Between continental models, a Christian message, and a Scandinavian audience: Early examples of the image of 'Christ trampling the Beasts' in the British Isles
Dirk H. Stein forth
Abstract: The image of ‘Christ trampling the beasts’ (often illustrating Psalm 91:13) is well known in early Christian art, from Mediterranean lamps and mosaics to Carolingian book covers and illuminations. In the British Isles before the tenth century, however, it is rare, represented most famously in one book illumination and two memorial stones. The design seen on a stone in Burton-in-Kendal (Cumbria, England) and on a Viking-Age cross slab in Kirk Andreas (Isle of Man) appears to have been inspired by those models, indicating contact and exchange of ideas with the Continent. Furthermore, the imagery of the Manx stone includes a scene from pagan mythology, namely one of the Viking apocalypse, the Ragnarqk. This places the stone’s design between native Christianity and residual Norse paganism on the Island and betrays lingering connections with Scandinavia. This discussion investigates the different iconographical links and influences the artisans who created the British stones’ imagery appear to have drawn on, both by comparing the Christian images to Continental examples and by analysing the meaning of Norse mythology on a Christian gravestone.
Introduction: images of Christ and the Beasts
A great many different passages from the Bible have been visualised in Christian art, frequently depicting the overcoming of Evil as well as promising divine protection from harm for those who believe in the Christian God and their Resurrection at the End of Days. One of these is the well-known Psalm 91:13:
Super aspidem et basiliscum calcabis conculcabis leonem et draconem,
Upon the viper and the cockatrice you shall tread, And you shall trample the lion and the dragon.
Illustrations of these lines generally show the triumphant Christ, holding aloft a cross (often slung across one shoulder) and a book, and either standing serenely on a number of snarling beasts - a serpent, a lion, a basilisk, and a ‘dragon’ (frequently reduced to only the lion and the serpent) - or actively aiming the pointed end of his long-shafted cross (or, occasionally, a spear) down at them in a warrior’s attitude. Apart from the characteristic range of animals and mythical beasts, the reference to the Psalm is made clear in several examples either by alluding directly to its text by means of a short inscription in the book depicted in Christ’s hand or indeed by the proximity of the image to the Psalm in its entirety.
While the reduction to two beasts is quite common in the motif, it could be argued that a single serpent beneath Christ’s feet, rather than representing the animals referred to in Psalm 91:13, might symbolise the Devil, as mentioned in Revelation 20:2:
Et adprehendit draconem serpentem antiquum qui est diabolus et Satanas et ligavit eum per annos mille,
And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a 1000 years.
These scenes would thus depict the overcoming of the monster that is Satan by Christ prior to the Day of Judgement and the coming of the New Jerusalem. Using the serpent as a personification of evil, against which protection or the power to tread on with impunity is promised, is common in the Bible, as in Luke 10:19 and Mark 16:17-18, and its destruction is linked to the messianic assurance of Paradise, such as Isaiah 11:8—9.2
All of these passages and the images of both variants of Christ standing triumphantly over the serpent and/or other evil monsters, however, convey a message quite similar to the one in the Psalm, one closely connected to the promise and expectation of Resurrection.
Apart from book illuminations and carved ivory book covers illustrating the corresponding lines in psalters or homilies, the scene is known from a variety of media, such as clay lamps, mosaics and stucco reliefs (mainly on church walls), sarcophagi, or stone churchyard crosses and grave markers. In these sepulchral contexts, the image - besides being a profoundly eschatological motif- takes on an apotropaic quality as well.
The motif of ‘Christ trampling the beasts’ is well known from sites in the eastern Mediterranean, Byzantine Italy, and the Frankish Kingdoms, but there are only few examples in the British Isles at first. Here, the earliest examples appear to be on two tenth-/eleventh-century stone monuments from Cumbria and the Isle of Man, with the latter also showing distinct links to the Vikings’ homelands in Scandinavia. This puts it in an intriguing position between Christian Biblical imagery and pagan Norse mythology' during a period of syncretism on the Island.
This paper outlines the Christian motifs history in antique and early medieval religious art by providing a comprehensive ‘tour’ of the most important examples from the earliest known occurrences to the eleventh century, which inform our understanding of the two British monuments. The role these precursors and ostensible models played in the design of the imagery of the two stones from the Isle of Man and Cumbria is then examined, as they demonstrate long-distance connections between rather remote places in the British Isles and the Continent. In the same way, it then investigates the links between Man and Scandinavia expressed in the carving of the other face of the fragmentary Manx stone -designated Kirk Andreas MM 128 or ‘Thorvald’s Cross’ - that is depicting scenes of pagan mythology next to the Christian cross. Although it is one of the best-researched examples of the Viking-Age stone monuments the Isle of Man is justly famous for, the bicultural backgrounds of its imagery have not been analysed in greater detail yet, and the Cumbrian stone in Burton-in-Kendal has hardly ever been subject of scholarly interest. The final section takes a look on the various forms and levels of ‘international’ influences and interchange during the ninth to eleventh centuries, which made it possible for both the Christian motifs and the Scandinavian imagery to reach the Insular workshops that produced the remarkable stone monuments.