Whitby Weekend: Mysteries in stone

Illustration of how Lythe churchyard may have looked in the tenth century.Photo: information board at St Oswald’s, Lythe

It seems rather unfair to call the displayed Viking and medieval stones ‘the best bit’ of St Oswald’s church in Lythe, but in terms of excitement… and for me, at least… they were. I had seen them before…but once is never enough and photographs, of which I have many, are just not the same as being there.So, having done my duty by paying attention to the rest of the church… even if the Tobias window didn’t register… I wandered up to the west end and the display area, passing the medieval stone coffin on the way, complete with its rather practical drainage hole. ( I won’t say ‘for the juices’ because that never seems to go down very well…).

As I mentioned in a previous post, the church here is an old one and there are fragments of carved medieval masonry preserved within the church, the most interesting of which is a rather splendid Green Man. There are three main types of Green Man, or ‘foliate masks’ found in medieval architecture. Some, the ‘foliate heads’, are faces appearing through vegetation. The ‘bloodsucker head’ is the kind where leaves and vines grow from eyes, nose and mouth. Because the vegetation appears to be growing from his mouth, the Lythe mask is, I believe, of a type known as a ‘disgorging head’.

At first glance, it seems a pagan symbol, suggestion fertility and the natural cycles of growth, and yet they are found in even the most decorous of churches. Christianity explains the symbolism in terms of spiritual rebirth and renewal and therefore it becomes a symbol of the resurrection. I have wondered too whether it shows, even in Christian terms, the natural cycle of ‘earth to earth’, where death gives only our flesh back to be taken into the earth, ‘rendering unto Caesar’ what belongs to this realm while what belongs to other realms returns home.

Also medieval, from around the twelfth century, is a rather curious fragment of a tympanum that would once have graced the arch over the church door. Many of the tympanums we have seen seem to incorporate scenes from mythology or pre-Christian tales, though that might simply be that we have lost the keys to unlocking the symbolism they contain since literacy took away the need to understand these images.

This fragment is thought to show Adam in the Garden of Eden, but if so, you have to wonder what he is doing. Is it the weathered remnant of the serpent, a phallus or an umbilical cord that seems to attach him to the Tree? An information board gives a clear outline of the wind-blasted carving and where it would have sat within the door. Who, or what, is the hunched figure… as it does not seem to suggest Eve? And what has been lost from the scene?

Even further back in time we go with the tenth century Cross head. On the reverse there is interlacing and a central boss, on the front, the boss is a face, lacking the halo that would suggest the Christ.

There are other stones from the ninth and tenth centuries; one carved with wrestlers and a beast that looks like a horse with too many legs, suggestive, perhaps of Sleipnir, the horse of Odin…for these are Viking stones, recovered from the burial ground here. Many of them are hogbacks, carved with scales or roof tiles and details from both Norse and Christian stories. The two were not mutually exclusive and we have seen many stones where the symbolism seems to be deliberately merged to show that the Lightbringers of one faith are the same as the gods of another.

One detail on a fragment of a hogback shows a bird. It could be the Dove that represents the Holy Spirit…or one of Odin’s ravens, Huginn and Muninn, ‘mind’ and ‘memory’.  Another hogback is carved with a simplistic ‘gingerbread man’ and two wolf-like creatures. It has been suggested that this could be a portrayal of Ragnarök, the Norse ending of the world before its rebirth, or perhaps the god Tyr whose hand was taken by a wolf. But look a little closer and you notice that the arms of the ‘gingerbread man’ are not in the mouths of the wolves…they are the wolves’ mouths. The lines that form them are one and the same, in a similar fashion to the symbol of the three hares that have six visible ears, but only three are carved. Is this just economy of line on the part of the artist? Or are we looking at something more mysterious?

The stones go back even further, and two of the fragments have been dated to the eighth century, which has suggested that there may have been a stone-built church on the site at a similar time to the Synod of Whitby… and which might give credence to the idea that St Cuthbert really did dedicate the church in person to St Oswald.

But that, it seemed, was all we were going to see of the stones. We knew there was a crypt beneath the church where more were stored, but it was kept locked and only opened by arrangement. But Steve, it seemed, had a surprise up his sleeve… and down we went into the crypt… Down the spiral staircase and into a small room…

Between the grave markers carved with the cross pattée, medieval grave slabs and fragments of masonry, the tantalising fragments of hogbacks, some of which seemed to suggest ‘end-beasts’ like the one we had seen, so beautifully preserved, in Brechin, where we had also seen a definite Sleipnir…I felt like a child in a sweet shop! I could have stayed there for hours, poring over the stones and the catalogue…

One stone, in particular, stood out, carved very simply with a cross we have seen in so many places, including Bakewell church where so many new threads began to weave themselves into our adventures. It is called the ‘cross potent’ and is suggestive of four nails, their points meeting at the centre. It is far older than Christianity and was used as far back as Neolithic times. It is also called the Jerusalem Cross, as it formed part of the arms of the crusader state of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, established after the First Crusade by Godfroy de Bouillon… in whose army, it is believed, served one Hugues de Payens, co-founder and first Grand Master of the Knights Templar. But the light outside was fading and we still had another place to visit… so, reluctantly, lingering and last out, we climbed the stairs and locked the door behind us.

19 thoughts on “Whitby Weekend: Mysteries in stone

  1. What are the best sources in books for reading about these things, or can you suggest some books for the general reading about the area, etc.? I am very fascinated to this one. There is so much history I have never read about this area plus the archaeological things are so intriguing. Any suggestions in reading would be greatly appreciated. I don’t want to miss out any more than I have to. I have a lot of time to spent in doctor’s offices, legal offices, etc. so it is good to spend as much as I can keeping my brain “on fire.” Thank you very kindly. I think the history of the country if you can recommend any particularly good ones . . . There is so much I did not know at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is a difficult one to answer, Anne, as I cover such a wide timeline and so many different subjects in these posts.
      Most of my research is done online these days for specifics, but a lot is also dredged up from memory of previous trips, reading and learning over the course of a lifetime… and then there is all the speculation and symbolism too, some of which you won’t find in any books but ours 😉
      Try searching for books on the history of the British Isles, the Vikings in Britain, Saxon Britain, prehistoric Britain, Roman Britain, Medieval Britain, Viking burials, Anglo-Scandanavian Britain, the Poetic Eddas, Norse myths, Christian symbolism, Christian mythology, the symbolism of Norse carved stones…and that’s without medieval churches and the symbolism of stained glass 😉

      Like

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