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The Easby Cross

  • Object:

    Fragment of a cross

  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 800-820 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved sandstone

  • Credit Line:

    Presented by Art Fund

  • Museum number:

    A.9-1931

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 8, The William and Eileen Ruddock Gallery, case FS

The monumental free standing cross was a phenomenon unique to the British Isles and Ireland, and this is one of the finest surviving examples. Carved with great skill, the decoration unites interlace patterns of the British Isles with imagery derived from
mainland Europe, such as the pecking bird and the figures of the apostles.

Physical description

Fragment from the shaft of a sandstone cross, known as the Easby Cross. A rectangular fragment from the middle of the shaft which tapers slightly towards the top. On the front face, five apostles with deep dished halos, three of which are set within an arch, the two others in a register above. Two eroded beasts can be made out to either side of the arch. The whole front face is surrounded by a rope-work border. The back face is adorned with vine-scroll inhabited by a bird pecking at a berry bunch and an equine beast below it. The vine is contained by rope-work to either side but continued both upwards and downwards to fill the full face of the cross when it was complete. The narrow sides of the fragment show alternate panels of interlace and vine-scroll.

Place of Origin

England (made)

Date

ca. 800-820 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Carved sandstone

Dimensions

Height: 49 cm, Width: 27.5 cm, Depth: 15.5 cm

Object history note

Unusually for a monument of its size, the stone from which the fragment is carved, is not local to Easby. the medium grained deltaic sandstone matches stone traditionally produced in the Aislaby quarries of Eskdale near Whitby.
This fragment was formerly built in to the fabric of Easby parish church. It was located over the narrow arch at the east end of the south aisle arcade, with a narrow face visible on the south side towards the chapel. The internal walls from which the fragment was extracted are of late twelfth century date.
Before this fragment was built into the church, molten lead was run in through a hole situated just beneath the equine beast on the back face. Symmeon of Durham recorded the practice of running lead into a stone cross in order to mend a break.The cross had been broken and mended some time betwen its creation about AD.800 and the use of the fragment as a building block in the late twelfth century.
The upper part of the cross shaft was purchased from a private collection in 1930 and this fragment, along with two others, was subsequently purchased for the museum by the National Art-Collections Fund. After removal to the museum the fragment was cleaned of a thick mortar and reassembled in a coherent order.

Historical significance: The importance of The Cross in Anglo-Saxon christianity is reflected in the erection of monumental stone crosses and the production of smaller altar and reliquary crosses. Two poems from the period: Caedmon's Dream of the Rood and Cynewulf's Elene provide further evidence of the key role of The Cross in Anglo-Saxon christian faith. The Dream of the Rood contained in part on the early 8th century Ruthwell Cross and in full in the10th century Vercelli Book, relates the crucifixion of Christ in the words of the cross. Elene, a 1321 line poem, is the earliest and most elaborate English account of the finding of the True Cross by Constantine's mother - Saint Helena.
The tradition of monumental crosses in the north in this period also reflects the early political superiority of the Northern kingdom during the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy; the universal abundance of stone and the flourishing Christianity of the kingdom.
During the period to which the cross has been dated, Easby was in the southern part of the kingdom of Northumbria known as Deira. While the kingdom experienced political turmoil with squabbles over kingship, the church conversely flourished and experienced a single-minded development. The location of Easby close to York, may reflect a link to the city and the thriving church there. This would certainly explain the Carolingian connection to which the decoration attests.
The European connection to the area was two fold. Alcuin joined the court of Charlemagne in 782 and he was in constant contact withYork. His respect for the York library and scholars propagated an infusion of Northumbrian culture into the Carolingian court. A two-way traffic of materials and ideas was established with the Carolingian court.
The other European connection was between York and Rome itself. The classicism of late antique and early ninth-century Rome informed the region’s major monuments in motif and technique. Metropolitan status required frequent visits to Rome for the conferral of the pallium (A woollen vestment conferred by the Pope on archbishops in the Latin Church, who are required to request it as a symbol of their participation in the authority of the Pope and of their right to exercise the power of a metropolitan), this may explain the taste for portraiture of the apostles which became apparent in the region.

Historical context note

Vine-scroll with or without animal inhabitants is one of the most common motifs to be found on monumental crosses. In association with the cross and images of the apostles, vine ornament provides a visual reference to John 15:1-11 in which Christ declares “I am the true vine” and through a vine analogy, establishes what he requires of a disciple. The nature of the Easby vine-scroll is exceptional amongst the preponderance of monumental stone sculpture available.
In seeking to record a sequential development in Anglo-Saxon sculpture using vine-scroll ornament, Professor J. Brönsted picked out the Easby cross as one of the earliest crosses. His assessment was based on a supposition that the ornament originated with foreign artists from the east, who had first-hand knowledge of the vine which gradually degenerated with subsequent generations of artists. Though Brönsted’s analysis of vine-scroll development is no longer widely accepted, the eastern origin of the ornament is most probable, with examples to be found in the Dome of the Rock.
There is evidence to suggest that the scroll was transmitted indirectly from this eastern source to Yorkshire. Ernst Kitzinger suggested that the cross represents an important stylistic stage-post in the iconographic chronology of Anglo-saxon sculpture. Citing oriental origins for the vine-scroll of many Northern crosses, he distinguishes Easby as having a “peculiar, thin and elaborate style” and convincingly concludes that the cross has a definite place in Carolingian art. He identifies a Carolingian ivory held in the Vatican to which the pecking bird on fragment A.9-1931 appears to be closely related and though it is no slavish copy, this close continental parallel has played a key role in dating the cross to the early ninth century. Professor Lang in his recent Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Sculpture states that “For such a work to appear in Yorkshire in the age of Alcuin is no surprise”.

The sides of the shaft stones bear the remains of alternating plant-scroll and interlace panels. The alternation of patterns, shows a continuity in layout and repertoire from early eighth-century monuments such as the Bewcastle and Ruthwell crosses . The strands of interlace are crisp and vertically incised and although they are unique in sculpture, some of the patterns appear on pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels. While different areas of decoration received different levels of treatment on other crosses, the control and elegance of the carving and the experimental variety of the interlace of the Easby cross are of a piece with the whole design of the cross.

Descriptive line

Fragment of a sandstone cross, known as the Easby Cross, from Easby Abbey, near Richmond, Yorkshire, Anglo-Saxon, England, ca. 800-20

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Lang, J. Corpus of Anglo-Saxon stone sculpture.North Yorkshire (Oxford University Press, 2001) pp 98-102
Williamson, P. European sculpture at the Victoria and albert Museum (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1996) p 31
Brönsted, Johannes Early English Ornament (London: Copenhagen: Hachette Ltd. ; Levin & Munksgaard, 1924)
This book is based on a treatise entitled 'Nordisk og fremmed ornamentik i vikingetiden'
Lang, J. The Richmond Review (Richmond : Castle Print, 1994) pp 14 -17
Longhurst, M. "The Easby Cross" Archaeologia Vol. 81 (1931), pp 43-47
Kitzinger, E. "Anglo-Saxon Vine-scroll Ornament" Antiquity 10 1936
Kendrick, T.D. Anglo-Saxon Art to A.D.900 (London: Methuen & Co., ltd, 1938)
Clapham, A.W.English romanesque architecture before the conquest (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930)
Hicks, C. Animals in Early Medieval Art (Edinburgh University Press) p.120
Goldschmidt, Adolph Die Elfenbeinskulpturen (Berlin 1914-1926) p.84 cat. no. 176
Williamson, Paul, The NACF and the National Collection of Sculpture. In National Art-Collections Fund Review,1986, p. 79.

Production Note

From Easby Abbey, near Richmond, Yorkshire

Subjects depicted

Saints; Interlace; Rope-work; Bird; Halo; Vine scrolls; Scroll-work; Horse

Categories

Sculpture; Religion; Christianity

Collection

Sculpture Collection

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