Ruthwell Cross: Description

The Upper Section of the Cross

The north side of the cross-head was originally carved with figures of the four evangelists accompanied by their symbols: St John can be seen with his eagle on the upper arm and St Matthew, with his symbol of a man, on the lower one. The centre of the cross-head may have been decorated with a figure of a lamb (a symbol of Christ) or an enthroned figure of Christ. The south side of the cross-head was decorated with carvings of an eagle on the upper arm and an archer on the lower arm. The eagle probably symbolises Christ's resurrection or ascension and the archer is probably a symbol of the preacher or the word of God [See Barbara C. Raw, 'The archer, the eagle and the lamb', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 30 (1967~, 391-394]. The figure panel below the arches, which shows two women embracing each other, is often identified as the visitation; the inscription round the scene, however, identifies the two women as Mary and Martha. The figure panel on the other side of the cross, below the carving of St Matthew with his symbol, is usually identified as John the Baptist holding a lamb, an allusion to his remark about Christ: 'Look, there is the lamb of God' (John i.29). Paul Meyvaert, however, identifies the scene, together with the related carving on the contemporary Bewcastle Cross, as a representation of the Lamb opening the book held by God the Father in St John's vision of the end of the world (Apoc. v.1- 10). [See P. Meyvaert, 'A new perspective on the Ruthwell Cross: Ecclesia and Vita Monastica', in The Ruthwell Cross, ed. B. Cassidy (Princeton, 1992), 95-166, at 112-125].

The Lower Section of the Cross

The north side of the lower part of the cross is decorated with four figure panels representing, from top to bottom, Christ standing above the beasts, Paul and Antony breaking bread in the desert, either the flight into Egypt or the return from Egypt [see G. Henderson, 'The John the Baptist panel on the Ruthwell Cross', Gesta 24 (1985), 3-12], and a badly mutilated carving which may have represented the nativity. The carving of Christ above the beasts derives from illustrations of Psalm xc.13, 'You will tread on lion and adder, trample on savage lions and dragons', but the inscription round the panel ('IHS XPS iudex aequitatis; bestiae et dracones cognoverunt in deserto salvatorem mundi') identifies the figure as Christ the judge. The inscription also links the scene to the gospel account of Christ's temptation in the desert, when he 'was with the wild beasts' (Mark i.12-13) and when the devil tempted him to throw himself down from the temple, quoting Psalm xc.11-12, 'He will put you in his angels' charge, and they will support you on their hands in case you hurt your foot against a stone'. The inscription identifying the carving of the hermits Paul and Antony breaking bread also refers to the desert ('Sanctus Paulus et Antonius duo eremitae fregerunt panem in deserto') and the apocryphal accounts of the flight into Egypt, though not the inscription on the Ruthwell Cross, describe the wild beasts worshipping the infant Christ in the desert [See The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew]. The panels on the south side of the lower part of the cross show, from the top downwards, Mary Magdalen wiping Christ's feet with her hair ('Attulit alabastrum unguenti et stans retro secus pedes eius lacrimis coepit rigare pedes eius et capillis capitas sui tergebat' cf. Luke vii.37-38 and John xii.3), the healing of the man born blind ('Et praeteriens vidit hominem caecum a natibitate et sanavit eum ab infirmitate' cf. John ix.1), the annunciation ('Et ingressus angelus ad eam dixit ave gratia plena dominus tecum benedicta tu in mulieribus' cf. Luke i.28) and the crucifixion.

Barbara Raw
June 1994