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Hexham Abbey

Anglo-Saxon sculpture 

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© Copyright 2010 Hexham Abbey


   When the present nave was added to Hexham Abbey in 1907-8, many fragments of sculptured stone were built into its new walls or set in niches made for the purpose in the north aisle. These carved stones had turned up over the years, built into walls and stairs or buried in and around the church. Some were Roman, perhaps brought from Corbridge to decorate Wilfridís church or to be copied by his craftsmen; some came from the medieval priory and its graveyard. But many of these yellow-grey sandstone lumps remain from the Golden Age of Northumbrian Christianity, when the skilled craftsmen of Windís monastery shaped them to honour God and adorn His church.

CASSS19: Fragments and reconstruction   At the west end of the nave, a glass case holds fragments from a dolomite plaque found there in 1907. As arranged by Dr Harold Taylor, they show a crucifixion and an ecclesiastic. The stone probably came from near Monkwearmouth, perhaps carved in the monastery there about 675-700, copying manuscripts. All the other Abbey fragments are of local sandstone.

   Some of the stones were once part of the richly decorated building, fragments of frieze or pillar, screen or furnishing. Clearly, the wails and arches of Wilfrid's church carried colourful patterns and lively animal processions. Other stones originally stood nearby, as monumental crosses or as grave markers. All these show how the Northumbrian monks and craftsmen drew their inspiration from different traditions: there are interlace patterns of Celtic origin, writhing animal bodies in the Germanic style, vine-scrolls that came with Roman missionaries from the Mediterranean, and figure sculpture copied from Roman examples surviving at places like Corbridge. They show Anglo-Saxon sculptors copying patterns and devices from illuminated manuscripts or from ornamental metalwork like that found at Sutton Hoo.

   When Wilfridís abbey fell on hard times most of its carved stones disappeared. Many were broken up for use in other buildings, some were smashed by those who disliked their message. The few that survive are worn and weathered and have lost their colour, though several keep traces of paint. In our own times those rescued have been brought together to be studied and listed. More information can be found in Rosemary Crampís Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, Vol I (CASSS), published by Oxford University Press for the British Academy in 1984.