Medieval Art: Ruthwell Cross and The Dream of the Rood

This famous, 18 foot cross is a stone carving that depicts 18 verses, in enigmatic runes, from the early English poem,
The Dream of the RoodRood, of course, is the Anglo-Saxon word for cross. Until 1822, the poem’s runes remained a puzzle, but when the 10th century Italian book entitled Vercelli was discovered, their meaning became clear. The Dream of the Rood relates the unknown poet’s dream about encountering a magnificent tree, decorated with priceless jewels and representing the cross of Christ. Signs of wounds identical to those of Jesus are visible, and the tree explains to the dreamer how it was once an instrument of death but now, and forevermore, is the sign of glorious redemption.

Both the poem and the Ruthwell Cross itself contain strong, manly images of Christ, and many scholars believe that the purpose of both was to impress Anglo-Saxon warriors, who respected strength but not humility, with the mightiness of Jesus. Both works of art were likely to have been employed as powerful conversion and teaching tools, and provide an example of how the story of Christ was altered by missionaries to fit the values of the pagan population they hoped to convert.

The Ruthwell Cross itself is believed to have been made sometime around 660, and probably served as a “preaching cross”, which marked the site where Christian sermons and lessons were given on a regular basis. It has suffered many indignities, including defacement and demolition by the zealots of the Protestant reformation. Dr. Henry Duncan is credited with the restoration of the Ruthwell Cross, a 24 year project that he began in 1799. It is now housed in Ruthwell Church in Dumfriesshire, Scotland.

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3 thoughts on “Medieval Art: Ruthwell Cross and The Dream of the Rood

  1. Holly says:

    I give most fervent thanks to Dr Duncan, for without him this beautiful cross would have been lost long since. Thank goodness for his patience and recognition of a priceless artifact.

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