Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plates 2.54-2.55: Ruthwell Cross

Plates: Two engravings by James Basire Sr (1730-1802) after drawings by Adam de Cardonnell (1746/7-1820). De Cardonnell’s drawings were presented to the Society of Antiquaries of London on 19 March 1789 along with an “account of a Cross at Ruthwell in Annandale, drawn up by Mr Director Gough,” which is the letterpress explanatory account by Richard Gough (1735-1809) (SAL Minutes XXIII.77). The drawings seem to have been commissioned from de Cardonnell at an earlier date. As both Gough’s account and the minutes state, the apparent inaccuracy and incompleteness of the cross’s representation in Alexander Gordon’s Itinerarium Septentrionale (1726) “excited [him] to solicit an exact Representation of the whole” (SAL Minutes XXIII.79). The engravings were published on 4 June 1789.

Plates 2.54 and 2.55 show the four sides of the shaft of the Ruthwell Cross, an eighth-century monumental sandstone cross decorated with carved images and texts. Plate 2.54 depicts what are now the broad sides of the cross (north and south), featuring carvings of biblical scenes and other Christian iconography. These sides of the cross are surrounded by Latin inscriptions. Plate 2.55 depicts its narrow sides (east and west), featuring decorative vine scrolls with birds and beasts partaking of the vine's fruits. These sides of the cross are surrounded by inscriptions in runic characters. The plates do not show the cross in its entirety and exclude the crosshead, since not all parts of the cross had been rediscovered and the cross had not yet been reconstructed at that time.

Object: The Ruthwell Cross, constructed from two large stones and a crosshead, has an impressive height of almost 18 feet (5.5m) and currently stands inside Ruthwell Church, west of the town of Annan, Dumfriesshire, Scotland. Broken up by Protestant iconoclasts in 1642, it was reconstructed by Henry Duncan, minister at Ruthwell, beginning in 1802 and completed in 1823. The reconstructed cross stood in the manse’s garden until 1887, when it was moved inside Ruthwell Church.

The cross’s north side shows, from bottom to top, the Flight to or Return from Egypt, the hermits St. Paul and St. Anthony breaking bread in the desert, Christ glorified standing on the heads of beasts, John the Baptist with the Agnus Dei standing on two globes, and St. Matthew with his symbol of the man/angel. The upper crossarm shows a bird with a branch in its claws, flanked by Runic inscriptions. The south side shows, from bottom to top, the Crucifixion (added later to the base), the Annunciation, Christ healing the man born blind, Mary Magdalen or the sinful woman washing Jesus’s feet, the Visitation (or Mary and Martha), and an archer with drawn bow. The upper crossarm shows John the evangelist facing his symbol of the eagle, flanked by Latin inscriptions. The images on the north and south sides are bordered by Latin inscriptions. The east and west sides are decorated with vine scrolls and bordered by a runic inscription of lines from an Old English poem known as The Dream of the Rood

Note: In keeping with the rest of the edition, this transcription follows the lettering on the plates. The reconstructions of the Latin and Old English texts, given in brackets, are based on Ó Carragáin 2005, xxii-xxix, unless otherwise noted.

Plate 2.54


Left shaft, lower stone, top horizontal border and part of right vertical border: IhS XPS IVDEX AEQVITATIS

Left shaft, lower stone, part of left vertical border and part of right vertical border: BESTIAE ET DRACONES COGNOVERUNT IN DESERTO SALVATOREM MVNDI

Left shaft, lower stone, middle horizontal border, right vertical border, and left vertical border:

Left shaft, lower stone, bottom horizontal border: MARIA ET IO[SEPHUS]

Right shaft, top horizontal border, part of right vertical border, part of left vertical border, and middle horizontal border: IAIIVLLII ALABASTRVM VNGVENTI SIAN EIR SELVSIIDES EIVS CACRIIIIIS COEPIT RIGARE PEDES EIVS BEAPILIS CAPITIS SVI TERGEB[AT]

Right shaft, part of left vertical border and part of right vertical border:

Caption: Stone at Ruthvell in Anandale.
A de Cardonnell del.
Sumptibus Soc. Antiquar. Londini. Publish’d as the Act directs June 1789.
Basire Sc.

[1] Howlett 1992, 76; Cassidy and Howlett 1992, 115.

Plate 2.55
The inscription on this plate is an excerpt from an Old English poetic text written in runic letters. The runic text on each side of the lower stone reads in this order and direction: from left to right along the horizontal border, then from top to bottom along the right vertical border, then from top to bottom along the left vertical border.

Left shaft, upper stone (bird on vine branch; now the upper crossarm of the north-facing broad side):
Left border: æ f a u œ þ a [reconstructed by Howlett to read [a u] æ f a u œ þ a]
Right border: unclear [reconstructed by Howlett to read [u] u l d o r [t] a [c n e]] (Cassidy and Howlett 1992, 116)

Left shaft, middle stone, right vertical border: d æ g i s g æ f [t]

Left shaft, bottom stone, top horizontal border and right vertical border: [+ ond] geredæ hinæ ḡod almeɨttig・þa he walde on ḡal ḡu gistiḡa modig f[ore] [allæ] men [b]uḡ[a] [ic ne dorstæ]

Left shaft, bottom stone, left vertical border: [ahof] ic riicnæ k̄yniŋc・he͡afunæs hlafard hælda ic ni dorstæ [b]ismær[ad]u uŋk̄et men ba æt[ḡ]ad[re] [I]c [wæs] miþ blodi bist[e]mi[d] bi[ḡoten of þæs ḡumu sida]

Right shaft, top stone, left border and right border: INERIN … VERBVM [IN PRINCIPIO (ERAT) VERBUM]      

Right shaft, bottom stone, top border and right vertical border: [+] krist wæs on rodi・hweþræ þer fusæ fe͡arran kwomu æþþilæ til anum ic þæt al bi[he͡ald] s[aræ] ic w[æ]s・mi[þ] so[r]ḡu[m] gidrœ[fi]d h[n]a[ḡ] [ic þam secgum til handa]

Right shaft, bottom stone, left vertical border: miþ strelum giwundad alegdun hiæ hinæ limwœrignæ・gistoddu[n] [h]im [æt] [his] [lic]æs [he͡a]f[du]m [bih]e͡a[ld]u[n] [h]I[æ] [þ]e[r] [he͡afunes dryctin]

Caption: Stone at Ruthvell in Anandale.
A de Cardonnell del.
Sumptibus Soc. Antiquar. Londini. Publish’d as the Act directs, June 1789.
Basire Sc.


Note: The translations of the Latin and Old English are the author’s own unless otherwise noted; they are based on the reconstructed texts (Ó Carrigáin 2005) and not on the imperfect transcriptions provided on the plates.

Plate 2.54
Left shaft, upper stone: we adore so that not with or we adore and not him/with

Left shaft, lower stone, top horizontal border and part of right vertical border: Jesus Christ, Judge of justice

Left shaft, lower stone, part of left vertical border and part of right vertical border: Beasts and dragons recognized in the desert the Savior of the world

Left shaft, lower stone, middle horizontal border, right vertical border, and left vertical border: Saint Paul and Anthony broke bread in the desert

Left shaft, lower stone, bottom horizontal border: Mary and Joseph

Right shaft, top horizontal border, part of right vertical border, part of left vertical border, and middle horizontal border: “[She] brought an alabaster box of ointment; And standing behind at his feet, she began to wash his feet, with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head” (Luke 7:37-38)

Right shaft, part of left vertical border and part of right vertical border:
And passing by, he saw [a man blind] from birth and [healed him] (cf. John 9:1)

Caption: Drawn by A[dam] de Cardonnell
At the expense of the Society of Antiquaries of London. Publish’d as the Act directs June 1789.
Engraved by [James] Basire [Sr]

Plate 2.55
Left shaft, upper stone (bird on vine branch; now the upper crossarm of the north-facing broad side):
Left border and right border: Howlett translates his reconstructed text as “he devised [lit. ‘wove’] forever a glorious cross [or ‘monument’] of poems [or ‘eloquence’]” (Cassidy and Howlett 1992, 116)

Left shaft, middle stone, right vertical border: [unclear runic text]

Left shaft, bottom stone, top horizontal border and right vertical border: + Almighty God stripped himself. Then he wished to climb onto the gallows, brave before all people. I dared not bow.

Left shaft, bottom stone, left vertical border: I lifted the powerful king, the Lord of heaven. I did not dare to bend. People mocked us two, both together. I was drenched with blood, poured from the man’s side.

Right shaft, top stone, left border and right border: In the beginning was the Word (John 1:1)

Right shaft, bottom stone, top border and right vertical border: + Christ was on the cross. But eager ones came there from afar, to the noble one. I beheld all that. Painfully I was afflicted with sorrows. I bowed to the hands of men.

Right shaft, bottom stone, left vertical border: With arrows wounded, they laid down the limb-weary one. They stood at his body’s head. They beheld there the Lord of heaven.

Caption: Drawn by A[dam] de Cardonnell
At the expense of the Society of Antiquaries of London. Publish’d as the Act directs June 4. th1789.
Engraved by [James] Basire [Sr]

Original Explanatory Account: Click here to read the original explanatory account for Plates 2.54-2.55.

Commentary by Johanna Kramer:

The Cross

Carved from two large blocks of red sandstone quarried in the area near Ruthwell (Cassidy 1992, 7), the Ruthwell Cross stands nearly 18 feet (5.5m) tall and features an iconographic program of images and texts along with plant and animal decoration. Produced in the early to mid-eighth century, the monumental stone sculpture was apparently made for Ruthwell as its original location, most likely for a monastic community, and lends itself to both communal and private viewing (Karkov 2011, 137). The cross may initially have been placed outside but was moved inside an early church or protected in some other way judging by the generally well-preserved state of its carvings (Ó Carragáin 2005, 23). The cross is now located in the small church at Ruthwell, near the Solway Firth and west of the town of Annan, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, which in the early Middle Ages was part of the Northumbrian kingdom.

The monument had to endure various vicissitudes in the course of its history before it came to be permanently housed in the church. Due to the monument’s destruction by seventeenth-century Protestant iconoclasts, some of the images are badly damaged and the crosshead remains largely missing to this day. Despite its damage, the Ruthwell Cross is the most elaborate and preeminent example of Northumbrian sculpture surviving from the early Middle Ages with only one other similarly impressive cross sculpture surviving in the form of the eighth-century Bewcastle Cross, which is related to the Ruthwell Cross in style and iconographic program. As Brendan Cassidy states, “With the comparable cross at Bewcastle, it is undoubtedly the most important sculptural survival from Anglo-Saxon Britain and arguably from early medieval Europe” (Cassidy 1992, 3). More generally, the Ruthwell Cross should be understood in the larger context of early medieval stone sculpture, as extensively documented in the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture (CASSS) (though the Ruthwell Cross itself is not recorded in the Corpus, since modern-day Scotland falls outside the boundaries of CASSS).

The Inscriptions

The Ruthwell Cross has elicited much interest from its earliest modern observers onward, especially because of its Latin and runic inscriptions. Extensive inscriptions, particularly in two languages, are a highly unusual feature in medieval stone sculpture, although medieval reliquary crosses (worked from metal and bejeweled) and other objects with short inscriptions survive. To those documenting the Ruthwell Cross in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the runic inscriptions were mysterious and signs of a possibly non-Christian artistic presence. The conjunction of the cross’s elaborate iconographic program with the inscriptions naturally raises questions about how the images and the texts relate to one another. On one level, the Latin inscriptions in Roman capitals function as captions to the images they surround (cf. also Karkov 2011, 138). For example, the inscription “Saint Paul and Anthony broke bread in the desert” describes the image on the north side of the two desert hermits and first monks sharing a loaf of bread. On the south side, the image of the woman drying Jesus’s feet with her hair is accompanied by an inscription quoting Luke 7:37-38 about the sinful woman who brings a jar of ointment, bathing Jesus’s feet in her tears and drying them with her hair. Beyond this more immediate relationship between text and image, however, lies a deeper theological message about the relationship between Christ's incarnate and divine natures, which Leslie Webster has succinctly described as showing, on one side, “depictions of Christ's life on earth: the Annunciation, the Visitation and the Crucifixion” and, on the other side, “images relating to Christ's sacramental body” (the incarnate Christ child, breaking bread, the risen Christ, the Agnus Dei) (Webster 2012, 88).

The relationship between the runic inscriptions on the cross's narrow sides and the images is less direct, in part because this text does not surround specific figural images but rather the decorative vine scrolls, inhabited by birds and beasts feasting on the vine's fruits, symbolizing Christ's body as consumed in the eucharist. The runic text spells out lines of a version of an Old English poem known as The Dream of the Rood, preserved in a southern English manuscript from around the year 1000, now held in the Cathedral Library at Vercelli, Italy. This famous 156-line poem is much longer than the verses inscribed on the Ruthwell Cross, and it is unclear in what form or context the inscribed passage may otherwise have existed or what the precise relationship between the two texts is. A dream vision, The Dream of the Rood features a speaking cross, appearing to a dreamer-poet, that tells its own history from standing as a tree in the forest to becoming the cross on which Christ is crucified. The cross dwells, in particular, on the difficulty of having to serve as the Savior’s instrument of death without bursting in order to prevent Christ’s suffering and, in the process, viscerally shares the suffering and humiliation experienced by Christ. The cross further narrates its fate after the Crucifixion, when it lay buried in the ground until it was found as the True Cross—a find historically attributed to Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena—and turned into the venerated Christian symbol of a triumphant Christ and a guide to all believers, giving them hope that they, too, will dwell in eternal bliss with Christ in heaven. Since the narrative concerns the events leading up to Christ’s death, the text can readily be connected to the Crucifixion depicted at the bottom of the cross’s south side. More interestingly, the speaking cross is embodied in the cruciform monument itself, which speaks to viewers both in its physical form as a symbol of Christ and through the poetic text narrating the culminating moment of its own history, the Crucifixion. The portions inscribed on the Ruthwell Cross are from the sections of the poem that describe Christ getting ready to “mount the gallows” willingly, the suffering that Christ and the cross endure together, and Christ being taken down from the cross. The corresponding passages from The Dream of the Rood are as follows:
The young hero then unclothed himself--that was almighty God--
strong and stout-minded; he climbed upon the high gallows,
brave in the sight of many, when he wished to redeem mankind.
I trembled when the man embraced me, yet I dared not bend to the earth,
fall to the earth’s surfaces, but I had to stand firmly.
A cross I was raised. I lifted up the powerful king,
the lord of heavens; I did not dare to bend myself.
They drove through me with dark nails: on me the wounds are visible,
open malicious wounds. I did not dare to injure any of them.
They mocked us two, both together. I was altogether drenched with blood,
poured forth from the man’s side after he had sent off his spirit.

Christ was on the cross.
But eager ones came there from afar
to that noble man. I saw all that.
Painfully I was troubled with sorrows, but I bowed down to the hands of men,
humble, with great zeal. There they took almighty God,
lifted him down from that dire torment. The warriors left me
standing, covered in blood; I was altogether wounded by arrows.
There they laid down the limb-weary one. They stood at the head of his body;
they beheld there the Lord of heaven.1
In both texts, the crosses speak to their audiences as the Christian symbol of salvation. A notable difference lies in the material of the two crosses: the Ruthwell Cross is a majestic stone cross that glorifies Christ, not the despised wooden instrument of his death. It is intriguing to think that the creators of the Ruthwell Cross were perhaps hoping to imbue the wooden cross of the poem with more permanence by transferring its voice to a massive stone cross. Ironically, the Ruthwell Cross was forced to bend and break after all when it fell victim to the iconoclastic campaign of the Church of Scotland in the seventeenth century.

The Images

The Ruthwell Cross’s iconographic program consists of an array of “multivalent images,” many of which can be read in more than one way (Stancliffe 2017, 6). The south side (originally facing east), which Clare Stancliffe labeled the “salvation” side (2017, 5), confronts the viewer with scenes from the life of the incarnate Christ, which also “have a baptismal significance” (Karkov 2011, 138). The Crucifixion shows the moment of redemption of humanity; the Annunciation marks the moment of Christ’s Incarnation; Christ healing the blind man symbolizes the enlightenment and true vision brought through Christ into the world; Mary Magdalen washing Jesus’s feet refers both to the importance of humility and penitence and to the cleansing waters of baptism; and the Visitation again points to the incarnate Christ and also, through the implied leap of John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s belly, to the significance of baptism. This image of two embracing women, which was not available to Adam de Cardonnell (1746/7-1820) when he made his drawings for the SAL, since the fragment bearing it was not discovered until around 1800, is accompanied by a runic inscription, now almost entirely illegible. This inscription includes the names Martha and Mary and thus seems to refer to active Martha and her contemplative sister Mary of Luke 10:38-42, another reasonable interpretation of the image of the two women. The north side (originally facing west), which Stancliffe labeled the “desert” side (2017, 5), depicts Christ in his sacramental, eucharistic symbolism, alternating images of “the living and eternal Christ, the physical body and its symbolic manifestations” (Karkov 2011, 139). In the image of the Flight to or Return from Egypt, Mary presents to viewers the Christ child in his human form; the saints Paul and Anthony break bread together enacting the eucharistic ritual; Christ is then shown in his glorified form, celebrated and held up by the two beasts on which he stands; and John the Baptist points to the sacrificial Christ in the form of the Agnus Dei, which, in turn, points back to baptism as a source of salvation. The crosshead originally seems to have shown the four evangelists with their symbols as witnesses to the life of Christ and heralds of the message of salvation throughout the world. Taken as a whole, “together the two sides [of the cross] also refer to the active and contemplative elements of the monastic life” (Karkov 2011, 138). The images harbor many more layers of interpretive possibilities and rich allusions to biblical passages and Christian teachings, which are lucidly surveyed by Stancliffe (2017; also see Ó Carragáin 2005 for an in-depth study of the cross).

The Ruthwell iconography shows close stylistic similarity to the Bewcastle Cross in Bewcastle, Cumbria, England, another early eighth-century monumental Northumbrian stone sculpture, which now consists only of the decorated shaft, broken off at the top. Interestingly, a drawing of the Bewcastle Cross by George Smith is preserved in the Cumberland Red Portfolio in the SAL collection (Orton and Wood 2007, fig. 14); that drawing never seems to have been converted into an engraving for the SAL but was published as a woodcut in the October 1742 issue of Gentleman’s Magazine. The Bewcastle Cross shares images with the Ruthwell Cross (the glorified Christ standing on two beasts, John the Baptist with the Agnus Dei, the inhabited vine scrolls) and also features a panel with a longer, though now largely illegible, runic inscription that was apparently a dedication in memory of someone, perhaps the man with a hawk depicted in one of the panels. Rosemary Cramp writes of the close stylistic relationship between the crosses that “it is reasonable, in the light of the identity of figural and inhabited scroll types, to see these as the work of one generation of craftsmen” (Cramp 1988). The two crosses attest to the lively period of artistic production in early medieval Northumbria and the exceptionally high level of skilled craftsmanship that cohesively brought together a variety of cultural influences. Cramp groups the style of the Ruthwell Cross with several other early medieval stone crosses, stating, “Certainly there is something clearly in the Roman tradition in this style of figure and drapery, and this ‘Roman style’ seems to survive in Northumbrian sculpture and manuscripts throughout the eighth and into the ninth century” (Cramp 1984). About the style of the Ruthwell Cross, Leslie Webster has observed that the “figures of Christ are clothed in garments which fall in cascading folds of impeccable classicism,” and this “new Roman naturalism” is, through the runic inscription, combined with elements of Germanic vernacular tradition (Webster 2012, 88). As Éamonn Ó Carragáin summarizes, “the Ruthwell Cross reflects an integrated local theology: a synthesis, peculiar to Ruthwell, of English, Irish, British and Roman ideas” (2005, 57). Corresponding to this merging of influences and traditions, the cross’s theologically sophisticated yet visually universal iconography would have appealed to and could be understood by multiple audiences, whether members of the ecclesiastical elite, male and female viewers among monastics and aristocrats, untrained Christians, or even the not-yet-converted (Farr 1997, 53-55; Ó Carragáin 2006, 37-39).

Post-medieval History, Reception, and Reconstruction

The Ruthwell Cross had been moved inside the parish church by the late sixteenth century, when antiquarian Reginald Bainbrigg compiled the earliest known description of the cross among materials collected for a new edition of William Camden’s Britannia. Bainbrigg also copied out part of the runic inscription, although he was not entirely sure in which direction to read the runes (Ó Carragáin, 13 and fig. 8(a)). Bainbrigg’s notes were never published. The cross was torn down and partially damaged following a 1640 Act of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland ordering “the demolishing of Idolatrous Monuments.” In 1642, the act was specifically to be applied to the “idolatrous monuments in the Kirk of Ruthwa[ll],” leading to the cross’s destruction (quoted in Ó Carragáin 2005, 15). Richard Gough (1735-1809), in his letterpress account, also remarks on this event, stating that the cross “was broken into three pieces by order of the General Assembly in 1644, under pretence of its being an object of superstition among the vulgar” (Gough 1789, 1). The broken parts of the cross were repurposed in the church, partially embedded in the church floor, or buried in the churchyard. George Hickes (1642-1715) published drawings of the Latin and runic inscriptions in his study of northern languages, Linguarum Veterum Septentrionalium Thesaurus (1703-05), but owing to his linguistic interests, he inserted only summary descriptions in Latin in the spaces where the images are (Ó Carragáin 2005, fig. 9). Like most of the early documenters of the Ruthwell Cross, Hickes primarily took interest in the inscriptions rather than the images; he was intrigued by the mystery of the runes but was also still puzzling out some of the most basic aspects of the inscription, such as the direction in which to read the runes. The more inclusive interests of eighteenth-century antiquaries finally led to the documentation of the images along with the inscriptions.

In 1726, Alexander Gordon (c. 1692-1754?), secretary of the SAL from 1735 to 1741 (Brown 2004), published what were then the most detailed drawings of the cross in his Itinerarium Septentrionale. Gordon, who also contributed to Vetusta Monumenta (see Plate 1.34), was inspired by SAL co-founder William Stukeley’s work and imitated Stukeley's Itinerarium Curiosum with the “avowed intention . . . to do for the study of Roman antiquities in Scotland what Stukeley’s volume had done for those in England” (Cassidy 1992, 8). To a certain extent, he fulfilled his goal: while Gordon’s learning and scholarship did not always garner full respect from his contemporaries, he did manage to leave behind a lasting record of the antiquities of Scotland (Brown 2004). In his drawings of the Ruthwell Cross, Gordon depicts only the large lower stone of the shaft up to where it broke in half. His drawings of the images are not particularly accurate, and he also misrepresents the proportions between the images and the inscriptions, as he stretches out the inscriptions, which Brendan Cassidy attributes to Gordon’s greater interest in the epigraphy than the iconography (Cassidy 2005, 8-9 and figs. 35 and 36). Guided by his own assumptions and stylistic inclinations, by standard iconographic traditions, and by his apparent misinterpretation of the inscriptions and images, Gordon changes particular iconographic details: for example, St. Paul (misinterpreted as the apostle) is bearded and bald when he clearly has hair on the cross, and Christ stands on two “dancing dogs, their paws raised as if partnering each other in a minuet” (Cassidy 1992, 9). He also gives Christ much finer facial features and distinctly coiffed hair that one would not typically find on early medieval stone sculpture. The Ruthwell Cross drawings in Gordon’s Itinerarium Septentrionale would become a close model for de Cardonnell, when he was commissioned by the SAL to make drawings of the cross some fifty years later.

In the later eighteenth century, the massive lower stone of the cross was moved outside of the church, and another fragment of the upper stone was unearthed. Henry Duncan (1774-1846), the minister put in charge of the Presbyterian parish of Ruthwell in 1799, began reconstructing the cross shortly thereafter and, in 1823, commissioned a local mason to carve a new transom, since the original had never (and still has not) been found. The completely reconstructed cross stood in the manse’s garden until 1887, when it was protected under the first Ancient Monuments Act of 1882 and moved inside of Ruthwell Church again into an apse newly built just for this purpose (Historic Environment Scotland 2019, 4). It is now considered one of the most important examples of Anglo-Saxon stone sculpture to survive and “a testimony to the short-lived Northumbrian takeover of British territories in SW Scotland in the early medieval period” (Historic Environment Scotland 2019, 7).

The SAL Drawings and Engravings

The engravings in Plates 54 and 55 are by James Basire Sr (1730-1802) after drawings by Adam de Cardonnell. The engravings were published on 4 June 1789, according to the date on each plate. De Cardonnell, a one-time surgeon and antiquary in Edinburgh, was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1780 and published several works of antiquarian interest, which featured his own illustrations and etchings, including the multi-volume Picturesque Antiquities of Scotland (1788-93). He made the drawings for the SAL during this time of his antiquarian activities in Scotland before he moved to Northumberland to an inherited estate in 1791 (Goodwin 2004). When he was commissioned to make the drawings, he was already known for his interests and drawing skills, as the SAL minutes (and Gough’s account) acknowledge by asserting that de Cardonnell’s “merit has been sufficiently displayed in his Picturesque Antiquities of Scotland” (SAL Minutes XXIII.79).

The commissioning of de Cardonnell to make the drawings was intended to supersede Alexander Gordon’s less than accurate drawings of 1726. After referring to the inaccuracies and gaps in Gordon’s engravings of the Ruthwell Cross, Gough’s account states that “These Considerations excited me to solicit an exact representation of the whole” (Gough 1789, 3). Despite this desire for more accuracy and even though the SAL minutes of 19 March 1789 declare that the Ruthwell Cross drawings flowed “from the very accurate pencil of Adam de Cardonell Esq.” (SAL Minutes XXIII.79), they are clearly modeled on Gordon’s work, as some of his anachronistic and misinterpreted details also appear in the SAL engravings. For example, the fine facial features of the two Christ figures are maintained and their hair is made even curlier than in Gordon’s drawings; de Cardonnell also adopts Gordon’s incorrect bald and bearded St. Paul. If de Cardonnell (or Gough, for that matter) had consulted Hickes’s illustrations of 1703, he could have seen, for example, that Hickes identified the two figures on the north side as Paul and Anthony and that the scene on the opposite side of the shaft shows Jesus healing the blind man. Consequently, by relying on de Cardonnell’s drawings, Gough is also unable to interpret correctly some of the cross’s iconography and inscriptions. De Cardonnell does not accurately trace the outline of the lower legs of Mary and Elizabeth in the Visitation scene on the south side but misinterprets the recessed space between the legs as a geometrically shaped hole, which Gough then describes as “a mark like a cavity for inserting the transverse bar” (Gough 1789, 2).

Although de Cardonnell was strongly influenced by Gordon’s drawings, he nonetheless seems to have visited Ruthwell himself, since he documents parts of the cross that Gordon left out. As Brendan Cassidy posits, “It is probable that in the manner of eighteenth-century topographical printmakers, de Cardonnell made sketches of his subject on the spot to be worked up in the studio when he returned to Edinburgh” (Cassidy 1992, 9). Moreover, the lower stone’s move outside of the church occurred shortly before de Cardonnell made his drawings of the cross. As both the minutes and Gough's printed account report about the cross’s north side, the “lower half of the two figures [Paul and Anthony] with the inscription has been lately recovered from the filth and dirt which covered them; but the sentence though continued a few words, is left incomplete” (Gough 1789, 1; SAL Minutes XXIII.78). De Cardonnell was thus able to document certain aspects of the cross that were not yet visible in Gordon’s time when the lower stone was still embedded in the church floor, and his drawings for the SAL are valuable, indeed, in that they are the oldest in existence for some portions of the cross. Unfortunately, though, those portions are only vaguely sketched out by de Cardonnell so that the Annunciation, for example, consists only of two shadowy figures and the Crucifixion is only a simple outline of a cross, eliding Christ’s articulated legs and the celestial body visible at the upper right of the cross. The Flight to or from Egypt does show a discernible riding figure, but without further details, which leads Gough to interpret the image as “Christ’s entry into Jerusalem” (Gough 1789, 1). Cassidy suspects that, like other visitors to the cross before him, de Cardonnell (“or more probably Richard Gough, who commissioned him to travel to Dumfriesshire to draw the cross”) was more interested in the inscriptions than in the iconography (Cassidy 1992, 10). But perhaps de Cardonnell was simply unsure of what he was seeing and refrained from interpreting the carvings beyond definitively discernable shapes, resulting in shadowy sketches that graphically express this uncertainty.

In regard to the overall presentation of the Ruthwell Cross on the plates, it is notable that the engravings only show the carved stone panels, depicting the cross neither in its entirety nor in the natural (or at least pseudo-natural) setting provided for several other crosses published in Vetusta Monumenta (see, for example, the Winchester Cross, Plate 1.61; the Chichester Cross, Plate 1.64; or the Gloucester Cross, Plate 2.8). This is surely in part because not all parts of the cross had been rediscovered at that time and the cross has not been reconstructed. The fragment just below the transom, showing the upper half of Mary and Elizabeth embracing and of John the Baptist with the Agnus Dei, was discovered in the graveyard some ten years after the 1789 publication of the SAL plates, so de Cardonnell had no knowledge of them and could not include them in his drawings. The cross’s fragmentary nature perhaps prevented de Cardonnell from even attempting to represent the cross as a whole object. But neither does he depict the stone fragments in the context in which he found them in situ. In fact, he presents the pieces as a quasi-assembled cross, positioning them in relationship to each other in the way that he seems to think that the cross ought to be reconstructed. He includes the upper arm of the crosshead, which he places on top of Plate 55, and then even depicts the narrow, undecorated sides of the upper crossarm on the top of Plate 54. He incorrectly orients the crossarm, which he has grouped with the east and west sides on Plate 55 when it correctly belongs with the north and south broad sides. De Cardonnell and other earlier students of the cross did not entirely understand what they were looking at and how all the pieces fit together or whether they even belonged to a single object. Collectively, the lack of knowledge about Anglo-Saxon stone sculpture, the inability to read the inscriptions, and biased assumptions about who would use runes for what purpose and what languages could be represented in runes in the first place, inhibited and misdirected interpretation.

When de Cardonnell’s drawings and Gough’s account were presented to the SAL meeting in March 1789, the runes had not been decrypted. Their strangeness would continue to exert its allure on antiquaries and scholars for another half century, as is appropriate for a writing system whose name is etymologically linked to the Old English word run (‘mystery’ or ‘secret’). The runic inscription (and to a certain extent even the Latin inscriptions) thus also remained a challenge for Gough. Since the inscriptions, written in Anglo-Saxon runes, were not deciphered until 1840, SAL members did not know that the cross, in fact, harbored a Christian text and that it was not the case that “the monument was erected by the Danes, and then converted to Christian purposes by the Saxons,” as Gough speculates to explain the combined Christian-Latin and Germanic elements. He adds that until “the Runic inscriptions are explained, it will not be easy to determine whether it was a Christian monument of the former people. It is hardly probable they defaced what was previously carved on two of the sides; but rather, finding two sides unoccupied, inscribed on them some memorials of themselves” (Gough 1789, 3). The SAL members tried to learn more about the runes, for Gough’s letterpress account includes an added note at the end, stating, “Since this account was read before the Society, the drawing has been shewn to Mr. Professor Thorkelin, who has been investigating all such monuments of his countrymen in this kingdom; ---- but he has not returned any opinion upon it” (Gough 1789, 3). Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin (1752-1829) was a Danish scholar, best known in early medieval studies for his transcription of the Old English epic poem Beowulf, made in the late eighteenth century and now in some instances the only witness to the damaged text. Apparently Thorkelin never returned an opinion, but his academic successor, Finn Magnusen (1781-1847), years later ventured a (wildly incorrect) translation of the runes based on the printed engraving that the SAL had sent to Thorkelin (Cassidy 1992, 13). In 1821, Wilhelm Carl Grimm (1786-1859) determined the runes to be Anglo-Saxon, and John Mitchell Kemble (1807-1857) subsequently recognized the language represented as the Old English dialect of Northumbrian, not a Scandinavian language, as had been commonly assumed up to that point. Kemble also happened to be in possession of an early edition of The Dream of the Rood (the Vercelli Book had just been discovered in the Italian library in the 1820s), and he was thus finally able to solve the mystery of the runes in 1840 (Cassidy 1992, 14). Kemble was involved in Victorian antiquarian circles and edited and translated Old English poetry in an effort to arouse the wider public’s interest in it (Toswell 2020, 179, 184-86, 189). As first English editor of the poems of the Vercelli Book, which had been discovered in the Italian library only in the 1820s, he was familiar with The Dream of the Rood and was thus finally able to solve the mystery of the runes in 1840 (Cassidy 1992, 14; Toswell 2020, 185).

It is not surprising that the Ruthwell Cross would attract the attention of the SAL. The rare nature of inscriptions in two languages, one in an unintelligible script, the extensive iconographic program, and its antiquity are only some of the aspects that presumably made this monument attractive to include in a collection of “ancient monuments.” With its origin in the eighth century, the Ruthwell Cross is the oldest cross among the numerous medieval crosses included in Vetusta Monumenta (see, for example, the Waltham Cross, Plate 1.7; Gloucester Cross, Plate 2.8; and Doncaster Cross, Plate 2.10). Some decades before the publication of Plates 2.54-55, the twelfth-century Doncaster Cross, in an engraving dated 1752 (Plate 2.10), was presumed to be the oldest cross to be included in Vetusta Monumenta (see SAL Minutes VII.21r). Despite Gough’s insistence on a seventh-century date for the twelfth-century Winchester Cathedral font (Gough 1786, 6; see Plates 2.39-40), the Ruthwell Cross is, therefore, the oldest specimen of native insular art in Vetusta Monumenta.

[1] These passages correspond to lines 39-49 and 56b-64a in Mary Clayton’s edition of the poem (2013, 162 and 164). Translation by the author.

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