Tag Archives: sculpture


A Novice Views India, Part II: Pallava Temples at Mahabalipuram

This gallery contains 56 photos.

The second of my Indian photo posts has become a bit of a monster. In the first version I already had upwards of fifty pictures I wanted to share, which is probably excessive though it’s a fraction of what I … Continue reading

Fishers of men

This is a post that began in a drunk conversation with one of my oldest academic friends (whom I will not shame by naming, but whom you could potentially help out quite a lot by adding your name to this petition). That conversation was also four years ago, and I’m choosing to claim that that, not the beer, is why I can’t quite remember how we got onto this—my guess would be that this was during a few days I spent staying with them while using a local academic library to finish the paper which became my article ‘Nuns’ Signatures’, and that I was just pulling interesting-looking books off my friend’s shelves—but somehow we came upon a picture of this sculpture.

The Papil Stone in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

The Papil Stone in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, image from Canmore

What this is is one face of the Pictish symbol stone from Papil, Shetland.1 It’s not in Shetland any more, where only a replica remains, because it was carted off to the National Museum of Scotland, but I suppose more of my readership may therefore have a chance of seeing it some day. Anyway, the other face has a cross and interlace on it, but it’s this one that drew my altered attention, partly of course because of the odd cowled figures and the lion, but mainly because of these guys.

The birdman figures on the replica of the Papil Stone, Shetland

The birdmen on the lowest register of the modern replica of the Papil Stone, on site in Shetland, photo by J. Dimitrescu, copyright not stated so hopefully this is OK linked through to their excellent site

Now, it will not surprise you to know that scholarship is a little divided on just what might be depicted here. Early (modern) plague doctors seem to be ruled out by the bird feet, the axes and maybe also the human head of which they appear to be sharing custody. Especially since these guys are in the lower register of a three-panel picture, with the upper one being plausibly things of Heaven (a cross, cowled figures with crooks), the middle one being, well, a lion, not sure what to do with that but definitely a thing of Earth (or of Zion, I admit), the easiest answer might seem to be demons of some kind, playing with a member of the doomed dead. But if so, it’s quite a local kind of demon, you’d have to admit; this is not your standard beast with forked-tail and horns iconography.2

[Edit: revisions from here on have attempted to do something about the tone, which unfortunately managed, while trying to make my theory sound as silly as it deserves, to make the work on which it rested sound silly as well. That was not my intention at all; that work got an award from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and is online for you to peruse if you want a serious study of the stone. My actual argument, such as it is, remains the same.]

Well, I got no further with this thought that night, but the next day something suddenly struck me. You see, some scholars of early medieval, and especially, Germanic art, have some very artful interpretations of it in which, though an image seem to us weird as hell (perhaps literally), it may actually be a really cunning Christian reference.3 (I suppose a demon would, kinda sorta, be a Christian reference, but I mean more directly Biblical than that.)

As it turns out, I am not the first person to wonder if this can be done with this stone. There is other stonework from this site which seems to show monks, and this has led various people to theorise (not unreasonably) that there was a monastic settlement here and (less reasonably maybe) that this is therefore a scene from the Life of St Anthony, arguably the proto-monk and certainly regarded as such by many a medieval community. In this episode from the Life the saint-in-training was, and I quote a recent article about this stone, “tempted by women disguised as birds who whispered into his ear.”4 I’m not going to wonder right now what the heck was going on in Anthony’s personal desert (or relate this to the fact that birds are also supposed to have brought him food), I’m just going to note that, as I learn from the same article where several instances are pictured, this episode turns up on Irish sculpture quite a lot, so it’s not an unreasonable thing to suppose in this case. Except for the bird feet.

West face of the Castledermot South Cross

West face of the Castledermot South Cross, at Castle Dermot, County Kildare, Ireland, showing the Temptation of St Anthony one panel up from the base; photograph by Liam Murphy, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

For reasons of those feet, therefore, and also quite a number of other reasons (such as that Anthony is pretty much always shown as a whole human being, and not an isolated head between two figures carrying axes), the author of that article, Dr Kelly Kilpatrick, wisely rejects the Antonian hypothesis. Instead, she argues that the stone shows, “a common ideal of mythological war-like creatures in Pictish tradition, paralleled by written descriptions of Irish battlefield demons”, and instances at least four more of these characters, or at least beak-headed humanoids carrying weapons, on stones scattered across the old Pictish territories.5 (I say at least because I’m not sure whether or not I think Rhynie Man really belongs in the set, being more human though definitely scary, a kind of beweaponed Pictish bogeyman. There are English parallels to him I’ll blog about separately that have much more benign interpretations.) So case closed? Well, perhaps. In fact, if we’re being serious, then yes, I think so, really; the parallels seem fairly clear (as you can see for yourselves), are based on a thorough knowledge of the corpus of stones and it fits with a wider theory Dr Kilpatrick is offering about Pictish beliefs which I need to hear more of. But you didn’t come here to be serious, surely!

So, instead, let’s try and replicate my 2017 leap of hangover logic. Dr Kilpatrick has certainly seen more of these figures on the stones than I have, even after a lockdown tour of symbol stones I did last summer, but still I wonder if she is right when she says of these figures, “Apart from the beaks, they have human hair, and human-like facial features, including incised eyebrows.”6 Let’s have a close look at one of those heads…

Head of a grey heron

Head of a grey heron sighted at Waterfield Meadow in 2014, image by C. Butterfield from NatureSpot

Papil Stone birdman head

Head of one of the Papil Stone birdmen

What if they’re not eyebrows but eyestripes, it’s not hair but a crest? I think that whatever these creatures are, they have heron heads. Now, for those of you whose native lands may not be blessed with the noble heron (though that’s not many), they are fishing birds, which spend most of their lives looking hunched and uncomfortable ankle-deep in lakes, but every now and then unfold in a lightning quick spearing action which brings up a fish almost every time. And it was when I decided that the sculptor here was thinking herons that inspiration suddenly struck, in the form of a verse of Scripture (a thing which really very rarely happens to me):

And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. (Matthew 4:19)

Need I even say more? What are these beings if not fishers of men? Look, they’ve been caught right in the act by our carver. In which case, not demons but apostles! Apostles with bird feet. There may be some iconographic details still to be worked out in this theory, I admit. Until then Dr Kilpatrick may be your best guide…7

1. I don’t have any of the standard catalogues to reference here (though see n. 4 below) but the stone is briefly described, analysed and illustrated in George Henderson and Isabel Henderson, The Art of the Picts: sculpture and metalwork in early medieval Scotland (London 2004), pp. 156-157 & fig. 228.

2. I don’t actually know how old the horns, pitchfork and forked-tail iconography of devils and demons is, but I suspect it’s later than medieval as I can’t think of any medieval examples. No time to check now though, sorry!

3. The winner in this particular contest, not just in quantity of suggestions but their ingenuity, is definitely Anna Gannon, The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage, Sixth to Eighth centuries (Oxford 2003).

4. Kelly A. Kilpatrick, “The iconography of the Papil Stone: sculptural and literary comparisons with a Pictish motif” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Vol. 141 (Edinburgh 2011), pp. 159–205, online here (p. 167).

5. Ibid., pp. 167-180.

6. Ibid., pp. 163-164.

7. Though it will take a lot to convince me that these demons do not have heron heads! And from there we could spin all kinds of theories about landscape and cosmology… I would not be the first person to pitch such theories, either, there being Martin Carver, “Early Scottish Monasteries and Prehistory: A Preliminary Dialogue” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 88 (Edinburgh 2009), pp. 332–351, but for that very reason I might for now leave it to him…


Taking in York Minster

This gallery contains 16 photos.

At the very beginning of the period covered by the last post, April 2017, I had a relative visiting and so decided to do one of the obvious bits of Yorkshire touristing I had not yet done, which is to … Continue reading


Istanbul VIII: remains at the museum

This gallery contains 21 photos.

You may have gathered that the UK’s academics are on strike again, and more of us this time, 74 institutions where before it was 60; nothing got solved and people are even angrier now. It’s not a particularly good time … Continue reading

Leeds 2013 report part 3

This was the longest day of my attendance at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds last year, not just because of it ending in the dance but because it was the only day of the conference where I went to four sessions before the evening. I guess that for some of you this will be more interesting reading than for others, so, varying the usual pattern, here’s a list of the sessions I went to and their speakers and papers, then a cut and you can follow it up if you like!

    1030. Digital Pleasures, IV: scholarly editions, data formats, data exploitation

  • Francesco Stella, “Database versus Encoding: which methods for which results?”
  • Jean-Baptiste Camps, “Detecting Contaminations in a Textual Tradition: computer versus traditional methods”
  • Alexey Lavrentev, “Interactions, corpus, apprentissages, répresentations”
  • 1107. ‘Foul Hordes’: the migration of ideas and people in Pictland and beyond

  • Oisin Plumb, “Go West Young Urguist: assessing the Pictish presence in Ireland”
  • Tasha Gefreh, “Foul Iconography”
  • Bethan Morris, “Reading the Stones: literacy, symbols, and monumentality in Pictland and beyond”
  • 1207. Peripheral Territories in Early Medieval Europe, 9th-11th Centuries

  • Katharina Winckler, “Competing Bishops and Territories in the Eastern Alps”
  • Jens Schneider, “Celtic Tradition and Frankish Narratives in 9th-Century Brittany”
  • Claire Lamy, “Dealing with the Margins: the monks of Marmoutier and the classification of their possessions (11th c.)”
  • 1310. Texts and Identities, IV: violence, legitimacy, and identity during the transformation of the Roman world

  • Glenn McDorman, “Military Violence and Political Legitimacy in the Burgundian Civil War”
  • Adrastos Omissi, “Hamstrung Horses? Timothy Barnes, Constantine’s Legendary Flight to his Father, and the Legitimacy of his procalamation as Emperor in 306”
  • Michael Burrows, “Lower-Class Illegitimate Violence in the late Roman West”

If any of that piques your interest, then read on! If not, hang about till next post and we’ll talk larger-scale Insular funerary sculpture instead. Continue reading

Seminar CIII: in which I document the end of an era

Sorry about the gap; this term is burying me somewhat. Matters should improve in a fortnight. Meanwhile, I am so behind with seminar write-ups that I must reluctantly skip those about which I am qualified to say little, and this leaves me moving on, to my complete surprise I assure you, to ME.1 Because, in fact, the presentation to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London on 15th June this year was by your sometimes-humble correspondent, talking with the title “Managing power in the post-Carolingian era: rulers and ruled in frontier Catalonia, 880-1010”.

Jonathan Jarrett presenting his research at the Institut of Historical Research

The cunning and alert reader will notice a suspicious similarity between paper subtitle and the title of my book (which, I seem not to have said for a while, you can buy here), and that would be a fair cop. I was not quite presenting new research here, although there was some towards the end; if you happened to have and have read my book, have heard me at Leeds in 2010 and also read this blog post, I’m afraid you would have learnt nothing from this presentation except by linking it all up. I don’t think anyone there present fell into all those groups, however, so I hope it was diverting for them, and there were at least some pretty pictures. What the paper did, essentially, was to give the overall thesis of the book, with some cherry-picked examples, synthesize my conclusions there, and then as a kind of epilogue talk about my next major project, and the comparisons in the way that Borrell II and his contemporaries presented their power in their documents that I have been able to make as part of the early work on that project. As such, there might be some point for the person who hasn’t read my book, but is wondering if they should, in reading this paper first, and if it leaves you wanting more, well, it’s out there. For that reason, and also just out of vanity, I uploaded the text I wrote for this to Academia.edu here. I have no plans to do anything further with it, so I imagine it will stay there unless Academia.edu melts down or disappears. You should be aware that I didn’t have time to put notes on it, so all my claims are unreferenced, but most of them are in the book and the rest will shortly appear.2

Attendees of the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research

Alice Rio invites an audience member to make their point, if they dare (I kid, I kid...)

Vain though I undoubtedly am, however, I am not actually the point of this post. The era whose end I’m documenting is not, in fact, the Carolingian one in the lands of its most loyally disconnected supporters, but one in the history of the actual seminar. Again, long-term readers will know I have been going to this seminar a long time, and it’s a lot longer than the blog too, but it goes back far further than me; it was, I believe, started by none other than R. Allen Brown, and taken over subsequently by John Gillingham and then/also Jinty Nelson. In other words, its second set of convenors have now retired. (Susan Reynolds includes some of these details in her reminiscences here; like her, I have found this seminar a lifeline, albeit for different reasons given our respective statuses.) And in that time, it has almost always been held in the Ecclesiastical History Room of the Library of the Institute of Historical Research, in the Senate House of the University of London. This, by ancient precedent, allowed those attending to haul volumes of the Patrologia Latina (or occasionally even the Græca) off shelves to check references during discussion and on the other hand by equally ancient precedent prevented anyone else using the books in there during the seminar. The other ancient custom, which had to be explained with embarrassment to every new speaker, is that the audience did not applaud, a rule which I only very rarely saw broken.

Attendees of the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research

Professor Reynolds herself, centre of photo, among other worthies of the seminar

This has now all stopped. The Senate House is being extensively rebuilt internally, the entire IHR is being refurbished in a two-year project, and the Library has therefore been moved to the other side of Senate House. Once it reopens, the seminars and the books will be housed separately and basically it will all be different. Whatever that room is to be used for in future, it seems unlikely that it will ever again house this seminar (though the seminar itself continues meanwhile, in new accommodation). And for that reason, once I’d wound up, Jinty Nelson had the typically excellent idea of getting people to photograph the room, the gathering, the proceedings and the surroundings, so that it could be somehow recorded for posterity. And Jinty and Alice Rio, both of whom I can never disappoint, asked me to put it up on the blog, and so now I have. And when it moves off the front page I shall set it up as its own page and link it from my Seminars page in the top menu bar there, and so, I hope, it will be documented as long as I have the blog, which is something I have no plans to stop doing soon. If it lasts as long as the seminar has, though, that’ll be something…

Attendees of the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research

Jinty herself, centre back, explaining; not sure what the others are looking at, probably a camera by this stage!

1. It was actually a surprise, because I had to look up the date I presented before I realised I was next. I thought I’d be writing up a conference at this point, which is instead next. The paper I’ve elided was Aleksandra McClain, “Commemoration, Landscape, and Identity in Medieval Northern England”, presented to the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on 13th June 2011, which displayed great command of her material, was very clear and seemed likely to be right in stressing that Northumbria was no cultural backwater even in the thirteenth century but did hold to conservative forms of funereal display as part of a local complex of identity; I just have no basis on which to critique this at all or anything to add of my own, so I’m afraid I cruelly relegate it to this footnote.

2. References for the new stalkers and the search engines: J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London 2010); idem, “Caliph, King or Grandfather: strategies of legitimisation on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 (Turnhout forthcoming).