Wednesday 26 February 2020

From Mercia

This rare survival from Anglo-Saxon Mercia is displayed on the wall of St Mary's, Wirksworth, one of Derbyshire's finest churches. It's a stone coffin lid, dated with a broad brush at 700-900, and (perhaps wishfully) associated with Betti, one of four missionary priests who came into Mercia from Northumbria in 653.
The coffin slab was found, plain side up, below the surface of the chancel pavement when work was being done to the church in 1820. The carving is a little crude but it packs in a lot of story – eight more-or-less complete scenes, portraying, among other things, the Crucifixion, the Death of the Virgin, the Descent into Hell and the Ascension of Christ. What is striking about the Crucifixion is that it is not Christ in human form being crucified, but a lamb, the literally represented Lamb of God. This style of representation was banned by the Council of Constantinople in 692, which decreed that Christ should be portrayed as a crucified man, 'so that all may understand by means of it, the depth of the humiliation of the Word of God, and that we may recall to our memory His conversation in the flesh, his Passion and salutary Death, his Redemption which was wrought for the whole world'. Quite so.
After this, the Lamb went off in a different iconographic direction, represented supremely in Van Eyck's great Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in Ghent. The most recent restoration of this masterpiece caused something of a sensation, when the 'alarmingly humanoid' lamb was revealed in all its glory. You can read about the brouhaha here...
It would have been a whole lot worse if the lamb was on a cross.

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