Easter in Open Treasure: from the Crucifixion to the Resurrection

In this blog post, Gallery Attendant, Anne-Marie Ashman takes you through the story of Easter, by examining three objects from the cathedral’s collections within Open Treasure. The objects date from the 7th to the 12th centuries, and depict the story of Easter in jewellery, stone and poetry.

We begin with the smallest of the objects, the Pectoral Cross

Up close: the detail on the Pectoral Cross

Dating from the late 7th century, the pectoral cross was found on St Cuthbert’s chest when his coffin was opened in 1827.  It had been a hidden gem, evading discovery for over 1,100 years, but is now one of Durham Cathedral’s most precious treasures.  

The cross is beautifully made with gold, shell and garnets.  The dark red stones represent the blood of martyrdom and the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  If you look carefully, you will see that the cross has twelve garnets in each arm – probably referring to the twelve disciples of Jesus who were present at the Last Supper. 

You can see this beautiful cross on display in the medieval Great Kitchen (shown below) when Open Treasure reopens.

St Cuthbert’s Pectoral Cross on display in Open Treasure
Image: The Great Kitchen by David Wood

From the smallest cross to the largest – the Ruthwell Cross

The Ruthwell Cross standing in the Monk’s Dormitory within Open Treasure

Erected around 700 AD in Dumfriesshire (then under the control of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria), the Ruthwell Cross is a preaching cross carved with scenes from the Bible.  The original cross is still near Dumfries, but we have a splendid 19th Century cast in Open Treasure.

Detail on the Ruthwell Cross

If you look carefully at the narrow sides of the cross, you may see inscriptions in runes around the edges.  These are intriguing – they are thought to be quotations from one of the oldest poems in Old English, The Dream of the Rood (‘rood’ meaning cross), which was written before the mid-9th century.  The poem tells the story of the Crucifixion as told by the Cross itself and is a dramatic depiction of Christ’s suffering:

‘God almighty stripped himself,
when he wished to climb the Cross
bold before all men.
I dared not bow to the ground.

I held high the great King,
heaven’s Lord. I dare not bend.

Men mocked us both together. 

I was slick with blood
sprung from the Man’s side.’ 

Finally we move to the Resurrection and a little known survival from our medieval Cathedral...

Hidden in an alcove in the Great Kitchen of Open Treasure is a carved panel, rather worn, but with a fascinating history.  This was probably part of the 8-metre long rood screen, a partition wall at the end of the Cathedral nave which separated the area for monks, from that used by others.  

According to The Rites of Durham, an account written c. 1593 which describes the Cathedral before the Reformation: ‘For the fineness of its pictures and the splendour of its decoration this wall was considered to be one of the finest monuments in the church’.

The panel (one of two from the screen) was made c. 1155 and is lucky to have survived, having formerly been used as building material in the wall of a house within The College, the residential area behind cathedral.

What does it show? 

 The panel shows two scenes of the Resurrection.

At the top, the risen Jesus (on the left with a cross halo) appears to Mary Magdalene outside his tomb.  As she reaches out to him, he warns her ‘Noli me tangere’ (touch me not) as he has not yet ascended to heaven. (John 20:17)

Below, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and a second Mary who have gone to see his tomb.  They come to him, take hold of his feet and worship him.  (Matthew 28:1-10)

It is thought the panel was damaged during the dissolution of the monastery, but what remains still gives a sense of the rood screen’s original splendour.

We have now reached the end of our Easter journey, which has seen us look in detail at three of our cathedral treasures – from the garnets in St Cuthbert’s cross and the drama of The Dream of the Rood to the beautifully carved stonework of the rood screen.

We hope you explore these objects for yourself on a future visit to Open Treasure https://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/visit-us/open-treasure. But for now, #StayHome, #StaySafe and we wish you a very happy Easter!

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