Talk to throw new light on Manx crosses

in Feature

World-renowned Viking expert Professor Sir David Wilson will be discussing his latest research on Manx crosses this week.

It’s the latest talk in the History and Heritage lecture series at University College Isle of Man. Here, Heritage and History programme leader Catriona Mackie explains the questions that will be addressed.

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There are many remarkable things to see in the Isle of Man, but one of the most remarkable are the large number of stones carved in the period between 450 and 1050 - what are loosely known as the Manx crosses.

Many visitors to the island have looked at them from time to time, particularly those in the Manx Museum, in Douglas, and the ’Cross-house’ in Maughold churchyard.

But many of the ’crosses’ are displayed in the parish churches and these perhaps receive less attention from Manx residents, although many have passed them on numerous occasions, at weddings, funerals and weekly services.

It’s now 130 years since P.M.C. Kermode wrote his great work on the early Christian and Viking-Age crosses of the Isle of Man, which is still much used by students.

Although many of Kermode’s interpretations still stand, new finds and more detailed study have modified his ideas about these internationally-famed memorials of our past.

In fact, the number of crosses and fragments of crosses has more than doubled since his book came out.

David Wilson’s lecture will attempt to shed new light on these ancient monuments, and will concentrate on the carved stones that were produced from the middle of the 5th century until the beginning of the Viking settlement in the first years of the 10th century.

These stones tell a fascinating story.

They are practically the only contemporary evidence of the life of the island from its conversion to Christianity in the 5th century until its disruption with the arrival of settlers from Scandinavia.

Only a few excavated settlement sites and unfurnished graves survive to tell the story of the Isle of Man during these centuries.

The only other evidence is comes from a handful of passing references to the Island by contemporary chroniclers from around the Irish Sea.

Not all the monuments are highly decorated, although many of them are finely carved.

Some of them are inscribed, and by carefully unpicking these texts a remarkable story of the early history of the island emerges, as the island grows into a significant player in the religious politics of the region.

Particularly interesting are the connections with Christian communities from Northumberland to Ulster, by way of the Western Isles of Scotland and Galloway.

Some of the earliest stones have bilingual inscriptions in Latin and Gaelic, engraved in two scripts, Roman and ogam.

The ogam alphabet was used by the native inhabitants of the west of the British Isles from the end of the Roman period.

These inscriptions tell the story of the earliest Manx converts to Christianity.

Maughold is particularly important, and seems to have emerged as a monastery during this period.

One of the many stones found on the site of the present parish churchyard bears a series of short inscriptions, one of which records the presence of a bishop in the island.

This and other stones tell of a sophisticated and literate Christian community in contact with the art and thinking of the great monasteries and churches of the newly-converted kingdom of Northumbria, which produced such treasures as the Lindisfarne Gospels, and with Christian Ireland.

Maughold’s stone-carvers appear to have influenced the ornamental detail and layout of the elaborate crosses of the 8th and 9th centuries found elsewhere in the island.

In turn, they influenced other carvers, as far south as Ronaldsway and Port St Mary.

In the period following the Scandinavian settlement of the island, incoming stone-carvers were inspired to produce some of the most sophisticated memorial stones from the northern world, blending the ideas of the native Manx sculptors with Scandinavian motifs and inscriptions.

This lecture will explore what the Manx crosses and their inscriptions can tell us about the Isle of Man during this period, and will place the Island into the broader Christian and Irish Sea context.

Sir David Wilson was director of the British Museum from 1977 to 1992, and was previously Professor of Medieval Archaeology at University College London.

His family moved to the Isle of Man in 1944 and, as a teenager, he was immediately intrigued by the crosses in the lych-gate at Kirk Michael.

It was these crosses and their mysterious inscriptions that influenced his later career as an archaeologist, so that he became one of the leading specialists on the Viking Age, about which he has written many books.

Among his many distinctions, he has been awarded honorary doctorates in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The lecture will take place tomorrow (Wednesday) from 6pm in the Elmwood House lecture theatre (behind the St John Ambulance Centre, off Glencrutchery Road).

All are welcome, and no booking is required.

If you’re unable to attend the lecture, you can watch the event being streamed live on the University College Isle of Man Facebook page.

A video of the lecture will be made available online at a later date.

Further details about the History and Heritage lecture series, together with videos of last year’s lectures, can be found online at http://catrionamackie.net/lectures/

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