by vertical tooling. On these smooth surfaces the mouldings were deeply incised with great precision, sometimes only a quarter of an inch apart.

The incised saltire decoration of the stelae was picked out with a small punch in the first instance, seen on no. 17 (Ill. 70) to advantage, before scratching joined the craters. Dark pigment may have been applied to the incised lines. It is possible that painted designs, or even inscriptions, were added to the fine surfaces, in which case the extremely delicate ruled parallel lines of no. 18 (Ill. 74) may have served as gridding. Certainly the incised crosses, like that of no. 22 (Ill. 91), were laid out on thin, scratched grid lines, in the manner of the grave-marker from Billingham (no. 14), co. Durham (Cramp 1984, i , no. 14, 52, ii , pl. 18, 89–90; Morris 1974, 51, pl. IV, 1)

As carving developed into low relief, demonstrated in York Minster 25 (Ills. 103–6) which has incised and modelled cutting on adjacent faces, layout techniques remained unchanged. The plain plait of York Minster 1B (Ill. 3) is controlled by parallel horizontals, finely incised through the crossing points of the intended interlace. On face C of that stone (Ill. 4) there are trials and arcs produced by dividers (or nail and string) which match the inhabited scroll of face A. Less accomplished cutting is seen on no. 25, where punching and scoring with little clearing of the background characterize lower-level work of the same period.

For more ambitious ornament, where symmetry and proportion were essential, such as plant-scroll and interlace, there is evidence for preparatory gridding of the surface. It is possible to find surviving 'fix-points' on some monuments: drilled equidistant holes, marking out the edges, or even intersections, of a grid. Units of measure, both of the grid squares and registers of repeating motifs, can be ascertained by relating these fix-points to crucial aspects in the design. Sometimes the grid was lightly incised; elsewhere it may have been chalked in, using the fix-points as a guide.

Ruling and gridding seem to have survived as layout techniques into the Anglo-Scandinavian period. The York Metropolitan School's slabs were produced either on that basis or with templates, as the winged bipeds match very well across the series. Certainly the York Master used a grid created by fix-points like inverted cones drilled into the surface at regular intervals, the construction marks still remaining on his three surviving pieces (Newgate 1 (Ill. 345), Clifford Street 1, and Coppergate 1). The fine grain of his stone has also preserved his tool-marks and certain idiosyncratic cutting techniques. There is evidence for chisels and narrow gouges, as well as the claw-tool for dressing back the ground. It is also possible to reconstruct the movement of his compasses from the fix-points and constructional arcs (Lang 1985, 130–5, figs. 7–8). All these features, along with the punch craters of the initial laying-out, would have been covered by the plaster skin and paint of the finished monument. Indeed, Clifford Street 1's narrow-mesh diagonal grid is marked by very small fix-points within the interlace borders (Ill. 331). Where the gesso has shrunk over these fix-points the surface has cracked into a tiny hole (Lang 1985, 134). The 'English' character of the York Master's work (see Chap. 10) allows for such techniques being used so sophisticatedly. He employed an Insular method represented widely in the Irish Sea province and England.

The Nunburnholme shaft (Ills. 709–28) carries similar evidence of layout and cutting, though its First Sculptor was more proficient, and polished his work with an abrasive stone. He was also capable of cutting inclined and curved planes, unlike his Viking-age successors. It is his work that might have revealed methods of laying out design and cutting to an Anglo-Scandinavian generation of sculptors, for he left his work in an unfinished state (Lang 1977, 76–9; below, p. 000). The first stage of preparing the design was accomplished with the punch, marking out the edges of panels and frames with lines of small cavities. Proportion was kept by reference to lightly incised lines and crosses, perhaps produced through constructional geometry, like the York Master's work. Chisels, one an inch wide, then cut the main relief features, concave surfaces being worked up with a gouge of curved section. The flat background was dressed with a claw-tool. Final smoothing and bevelling of edges were probably achieved by an abrasive stone. The Second Sculptor of Nunburnholme 1 did not venture upon such demanding techniques (Lang 1977, 79–82).

The Ryedale workshop, which produced the Middleton warrior portraits, has been shown by Bailey to have used templates (Bailey 1978, 181–2; idem 1980, 247–9, 253, fig. 73). The work is cruder and less controlled than the York pieces, and the unit of measure differs. It is likely that the large flat areas of such carvings, for example, the torsos of the warriors, were painted with extra detail. The provincialism of the Ryedale monuments may easily be explained by lack of expertise compared with the stones from York. Layout techniques in York itself are much more precise and complicated than those found in Ryedale, perhaps because a more diverse range of models existed in the city. Only the Sinnington fettered beasts (Ills. 804, 807) offer any complexity of construction in Ryedale, and even there the underlying grid is a simplification of some in the York Metropolitan School.

The slabs and shafts of the Metropolitan School provide a considerable body of evidence for methods of laying out the ornament. Spiral scrolls on the leg joints of animals in beast-chains, for example, seem to have doubled as fix-points for diagonal grids. This is seen to advantage on York Minster 2, where one can determine ten and six-and-a-half inch registers, with diagonals controlling the lines of the animals' bodies (Ills. 11–13). This system is echoed at Sinnington and Levisham, and is notably absent in the beasts of the Middleton group, which seem to be free-hand copies. The origin of these undulating animals is discussed elsewhere (see Chap. 9), but the mode of construction is comparable with that of Insular animal ornament in earlier manuscript art, especially in the Macregol Gospels (Hemphill 1912, pl. I; Lang 1984b, 50–1, figs. 1, 4; Lang 1986, 256–8, fig. 4, pl. 10).

Often the cutting of the raw stone into the form of a monument was facilitated by the choice of ready-worked ashlar. At York, Roman building blocks were used as the material for the Minster grave-covers; even a Roman half-column and an earlier Latin inscribed tombstone were pressed into service (Minster, nos. 37, 42). In Ryedale, however, local quarries were used (see Chap. 3). The Coppergate fragment (no. 2; Ills. 327, 329–30) is a rejected piece, with its design only half-finished, and Nunburnholme's First Sculptor left his shaft incomplete, thus providing information about cutting techniques. Evidence of experimentation in form, however, is more rare. Caution led some less able sculptors to cut small cross-heads from within the width of the shaft, and the ringed head may often be a device for minimal cutting of the cross-arms (see Chap. 10 for examples). The fixing of separate cross-heads with a metal dowel was an early practice, for example, Lastingham 3, which continued into the tenth century with monuments like Newgate 1 from York. The latter's fixing-pin was consolidated in its hole by run lead which still survives. This method was employed in the repair of Aethelwold's cross from Lindisfarne, Northumberland, when it was broken by the 'pagans' (Symeon 1882, 39; Cramp 1984, i , 4, note 9).

Other pieces were composite in construction, echoes of carpentry techniques. The head of Nunburnholme 1 must have had a tenon, which slotted into the rectangular mortice in the top of the shaft. This method of joining elements was used at Masham in the North Riding in the ninth century, and at West Tanfield close by (Collingwood 1907, 360; idem 1911, 300, c-e). Short blocks, used as at Tanfield, were assembled compositely in the unusual shaft, York Minster 9 (Ills. 35–7). That piece had a mortise set deeply in its underside and a tenon projecting from the top; the whole shaft would have comprised perhaps four or five such elements. Its ornament suggests a date a century later than its predecessor at Masham.

There are slight remnants of plaster skins and pigment on some of the monuments (Lang forthcoming). Middleton 3 has a flake of dark red paint lying on gesso, and similar remains on the ring-head from St Mary Castlegate, York (no. 3) have been analysed as lime and sand plaster with haematite for the red colouring. 10 Fragments from York Minster also retained haematite upon a plaster ground. No. 6 has a paw standing in relief from a red background, the gesso and pigment reserved to the recessed areas. The fragment of human feet on no. 5, however, retains bands of red used to delineate the edges of the relief carving, and even a suggestion that two shades of the colour were used in conjunction.

Clifford Street 1, from York, has the most complete plaster skin, despite its loss of pigment. It gives the best impression of the 'soft' appearance of the original finished state of the carvings (Ill. 331). The coating may have been an attempt at weather-proofing as much as embellishment. Certainly the colour could be applied more efficiently to a rendered surface than to, say, coarse-grained Millstone Grit. The tiny flecks of red pigment on Newgate 1 lie in punch cavities, so may have become laid there through shrinkage holes in the plaster, of the kind seen on Clifford Street 1 (see above, p. 00).

I am grateful to Stanley Warren for this information.

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