Made in the 8th century, the Ruthwell Cross is one of the most impressive monuments to survive from the Anglo-Saxon period. Found in the village of Ruthwell in south-west Scotland, this stone cross stands at over five metres high and is elaborately carved with inscriptions and scenes from the life of Christ.
What is the significance of the Ruthwell Cross?
The Ruthwell Cross is important for several reasons. Firstly, it is one of the best examples of ‘insular art’ – the artistic tradition which flourished in Britain and Ireland after the departure of the Romans. Secondly, the cross was made at an early point in this period. Thirdly, its surface is carved with inscriptions in Latin and also in Old English – the language of the Anglo-Saxons – using the runic alphabet. It is unusual to find runes on a Christian monument.
These inscriptions appear alongside classically influenced vine-scroll designs (which show interlacing vine leaves inset with birds and animals) and carved scenes showing Christ and various other religious figures. Though scholars agree that it was probably used as a preaching cross, there is some debate about exactly what these scenes are. One is very likely to be Christ treading on the beasts – an image we also find on a similar monument called the Bewcastle Cross. This shows Christ in a position of dominance over two creatures. Another image shows Mary Magdalene washing Christ’s feet, which is an episode from the Gospels. The cross was probably originally painted.
Why is the Ruthwell Cross important for literary historians?
The cross is important for the history of English literature because it contains an inscription in runes of a version of The Dream of the Rood – one of the oldest surviving Old English poems. This poem tells the story of the crucifixion of Christ from the perspective of the tree that was cut down to make the cross to which Christ was nailed. The only other surviving copy of this text is in the Vercelli Book, a late 10th or early 11th century manuscript now housed in Vercelli Cathedral’s Chapter Library, in northern Italy.
During the time of the Reformation the Ruthwell Cross was pulled down and partially buried. It was only reconstructed in the 19th century.