Pictish Stones And Crosses

emblems or 'symbols' were carved. As the meaning or symbolism of these emblems is unknown, it is rather paradoxical that the name usually given to the stones on which they appear is 'symbol stones'. However, by drawing parallels with the customs of tattooing warriors in other cultures, it may be surmised that the tattoos worn by the Picts were in the form of such 'symbols', made in honour of the gods. As in many warrior societies, it is likely that each Pictish warrior was known by his unique personal array of tattoos, which were reproduced on his memorial stone when he died.

Around the middle of the eighth century, Pictish stonecarvers began to use the cross in their designs, and Biblical images began to enter their repertoire of images. Romilly Allen's definition of these Class II Pictish stones categorizes them as: 'erect cross-slabs or recumbent coped stones with symbols [sic] and Celtic ornament sculptured in relief.' Although the cross is a significant part of the design of these stones, there are no known representations of the crucifixion or indeed of any images that can be interpreted as representing episodes from the New Testament. These are the monuments that were set up after the acceptance of Northumbrian Catholicism in the year 710 by the Pictish high king Nechtan IV mac Derile.

The Class II slabs have crosses whose form and content is related to contemporary known manuscripts and probably also tapestries, now lost. Fourteen variants of cross have been identified, the most common of which have rounded indentations at the crossing in the manner of the four-holed crosses. Equally prevalent is the rectilinear cross composed of squares, with squares at the crossing. Similar varieties were made in Ireland. There are fine examples on stones at Clonmacnois, Durrow and elsewhere. Among the earliest in this style are the Pictish stones from Aberlemno churchyard, Birsay, Meigle, Papil, Rossie Priory and St Vigeans. All have sculpture in relatively low relief, including Pictish emblems of the Pagan period, perhaps reproducing the tattoos of the dead. Development of the style led, around the year 800, to more complex work. The Hilton of Cadboll stone in Easter Ross is a good example. It is carved with scenes from Biblical mythology, hunting figures and Pictish emblems. The whole emblematical scheme of these stones is syncretic, with elements from

As in many warrior societies, it is likely that each Pictish warrior was known by his unique personal array of tattoos, which were reproduced on his memorial stone when he died.

many sources. Certain elements come from indigenous Pictish Paganism. The Biblical figures may have been influenced by Mercian art, while the monsters and demons have similarities with those described in the early illustrated text, The Mawels of the East, which was current in Northumbrian monasteries at the time.

At Rossie Priory, in Tayside, is a stone sometimes called a 'page in stone'. Frequently, the design of this stone is assumed to be a sculptural representation of a page of a book. Equally, however, it could represent one of the woven textile banners that were used by travelling priests in conjunction with portable altars. There arc parallels, too, with the Pagan memorial stones of Gotland. The whole stone has an interlace border which merges with the three free arms of the cross at the left, right and top. The centre of the cross is a circle with key-patterns in the middle, while the cross-shaft bears carvings of horseriders. In the panels surrounding the cross are depictions of various things: an angel, or fury; a human figure holding the necks of two birds in the manner of ancient images of the goddess Artemis, Lady of the Beasts; a hound, horsemen and other animals. There are only a few Pictish stones of this type that show the typical Pictish images on the front of the cross-slab. At this period, it was more usual to carve them on the rear of the slab. Possibly, converted Picts who still wore the old Pagan tattoos, or still honoured them as ancestral heraldry, were commemorated thus. The typically 'Pictish' images on this slab are a crescent-and-rod and the enigmatic stylized beast variously described as a hippogriff, elephant, seahorse or walrus.

In the churchyard at Aberlemno in Tayside is one of the most famous Pictish cross-slabs, which amalgamates the slab-form with the wheel-headed Celtic Cross. The slab is sculptured so that the cross-form stands out strongly from the background. The upright panel that would be the shaft if the cross were free-standing is carved with a complex interlace pattern based on three circles. This 'supports' the lower part of the wheel-cross, which is carved as though it were separate, being distinguished by a more open, separate interlace pattern. The cross-arms on either side of the centre bear key-patterns, while the centre is composed of six spirals around a seventh, central, one. The cross is topped with an X-formed interlace. One of the four 'holes' in the cross has been drilled right through, making it a holed stone. This hole destroys part of the carving on the back, showing it to be a later, vernacular, addition for magical purposes. The supporting slab is carved with spiralling animal-ornament, and the cross's top is flanked by two stylized beasts. Other notable Pictish cross-slabs of this style include those from Glamis, carved with fine interlace and beasts, at Scoonie and at Meigle.

Later in the ninth century, the so-called 'boss style' was developed. This is characterized by an adventurous departure in design employing large round bosses sculpted with interlace, which are sometimes

Pictish cross-slab from Aberlemno, Tayside, Scotland. The top right depression has been drilled through to make the cross into a holed stone. The spiral centre is reminiscent of the main emblems on the Gotland memorial stones.

Pictish AngelPictish Spiral

accompanied by serpents. These serpentine bosses may be a representation of the magical druidic 'serpents' eggs' or 'adder stones' mentioned by Pliny in his Natural History: 'In the summer, numerous snakes entwine themselves in a ball, held together by a secretion from their bodies and by spittle ... the druids value it highly. It is said to ensure success in lawsuits and a favourable reception with princes.' Whatever the meaning of bosses, the style was used on slabs in the Isle of Man and free-standing crosses in western Scotland, Iona and Ireland. Among the notable examples of Pictish stones in the 'boss style' are the Roadside Cross at Abcrlemno, the cross from Nigg in Easter Ross in Highland Region, another at Shandwick nearby, and the Pictish shrine at St Andrews. The Nigg stone has remarkably fine carvings, and bosses composed variously of knotwork of serpentine and rectilinear form, and spirals. This highly elaborate, sophisticated and doubtless very expensive style was not maintained for long. Soon, stonemasons adopted more simplified designs, examples of which can be seen in the stones from Fowlis Wester, Tayside and Rosemarkie in the Highland Region.

A Pictish stone from Dunfallandy in Tayside has a cross based upon squares, but with rounded forms at the angles of the cross. These rounded forms appear at the top of the shaft beneath the cross-head, which is in more prominent relief than the rest of the carvings. Each of the four arms of the cross-head is sculpted with prominent bosses, five each on the upright parts and three each on the cross-arms. Panels of spiralwork form the background to the bosses, while the whole slab is bordered by interlacework in the manner of the Gotland stones. Between the border and the cross are ten panels bearing beasts and angels. The back of the slab is purely pictorial, with horsemen, dogs, a centaur with twin axes, beasts and a man who stands between four animals, often interpreted as representing Daniel among the lions.

The stones later classified as Pictish Class III came into being in the late ninth century after the unification of Pictland and Dalriada by King Kenneth mac Alpin. These Class III stones are in the form of free-standing crosses and cross-slabs. They differ from the earlier slabs because the Pictish emblems are absent. Perhaps, because by now they considered themselves to be wholly Christian, those commemorated by the stones no longer bore their identifying

The richly scrulptured Pictish 'boss-style' cross-slab from Nigg, Easter Ross, Highland Region, Scotland, broken by religious zealots and later re-assembled. (Historic Scotland)

tattoos or honoured the old heraldry of their ancestors. Also, because they are slabs, these stones differ from the contemporary free-standing wheel-headed crosses of the Celtic church. It is likely that when King Nechtan IV mac Dcrile adopted Catholic Christianity from the Anglians of Northumbria and expelled the Celtic priesthood from

As a national style, it was maintained long after Dalriada and Pictland became Scotland.

At Dupplin, west of Perth, Anglian influence is apparent in the sculptures of vinescrolls and beasts. There is similar ornament on the cross at Crieff in Tayside. Mustachioed men resembling those on Muiredach's Cross at Monasterboice are on the Dupplin cross, and on a cross-slab at Benvie, Tayside. They may represent Scots rather than Picts, who were shown bearded. A cross-slab from Inchbrayock, Tayside, has a squared cross on one side, accompanied by figures, interlace and a beast. The rear, as with so many Pictish stones, has human figures engaged in hunting and Biblical scenes. The interlace and spirals on the Inchbrayock stone, like much Pictish carving of this period, is a free and dynamic interpretation of the underlying geometrical matrix.

There are few known Pictish stones that are carved with the crucified Christ. A cross-shaft from Monifieth near Dundee has a crucifixion, but on a stone influenced by Anglo-Danish tradition. It is possible that before the unification of the Picts and Scots there were no such representations. It is equally possible, however, that early Pictish depictions of the crucifixion have all been destroyed, for many stones were damaged or smashed in the suppression of Catholic worship in the sixteenth century. An idea of what happened can be seen on a Pictish cross-slab from Woodwray on Tayside which has had the cross carefully chipped away, leaving only its surrounding beasts and border. So it is not unlikely that Protestant zealots, in attempting to extirpate what they considered to be idolatry, destroyed all of the Pictish stones that bore images of the crucifixion, giving us a false impression of the actual practices of the Pictish masons.

The Pictish masons developed a national style that served as an emblem of their religious allegiance to Rome rather than Ireland.

Pictland, it was considered to be politically expedient not to use the Celtic Cross, which had clear Irish origins. Instead, the Pictish masons developed a national style that served as an emblem of their religious allegiance to Rome rather than Ireland.

Form And Pattern in Celtic Art

Structurally, Celtic art is based upon a hidden, but ever-present geometric basis. Sacred geometry has been practised in the British Isles since the time of the megalith builders. When building in dressed stone was introduced from Roman-influenced lands, a complementary sacred geometry, originating ultimately in ancient Egypt, was added to the indigenous tradition. Knowledge of sacred geometry was part of the trade secrets of the mason, and couched in esoteric terms impenetrable to the layperson. Plutarch stated that the Egyptian priests and priestesses carried three sacred rods, dedicated respectively to Isis, Osiris and Horus. The rod of Isis represented origination, and was coloured black. The rod of Osiris signified the receptive principle, being coloured red. Horus's rod was blue, symbolizing the result of combination. They were ascribed the numbers 5, 4 and 3. When they were brought together, a right-angled triangle was formed.

This is the basis of the 47th proposition of Euclid, the geometrical theorem associated with Pythagoras, which proves how any triangle the sides of which measure 3, 4 and 5 units contains a right angle. Although it may seem deceptively simple, it was not common knowledge in earlier times, being a closely guarded secret of initiates of the mystery schools. Nevertheless it is the fundamental basis of all geometry. In medieval Britain, this mystery was embodied in the device known as the Druids' Cord or snory a rope with 12 knots dividing it into 13 equal sections which was used in land measure and building to lay out right angles on the ground. The snor and mystic rod can be seen in old illustrations of master masons from the middle ages, and Sir Christopher Wren's ceremonial measuring rod is preserved in St Paul's Cathedral in London. He used it in the foundation and completion ceremonies of the great sacred building.

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  • edwin bruce
    Did the picts have crosses?
    2 years ago

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