Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 8608
  • Author(s)/Creator(s): Hawkes , Jane.
  • Contributor(s):
  • Title: Sermons in Stone: Sculpture, Iconography, and the Christianization of the North
  • Source: Old English Newsletter 29, 3 (Spring 1996):
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Conference Paper Abstract
  • Subject (See Also): Archaeology Art history- Sculpture Monasticism Northumbria Whitby, Yorkshire, England- Abbey
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 7-8
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  • Abstract: The place of Whitby in the process of Christianization in the North of England during the seventh century has long been recognized. The relationship of the early abbesses, Hild and her niece Œlfflœd, to successive rulers of Northumbria; the decision to hold what is seen as such a decisive synod at Whitby in 664; the innovative use of secular poetic norms within Christian contexts, credited to the Whitby laborer, Credmon; and Œlfflœd's role in the return of her half-brother, Aldfrith, to rule the kingdom in 685 (to mention the most celebrated factors) - all were critical in the fonnation of the Church and its relationship to Northumbrian society. And yet, the archaeology of the site, which has proved to be one of the more elusive of known monastic centers in northeastern England to have been excavated, has revealed a complex which was not grandiose or impressive in its day. Its inhabitants were undoubtedly well-attired and had access to many luxuries, but their surroundings would not have rivalled the centers being constructed elsewhere (by Wilfrid and Biscop at Hexham, Ripon, Jarrow or Monkwearmouth) in the mid to late seventh century. The sculpture associated with the site conforms with this impression. The so-called "pillow-stones," the main type of monument found on the site, are beautifully but very simply decorated and there is some indication that they may not have been intended for public viewing, being buried in the ground with the body. Apart from these pieces, very little sculpture has survived from Whitby, and none of it utilizes figural carving. Related sites show a similar paucity of material: the primary monument-type at Hartlepool, for instance, seems also to have been the pillow-stones; this continues to be the case throughout the seventh and eighth centuries. But elsewhere, during the eighth century, the large-scale monumental crosses so definitive of Northumbrian Anglo-Saxon sculpture begin to appear in the landscape, although none have been associated with centers such as Whitby; it is only in the late eighth and ninth centuries that sculptural activity at Lindisfarne begins to show an interest in large-scale monuments decorated with figural carving. The eighth- and early ninth-century figural monuments - such as those at Ruthwell, Bewcastle and Rothbury, or Masham, Hovingham and Cundall - all emerged from workshops associated with the ecclesiastical centers founded in the "second wave" of monastic activity in the North - centers such as Jarrow-Wearmouth, whose founders looked deliberately to Rome for their inspiration. Much of the figural carving of these monuments illustrates narrative scenes from the Bible; but many of the panel are not narrative in their frame of reference: they depict iconic hierarchical images, such as Christ in Majesty, or the saints of the Church standing with books and scrolls, and the narrative images themselves often have a significance pointing to the power and authority of the Church. Much has been written on the liturgical and devotional purpose of such carvings, and although some of the monuments did undoubtedly function (at one level) in this way, their appearance and the choice of many of the images indicate that they were also products of an institution, well-established in Northumbria, which utilized them to proclaim its own status as much as the religion it advocated. They are the product of a Church whose involvement in the Christianization of the North was manifestly different from that adopted by centers such as Whitby [Reproduced by permission of Robert Schicler, the “Abstracts of Papers in Anglo-Saxon Studies” editor, and the editors of the “Old English Newsletter.”].
  • Author's Affiliation: University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne
  • Conference Info: - , -
  • Year of Publication: 1996.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 00301973
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