This article came from the Chronicle published April 1985.  Page 39-41



Author: Brian and Moira Gittos


During the winter of 1984/85 the British Museum has hosted a remarkable exhibition of Anglo-Saxon art, which has only received very superficial coverage in press reviews. The following account is intended to impart something of the flavour of this outstanding assemblage to those who have not had the opportunity to see the exhibition for themselves. The exhibition traced artistic development from the accession of Alfred to the Kingdom of Wessex in 871 to the time of the Norman conquest, concentrating particularly on the final hundred years when Anglo Saxon art was at its zenith – the so called “Golden Age”.

The centre piece of the exhibition was undoubtedly the “Alfred Jewel”, although one of the smallest items on display (approx. 1½” x 3″). Found at North Petherton, Somerset in 1693 it has remained in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford from 1718 until loaned to this exhibition in 1984. It is made of a gold frame in an inverted pear shape, enclosing the upper half of a male figure in green, white and blue cloisonn6 enamel set beneath a thick slice of clear rock crystal. Around the rim in Anglo Saxon characters are the words “ÆLFRED MEL HEHT GEVVYRCAN” (Alfred ordered me to be made). The tip of the jewel takes the form of a biting animal head, which would originally have gripped a slender stem. It is believed the Alfred referred to is indeed Alfred the Great and that the jewel may have been the elaborate top of one of a number of “estels” (a reading pointer, or book mark) issued by Alfred with copies of St. Gregory’s “Pastoral Care” to every bishop in the kingdom. The jewel was very well displayed so that all sides could be examined. (N.B. A faithful replica of the jewel is on display in Yeovil Museum).

Most numerous amongst the exhibits were the remarkable illuminated manuscripts and it is from the elaborate decoration and rich application of’ gold leaf in the page margins of many of the books that the term “Golden Age” is derived. A large number of the manuscripts had simply crossed the floor from the British Library, such as the Bosworth Psalter and the Benedictional of St. Aethelwold but others came from further afield – the Sherborne Pontifical from the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and the Arenberg Gospels from the Pierpont Morgan Library in, New York. It would be unfair to single out any one example from such a luxuriant gathering, which provides a richly coloured back cloth to the whole exhibition. Together they show the versatility, skill and love of life and colour brought by ostensibly severe monks to their work.

Fewer in number and bolder in execution were the examples of sculpture in stone. Of special interest from a parochial view point was the portion of cross shaft from East Stour, Dorset. Recently conserved, it was displayed at a height and obliquely lit so as to allow the closest possible scrutiny. The important contribution of recent archaeological excavation was amply demonstrated by the fragment of an early 10th century grave cover carved with foliage, discovered on the site of St. Oswald’s Priory, Gloucester, 1977-8 and on national exhibition here for the first time. Other examples of stone sculpture included a dramatic cross head from Durham Cathedral Library, a relief carving from Winchester, a cast of one of the flying angels which are set above the chancel arch at Bradford on Avon, and a curious piece described as a “gravestone” from Winchester. It consists of a standing block of limestone 25″ high, the top half carved, with three arches. Hanging from the centre arch is a lamp with knotted back curtains at either side. There are no obvious parallels for the design in a monumental context, the Saxon tradition was to have a “body stone” covering the length of the grave (as is the St. Oswald’s piece) with small standing head and foot stones carved with crosses. It seems therefore unlikely that this is a grave stone and is more probably a free-standing decorative panel.

On a different scale and degree of detail were the carved ivories, including the fine mid lith century walrus ivory pen case found in London and the head of a Tau cross (i.e, shaped like a letter ‘T’) intricately carved with curled foliage, fantastic animal heads and both the crucified and risen Christ. Modern identification ha– revealed that the substitution of walrus ivory for the more traditional elephant tusks has been widely practiced over a long period.

The quality of the jewellery on display was particularly noteworthy and in addition to the Alfred Jewel, the gilt copper alloy Pitney brooch is worthy of mention. It a circular, open work design of intertwined beasts and was found in the churchyard at Pitney, near Somerton in the late 19th century. It is only some 1½” in diameter is in contrast to the average 6″ diameter of the Sutton disc brooch. This silver brooch was discovered during ploughing near Ely in 1694 and, whilst not of the very highest workmanship, is intricately engraved and has the following intriguing inscription around its edge, translated here from the Old English.

“Aedwen owns me, may the Lord own her,
May the Lord curse him who takes me from her,
Unless she gives me of tier own free will”.

Almost out of place in this display of cultural achievement is the more war-like Abingdon sword. It is made of iron but still retains much of its hilt decoration of applied silver plaques inlaid withniello (a black composition).

Whilst no examples of pre-conquest I bells survive,  bell founding was represented by fragments of clay bell moulds found by excavation at St. Oswald’s, Gloucester and Winchester Old Minster. Glazed floor tiles were on display from both Winchester and St. Albans. The extent of use of such tiles in the pre-conquest period is currently a matter for debate and no doubt excavation will throw more light on this. A slightly disappointing aspect was the absence of any of the early Anglo Saxon window glass excavated from such sites as Jarrow, Monkwearmouth, Repton and Escomb of the 7th and 8th centuries. The glass on display was mostly of the later 11th century, from Winchester. It may have been important in its context but it was a pity that the earlier material was unrepresented.

One of the more remarkable exhibits was a fragment of late 9th century wall painting, showing the upper part of a group of three figures. It was discovered during excavation at Winchester in 1966 reused in the foundations of the New Minster. The fragile nature of wall paintings yields a very poor survival rate, even from the later middle ages. This piece is believed to be the earliest substantial fragment of pre-conquest date.

Two features were very apparent from visiting the exhibition. Firstly, the high quality of art and workmanship produced in England during the Anglo Saxon period and of the culture and wealth which supported it in contrast to the barbarous image of rugged farmers scratching a simple agricultural existence. The other impression is of the great boost which modern archaeological investigation has given to our knowledge and understanding of the Anglo Saxon period. In a sense, it is providing the background of reality for the almost fairy tale image conveyed by the manuscript.

The only problem with exhibit(ions) of this kind is that London is 120 miles from Yeovil!

For anyone wanting to know more about the exhibition, the British Museum has published a lavish catalogue (price £10) entitled “The Golden Age of Anglo Saxon Art”.