24. The Stanwick Church Crucifixion

By Eleanor Warren (@elmwarren)

I was shown this sculpture by the local key-holder on a visit to Stanwick Church in 2014.[1] It was a surprise and a joy to see this sculpted stone, which was not on display but languishing in a cupboard in the church vestry.

The stone is the head of an early medieval cross, depicting an image of the crucifixion on one face, and interlaced foliage on the other. Christ’s arms end in three-fingered hands with the thumbs held apart, and a line across the left arm suggests he is robed. The centre of the cross is marked by a boss. Figural representations are the rarest surviving category of pre-Conquest sculpture, but the iconography is similar to a small group of other cross heads from Yorkshire and displays an Irish-Scandinavian influence. It is likely to date from the late ninth or early tenth century. The crude carving shows a low level of skill and a lack of iconographic knowledge from the sculptor, and this, alongside the number of surviving cross fragments found in Yorkshire, suggests that sculptures in this region were produced for secular patrons with varying degrees of wealth and education.[2]

Large stone crosses, of which the Stanwick crucifixion is a fragment, served a variety of functions. Some were located at established churches or marked burial places. Others would have marked routes, boundaries, or acted as gathering places for local communities. Stanwick church is situated in an ancient settled landscape; the circular churchyard suggests a pre-Norman Conquest burial ground, and fragments of additional stone crosses also indicate an early Christian foundation on the site. Surrounding the current churchyard are the Iron Age earthwork fortifications of Stanwick Camp. Often early Christian sites inherited existing sacred sites, but these fragments of stone sculpture are the only evidence we have of the continuity of settlement, in places which were once significant landscapes of ritual and power.

Image: The Stanwick Church Crucifixion, photograph by Eleanor Warren.


[1] Church of St John the Baptist, at Stanwick, North Yorkshire, is in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust.

[2] Elizabeth Coatsworth, ‘The Iconography of the Crucifixion in Pre-Conquest Sculpture in England’, Doctoral Thesis, Durham University (1978) <etheses.dur.ac.uk/1862> pp. 135, 311, 328.

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