Desktop version

Home arrow History

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font


<<   CONTENTS   >>

International links: influences and imports from across the seas

Connections and interchange between the British Isles and the Continent have existed for a long time, reaching back in time to the seventh century BC and beyond.41 During the Anglo-Saxon period, organised trade was conducted between emporia and their hinterlands along both coasts of the English Channel, and though Viking incursions caused a certain disruption and necessitated some reorganisation, the old traffic routes remained important and active.

Apart from the exchange of goods, they guaranteed the transport of passengers, such as clerics and pilgrims on their way to Rome, as well as exiles, wives, and messengers,42 for example, between the Anglo-Saxon and the Frankish empires. This kind of travel also served to ensure the perpetuation of relationships on a personal level as well as the pursuit of political and dynastic interests, such as between royal and church elites: the ninth-century Anglo-Saxon kings considered the Old Saxons in Northern Germany kin, and many marriages and family connections linked the royal houses of the tenth century on both sides of the channel, which called for expensive presents to be exchanged, among them precious books.4’ When, for instance, the Saxon Liudolfing Henry I in 929 was looking for a royal bride for his son - the later Roman Emperor Otto I - he dispatched an envoy to Æthelstan of Wessex. With him, he sent to the king the gift of a Gospel book produced at Lobbes near Liège (modem France), which was then given to Christ Church, Canterbury (London, British Library, MS. Cotton Tiberius A II), and Æthelstan reciprocated by sending an Evangeliary to the Ottonian court (Coburg, Germany, Landesbibliothek, MS I).44

As early as the later sixth century, the Church sent out Hiberno/Scottish and Anglo-Saxon missionaries such as Columba the Younger and Boniface, in order to bring Christianity to the Franks, Saxons, and Frisians, and established monasteries and nunneries on the Continent. The clerics from the British Isles introduced Insular style to local narrative and decorative art, produced books and sent them back to their homelands.43 This circumstance would explain the Northumbrian elements in the artwork of the magnificent carved ivory book cover from Genoelselderen or the Irish influence in a west Gothic miniature of Christ standing on two basilisks or dragons in the early-ninth-century homilies from Lorsch.46 These and other examples of this date, the (earlier) Carolingian period between c.810 and 840, display characteristics also found in the Manx stone MM 128, and it is tempting to conjecture that both their Insular background and the Continental milieu and Mediterranean tradition they were created in are reflected in the original design of the Manx cross. As there are in the British Isles no direct models that he could have copied or used for inspiration, it certainly seems that the clerical creator of the imagery of Kirk Andreas MM 128 drew on intimate knowledge of or even had personal access to Continental artwork featuring examples of the image of‘Christ trampling the beasts’. Whether he had travelled to Francia himself and visited monasteries and their libraries or whether one of the local Manx monasteries held a Carolingian Gospel book - or a faithful Insular copy of it - that might have served as a model for his designs, we will never know.47

We know that the copying of books as well as the continuance of monastic contacts between Britain and the Continent led to the propagation of motifs. For example, the image of Christ fighting serpent and lion with a lance (instead of a long cross with pointed shaft), surrounded by a mandorla and several angels (including one armed with spear and shield), which appears in the mid-twelfth-century Canterbury Psalter (Cambridge University Library, MS R. 17.1), is a direct and almost exact copy of the same scene in the Utrecht Psalter (see above) produced some 300 years earlier, about 830, in Reims in the Carolingian Empire.48

In general terms, therefore, mutual influence between the religious art in the Frankish kingdoms and those in the British Isles is hardly surprising, but it is one of the most intriguing characteristics of the cross slab in the Isle of Man that while betraying distinct influences from the Continent on one face, it features an equally unambiguous input from Scandinavia on the other. Though it seems that this was executed with a certain Christian twist, the ‘Ragnarqk Face’ surely represents Norse pagan iconography and a direct contribution of Viking imagery and mythology as well as Scandinavian art style.

According to the Irish documentary sources, the Vikings had first sailed into the Irish Sea by 798, and arriving from the kingdom they had established in Dublin after 841, they conquered and permanently settled in the Isle of Man in the later ninth century, as is attested by a rich archaeological heritage. After converting to Christianity and abandoning furnished burial, they enthusiastically adopted and adapted to their taste the local custom of setting carved gravestones, often richly decorated.49 Although the ubiquitous Christian cross in their imagery unequivocally identifies them as Christian monuments, the art styles employed, the depiction of certain figurative elements, such as pagan gods, and the inscriptions in Scandinavian runes mentioning Norse names, clearly put them and the Isle of Man in general in a distinctly Scandinavian context and demonstrate cultural links with Norway. More specifically, the ring-chain on the cross shaft on both faces of Kirk Andreas MM 128 is a characteristic element of the Borre style, which features in this (and several other Manx Crosses') in a remarkably pure rendition, unmixed with local artistic influences, that would not be out of place in Norway, and the scene on Face A clearly was taken from pagan Norse mythology. This strongly suggests that close ties between Man and Scandinavia continued to exist as late as the middle of the tenth century. In fact, this contact apparently only ceased after about the year 1000, when certain developments in the usage of runes in the Viking homelands were not adopted in Man anymore.30

The situation is very similar to the one mentioned above, with regards to relations to the Continent. In Scandinavia, the general idea of creating illustrations of religious/mythological scenes also had been known for a long time, but again, as far as the evidence in the British Isles suggests, there are no known direct models for the Viking episode from the Ragnarqk that the designer of‘Thorvald’s Cross’ in Kirk Andreas might have copied. Thus, he must have been well informed not only about Christian imagery in the Carolingian or Ottonian Empires, but also about the pagan mythology of far-away Scandinavia (and capable of adapting it to convey a Christian message), and he appears to have indeed drawn on these ‘non-local’ sources for inspiration, strongly indicating that tenth-century Isle of Man was in close contact with both territories.

As far as Scandinavia is concerned, this interchange would have been the result of continuing cultural links, business relations, and even direct family connections between the Scandinavians in Norway and the Viking settlers in the British Isles during the tenth century. Ships sailed between the old homelands and the new, transporting trade goods and other items of material culture as well as friends and relatives, news, and ideas, ensuring the lingering influx of Scandinavian culture in general.

The image of ‘Christ trampling the beast(s)’ - whether as illustration of Revelation 20:2 or of Psalm 91:13 - has a long tradition in Christian art. While it was quite popular in Carolingian book production, both in carved ivory book covers and manuscript illuminations, its occurrence in stone monuments and grave markers at the current status of research appears to be a somewhat novel concept. Lacking in direct models, we unfortunately cannot reconstruct the circumstances or even routes the motif eventually took on its way to Cumbria or the Isle of Man, but its use on the two medieval stones in Burton-in-Kendal and Kirk Andreas demonstrates the connections that existed to the Ottonian empire and reflects traditions reaching back several centuries and as far away as the eastern Mediterranean. In the case of the Manx stone, its design and its culturally and religiously ambiguous imagery also place the Isle of Man in a Scandinavian context, highlighting the existence in the tenth century of long-distance links between Britain and its neighbours.

 
<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics