Review of the Lindisfarne High Cross
By: Michael A. Arnold

Around the turn of the New Year I drove to the wind–beaten Holy Island, off the coast of Northumberland. I wanted to be alone with myself – I was in one of those moods.

It was a cold, overcast day. When I'd parked and wondered around the village the coast of mainland Britain was lit by long shafts of sunlight, shining down from the otherwise bleak and darkly clouded sky. It was a really beautiful, not–cold day, full of the bleak atmosphere so typical to coasts along the North Sea.

There were a small number of other visitors and tourists wondering around Lindisfarne village that day, and I noticed a lot of them would stop to take pictures of the high cross standing outside the main church on the island, within sight of the ancient ruin of a once huge monastery — which the island is most famous for.

Holy Island, also known as Lindisfarne, was the site of the first Viking raid, or at least the first Viking raid on the British Isles, an event which gave birth to the whole era we know now as the Viking Age. It is a very important event in the history of the European north, depicted recently in the TV show Vikings — with the first season depicting the attack on the island. The ancient monastery, burned down by the Norsemen in 793AD, has remained a ruin ever since. Its broken pieces have stood for more than a thousand years now, somehow frozen in the aftermath. Walking around the ruin (you cannot walk into it unless part of an official tour) and taking long look out to the ocean toward Scandinavia, you can feel something of time being frozen too. It is very easy to imagine strange long ships on the horizon, coming quickly toward the coast. Holy Island is a place that is still filled with ghosts – or at least, it feels that way.

It is really fitting that there is a high cross on the island, especially considering its location – within sight of the ruined monastery. And yet this is not the plain and simple cross that the Romans would have put someone to death on, this is an ornate stone cross with a long series of flowing and interconnecting, very Celtic patterns carved all the way across it. There is a circle around the head of the cross, symbolizing the halo, or 'the light of God'. This is an object that is primarily Christian but also feels very pagan, and this at first might be strange. Some very common and widespread ideas of medieval Christendom would have us believe that it was a time of very strict laws and severe punishments — especially against pagans and heretics. Yet there are a number of very impressive and beautiful high crosses just like this across Ireland and the British Isles, and spotted in places throughout the rest of Europe. Where do all these high crosses fit into the medieval Christian world?

It might be best if we see Holy Island as a meeting place between two worlds, the then newly Christianized British Isles and the more ancient pagan beliefs of the old gods from Scandinavia. This meeting is often imagined as violent, and at first it chiefly was, however the truth (as is often the case) is more complicated than this. The settlement, and conquests of the British Isles by Vikings led to the establishment of small kingdoms — around an area called the Danelaw — which was the northeastern shore of England, and one of those kingdoms was Northymbia — with a capital at Bamburgh — now a small village not terribly far from Holy Island. Northumberland itself has its name because it was the kingdom north of the Humber river, which is in central Yorkshire — and went as far north as around Edinburgh in Scotland. Comparative to the Anglo–Saxons, Viking culture and language was not present in the British Isles for a very long time, but they still left their marks – especially in Northern England. This is not surprising, Old English and Old Norse are linguistically pretty similar. In various regions of northern England the traces of this Viking influence can still be found in colloquialisms: 'I ken' is said in Scotland, meaning 'I know', from the Old Norse word 'kenna' meaning to know or to understand, 'berg', a word found in the Northumbrian accent, is a word for a toilet that comes from the Old Norse word 'berg' meaning a hill or cliff face, and there is a food called a stottie cake from this area of Northern England — like a large breadloaf that's often stuffed with cheese — which is taken from either the Old English word stot, or the Old Norse word stutr — both meaning to bounce or rebound, and words which are also used in northern England and Scotland too, although today they are very rarely heard. All of these are remnants of this meeting and infusion of the Christian world and the world of the pagan Norse.

The high cross on Holy Island is symbolic of this meeting of two worlds. The Christian symbolism of the cross hardly needs mentioning, but the pagan symbolism is far more complicated. Found across the high cross are sequential patterns, symbolic of a culture far older than the cross they decorate. It is covered with Celtic Knots, and sequence patterns seen in many Celtic and Germanic pagan societies. Similar sequence patterns can be seen in other Anglo–Saxon art, such as on the reconstruction of the helmet found at Sutton Hoo, or broaches like this one:

It is hard to pin down exactly what these knots and sequences might have represented – and it will perhaps forever be a mystery since the original Celtic and pagan cultures have almost entirely disappeared. Because the patterns are carved so they never have a beginning or an end, they could represent eternity — or perhaps the intersections of all things because they look woven like a kind of net or basket, something from a far more rural time when everyone had to rely on everyone else to survive in a tough landscape like the European north. The history of the Christianization of Northern Europe is complicated, and in a lot of places it was a long, slow process that took many generations to complete. During the Christianization of the British Isles, the lifestyles of people, especially ordinary people, would not have changed very much, and the old symbols and the old ways would have still been understood and respected. In a sense, then, this cross is a combination between the Christian and the Pagan worlds.

For the makers and writers of a lot of our important artifacts from this time, the pagan past was very recent, at times within living memory. Newly converted Christians even tried to keep and preserve a number of old pagan symbols, stories, and images for purely cultural or antiquarian interests. This is why a vital source for Norse mythology like the Elder Edda, is recorded using the Latin alphabet in the Codex Regius, and not in Norse runes. The slow process of Christianization was a campaign of winning 'hearts and minds', and this blending can also be seen in things like the manuscript of Beowulf, which is a pagan story written (as we have it) set the Pagan past by a Christian poet. If this preservation had never happened, the stories, myths and legends from the Norse world would probably not have survived the great cultural shift from Paganism to Christianity we see between the 5th century and the 11th.

But even this much is not the full story, and I do not want to suggest here that it this cultural shift was always peaceful or easy — the Viking raids and wars are proof enough of that. There were also Christians at the time who thought anything of the Pagan past was simply not worth preserving. There is a famous comment from the 8th century English abbot Alcuin 'What has Ingeld to do with Christ?' (Ingeld was a famous warrior in Norse mythology) and in a way it is true ,the pagan warrior and Christ have nothing to do with one another. If the future was to be Christian, the Pagan past might seem to be a hindrance to the new faith. But they were also important symbols to the people, and so if conversion was to be made less turbulent — those images would have to have been important to both of the two cultures colliding into each other.

Cultural artifacts and symbols are things very many people care deeply about, and while it is not obvious – this remains true in our modern world. Think of how many sci–fi films have aliens landing in, or blowing up, Washington D.C. or New York for example. If the Christian future was to survive in the British Isles it would have to assimilate with the culture of the past. This is why the narrator in Beowulf describes Grendel as 'Cain's kin', or why Beowulf's narrator says that Scyld was sent by God to the Danes, and returns to him when Scyld dies. Beowulf even mentions Ingeld, and like Ingeld — Beowulf himself is a pagan warrior in a pagan world, but this is also a world where Christianity and the bible are not far away.

What is true of Beowulf is also true of the Lindisfarne High Cross. There are thousands of crosses just like the one on Lindisfarne across the British Isles and Ireland, and they are a way of promoting the new religion to the native culture in their own, distinctive way — using symbols from the culture of the past in different ways and contexts. Whatever someone might feel about religious issues, it is important to look at religious artifacts as remnants of historical events, and crosses just like this one are an excellent reminder that the Christianization of northern Europe was not something immediate, and nor was it perhaps easy. With so many crosses just like this, it would be easy to be cynical and see them as propaganda symbols, but they were also symbols of co–existence, of an attempt at a peaceful assimilation, and a respect for the past that is always informing the present.