[From Manx Soc Vol 15]







THE Northmen, during their occupation of the Isle of Man, from A.D. 888 to A.D. 1270, a period of nearly four hundred years, passed from a state of heathenism into Christianity. This change is marked by the character of the sepulchral monuments which they have left behind them.

The barrows and bauta stones, and perhaps some of the stone circles, indicate their earlier religious condition; their later is marked by the Runic Crosses, Peel Cathedral, Rushen Abbey, the Nunnery of St. Bridget at Douglas, and the Friary at Bechmaken in Arbory.

The Runic crosses are probably the earliest Christian remains of this people, and they are by far the most numerous, not less than thirty-eight having been discovered and described, of which nineteen, if not more, have on them inscriptions in Runic characters.

From the nature of the ornamentation upon those which are inscribed with Runes, we are enabled to determine by comparison that other crosses, not inscribed, are of the same age with them. For though the peculiar ornamentation which has received the name of knot-work is common to English, Irish, and Scotch crosses, as well as to the Manx, there are certain remarkable varieties of design and workmanship on the crosses of the Isle of Man, which readily distinguish them from all others, and mark them as truly sui generis. The Manx crosses have, as far as I know, no exact counterparts elsewhere.

This will readily be seen by any one who will take the trouble to lay the plates of my Runic and other Monumental Remains of the Isle of Man alongside of the splendid Palaeographia Sacra Pictoria of Mr. Westwood; or the beautiful work of the late Mr. Chalmers, The Sculptured Stones of Angus and Fyfe; or the more extensive collection of Scottish Sculptured Stones, printed for the Spalding Club; or Mr. Henry O'Neil's magnificent book on the Most interesting of the Crosses of Ireland; or Mr. Graham's deeply interesting work, the Antiquities of Iona.

Before directing attention to the peculiar ornamentation of the Manx Crosses, it may be well to offer a few remarks upon knot-work itself.

The term knot-work has been applied to a species of ornament of great beauty and variety which is met with in MSS. and articles of vertu, and of monuments and architecture of the Middle Ages.

The MS. of the Gospels (known by the name of St. Chad's MS.) in the library of Lichfield Cathedral, by some presumed to be of the early part of the eighth century, has various rich illuminations in which this style of ornament prevails. The Gospels of Mac Durnan, of Lindisfarne, of Mac Regol, and at St. Gall, and the famous Book of Kells, are all remarkable for the intricacy and rich variety of this kind of work.

Good examples of this species of ornamentation are to be met with in Norman architecture, as, amongst many others, in Lichfield Cathedral; in the parish church of Tutbury; and in the Church of St. Peter's, Northampton. But it is on monumental crosses that patterns of this peculiar decoration seem most largely to prevail.

Starting from the form of a simple cord or strap, then of two or more cords or straps intertwined, it has passed (as I conceive) into floriation, assuming the forms of interlacing boughs and foliage, and at all times has had a tendency to zoomorphism, transforming itself into grotesque figures of intertwining monstrous animals, more especially of dogs, birds, fishes, and serpents.

There is probably no species of decoration admitting of greater variety than this, and hardly any which adapts itself so readily to every sort of work in wood, stone, or metal, and to the illumination of every kind of writing.

It will be seen that, in reference to this species of ornamentation, I am quite in favour of a theory of development; and I express my adoption of such a theory in order to free myself from the suspicion of attempting to settle the dispute as to whether Britons, Anglo-Saxons, Northmen, the Irish, or the Scotch should lay claim to priority in the use of this sort of decoration in works of art.

I hold that the artists of each of these nations may have wrought quite independently of each other in this kind of work. I have even seen examples of Chinese knot-work not greatly differing from some in the Isle of Man. Starting from the simplest form of a rope common to every people, they might develope that form according to their characteristic national tastes. So that even if it should be determined (which, I believe, it cannot be) that any one race had adopted such ornamentation at an earlier period than others, it by no means necessarily follows that those who subsequently used it were mere copyists of earlier works. I have sometimes been told that the Manx crosses are but bad attempts at imitating Irish or Scotch works of art. Now, whatever may be the antiquity of the MSS. in which the same species of ornament occurs as that upon some of the Manx crosses, I am quite sure that it has yet to be shewn that any of the crosses bearing such ornament either in Ireland or Scotland, are earlier than those in the Isle of Man. We have also some varieties of ornamentation on the Manx crosses (and those of the most beautiful design), which have no counterpart on either the Irish or Scotch monumental remains. And it would be quite as easy to suppose that the Irish and Scotch obtained their designs from the Manx artists as that the latter were but imitators of what they had seen in Ireland or Scotland. I say nothing of the finish or workmanship on the crosses of the respective countries, be cause I believe that the material which was wrought upon had much to do with the finish of the work. The clay schists of the Isle of Man, almost the only material of which the Manx crosses are made, are but ill adapted for carving, and do not admit of a polish; and, further, they very readily yield to the action of the weather.

That we find these crosses, which are seven or eight hundred years old, retaining as much of their original decoration as they do, must be attributed to the circumstance that after an. exposure of from two to three hundred years, they were used as material for the erection of ecclesiastical buildings, instances of which may be seen now in the Cathedral of Peel and in a Treen Chapel in Jurby, the former building being of the date of the thirteenth century. The majority of the Manx crosses have been discovered within the last fifty years in pulling down the old churches in the north of the island and erecting new ones. These crosses were figured and described by myself in 1857 in my work on the Runic and other Monumental Remains of the Isle of Man, and the references in this memoir are to the figures in that work.

plate 1
Plate 1

To come to the consideration of the knot-work on the Manx crosses, I observe that a cord or rope suggests itself very readily as an ornament to any maritime people, such as those amongst whom knot-work prevailed. It may be allowed that a plain strap would equally serve the same purpose; and in flat work, such as the illumination of MSS., we can readily conceive that such an element in ornamentation would suggest itself. But in raised work, such as carving on stone, the more substantial form of the rope would form the ground-work of the decoration.

Such a simple ornament is found on the Manx crosses as a border to the other devices carved upon the stone. I may in stance the well-known so-called Dragon crosses in Braddan churchyard, the Niel Lumgun cross at Kirk Michael, and the fragment found at the old chapel in the Calf of Man. In the last case the cord forms also a portion of the decoration. Figures i and ii are reduced from rubbings of the Braddan crosses.

This straight cord would next become waved, and, by being made to return upon itself, would form the fret which in various forms occurs upon works of art of all ages. This decoration in the forms so constantly used elsewhere, is not to be found on the Manx crosses, though an approximation to a fret-like appearance is produced on some of them by drawing the lines which divide the strands of a simple cord, or of two cords twisted together, somewhat thick. This character is seen in figure ii, which is copied from the Oter Dragon cross at Kirk Braddan. The same form occurs also on the large Joalf cross at Kirk Michael, on the top of the large cross at the gates of the churchyard of Kirk Maughold, and on the cross taken from the bell turret of Kirk Maughold, and described in the next memoir.

The mystic Tau pattern (see figure iv) so copiously used on monuments, crosses, architecture, and MSS. of all ages, was very largely employed also by the Manx. artists on the Runic crosses. We find it on the Ufeig cross at Kirk Andreas, the Thorlaf cross at Ballaugh, the cross in the Treen Chapel at Jurby, on fragments in the churchyard wall at Kirk Michael, and on a fragment in the garden of the vicarage at Jurby.

Again, the C pattern and a spiral appearance were produced by a still further involution of the simple cord, as in figures v and xxx, taken from the Niel Lumgun cross at Kirk Michael. In MSS. this has been largely used, as may be seen in Mr. Westwood's paper on "Early British, Anglo-Saxon, and Irish Ornamentation", in the fortieth part of the Archaeological Journal, December 1853. It is also well known in Greek architecture. On the Manx Runic monuments it occurs in its most elaborate forms, both as a border and as scroll-work in connection with the limbs of animals. This is well seen on the fragment of the Dog cross in the garden at Kirk Conchan, on the large cross (uninscribed) at Kirk Maughold, on the Oter Cross at Braddan, on the large Joalf cross at Kirk Michael, on the Sandulf cross at Kirk Andreas, but more remarkably on the Weasel cross in the churchyard of Kirk Conchan.

In this latter cross we have it both for a continuous bordering, and for terminations to straight cords, and also as a separation of the limbs of monstrous animals, in the form of the letter S and in the Gammadion at the foot of the cross. Figures v, xxii, xxiii, and xxx, are taken from this cross.

Allied to the T and C patterns was the Z pattern (figure iii), of which we have one single instance in the Isle of Man. It occurs on the large cross at Kirk Maughold church gates, which has an aspect quite foreign to the works of the Scandinavian artists in the island. Indeed, all the crosses found at Kirk Maughold have somewhat of a foreign aspect; they are rather Scotch than Manx. Is this circumstance in any way connected with the fact that the church and churchyard of Kirk Maughold (covering three acres) were set apart in ancient times as a Sanctuary?

By causing the simple cord to assume a waved form and then to return and wrap over itself, or by taking two cords and causing them to involve each other at regular intervals, we obtain the simplest form of the guilloche, figure vi, an interlacement well known and very largely used in architecture. Examples of this occur on the Ufeig cross at Kirk Andreas, the Thorlaf cross at Ballaugh, and on fragments at Kirk Michael and Jurby.

It is in this guilloche that we have the real element of knot- work, and the Manx artists having once got hold of this element, wrought it out into a multitude of most elegant forms, many of which I do not remember to have noticed elsewhere. Take, for example, figures vii, viii, and ix, which are evident developments of the idea, and which are taken from the Malbrigd cross at Kirk Michael, the Thorlaf cross at Ballaugh, and the fragment of Ro's cross in the garden of the vicarage, Jurby.

When once this interlacement or knot-work was effected either by the overlap or splitting up of the strands of a simple rope, it was easy by the multiplication of the cords or strands to originate that endless variety of ornamentation which we see in monuments and works of art of all countries, and most elaborately brought out on the crosses in the Isle of Man.

As to the arrangement of the knot-work, I may here observe that, generally speaking, on Irish monuments or on those which are all presumed to have an Irish origin, the knot-work runs in the form of panels.

On the other hand, in the Manx specimens of the oldest type, the original idea of lengthened and continuous chain work rather prevails. The nearest approach in the Manx crosses to the Irish or Scottish panel work is to be found on the Niel Lumgun cross at Kirk Michael, which, in other respects also differs from the ordinary Manx type; for instance, the runes are of a different form; and, according to Professor Munch, of a later date; the dialect of the inscription is different, and the names occurring in it (such as Niel and Dugald) have rather a Celtic than Norse look. There is a tendency towards this panel-work in the large uninscribed cross at Kirk Maughold church gate, which, as I have before observed, has also a foreign aspect, and one side of the Oter cross at Braddan has two panels containing interlacements. Another cross taken from the bell-turret of Kirk Maughold twelve years ago, and figured and described in the memoir subsequent to this, has also such panel work.

Returning to the consideration of these interlacements or knot-work, we find that the Manx artists made a very easy addition to the ornamentation afforded by the simple guilloche by increasing the number of cords.

A double guilloche was formed by the involution of four cords, as in figure xi, copied from the Malew cross in the Museum of King William's College, the same pattern being found in the Sandulf cross at Andreas. And, in like manner, by the involution of four cords, we obtain the beautiful figure of 8 design (see figure xii), which is seen on the fragment of the cross at Kirk Conchan, which I have named the Dog cross, and the rich ornamentation (see figure x) copied from Ro's cross at the vicarage, Jurby.

A very remarkable development of the guilloche, which I have hardly noticed elsewhere, occurs abundantly on crosses in the Isle of Man, to which I would give the name of ring-work.

It consists in binding together by an intertwining ring the overlaps of the cord or cords forming the guilloche, as in figures iv and xv, the latter taken from the Ufeig cross at Kirk Andreas.

It occurs on all those crosses the workmanship of which I am inclined to attribute to Gaut Björnson, whose name is given as a cross maker in the inscription on that erected by Malbrigd the son of Athakan Smith, which stands at the church yard gate of Kirk Michael, as well as in that on the Ufeig cross.

The passage from knot-work to ring-work seems in one instance on the Manx crosses to have been made by accident rather than by design. I refer to the case of knot-work ornamentation on the face of the tall uninscribed cross at the west gate of Braddan churchyard, where, in order to complete the figure in the corner at the top of the cross, the last overlap of the cord forming the knot-work is bound together by a single ring which fills up the vacancy which would otherwise occur, and produces uniformity of appearance. This portion of ornament is given in figure xiii.

The ring being thus once adopted, wide scope for ingenuity was afforded in its arrangement, form, and decoration.

Sometimes the rings were distant and small, as in the beautiful fragment of the cross on the churchyard wall at Kirk Michael (figure xiv). In other cases, the ring was large and either square or lozenge-shaped, as in Joalf's cross at Kirk Michael (figure xvi), where four cords are bound together by a square ring, and on the fragment of Svig's cross on the large churchyard wall of Kirk Michael, where four cords, partly plain, partly pelleted, are bound together by a pelleted lozenge- shaped ring (figure xvii).

This ring-work has assumed a variety of configurations, and assists largely in the decoration of the Manx crosses. One of the most beautiful is that given in figure xxv, taken from the large uninscribed cross at Braddan, where it forms a circle or glory surrounding a cruciform pattern of knot-work.

There is, however, one pattern of this ring-work which demands particular attention as a very distinguishing feature in the ornamentation of the Manx crosses. It is the chain ring work displayed in figure xviii, which is so rare elsewhere, if it occur at all, that we may safely claim it as of genuine Manx origin. It certainly does not occur on Irish or Scotch crossed. They have nothing in knot-work comparable to it.

I believe the author of it to have been Gaut Björnson himself. We have it on the Malbrigd cross at Kirk Michael, of which he undoubtedly was the carver. It is on the Thorlaf cross at Ballaugh, the Inosruir cross at St. John's, the Svig cross at Kirk Michael, the inscribed fragment in the church yard wall of Kirk Michael, the name on which cannot be de termined, and on the Ufeig cross at Andreas which is certainly the work of Gaut.

It is so extremely beautiful in its character that we cannot feel at all surprised that it was adopted and applied in a peculiar form upon that cross of Niel Lumgun at Kirk Michael, which I have before pointed out as being of a later date and more foreign aspect.

plate 2

It is this singular ornament on that cross, together with the runes, which, to my mind, appropriates it to the Scandinavian artists of the Isle of Man, notwithstanding its variation from the general style of Manx crosses and the indications of a Celtic connection. The designer of that cross may have seen Scotch or Irish crosses, if they existed at that time, with knot- work on them; but he has indubitably put a Manx stamp upon it. The ornament I have alluded to on this cross is given in figure xxvi.

There are several glories formed of knot-work on the Manx crosses, as, for instance, those of figures xxv, xxvii, xxix, and xxxi, but there are none producing so pleasing an effect as this.

I may here observe that the glory seems to have been considered an almost necessary accompaniment to the cross in all the Manx examples, the only exception appearing to be Ro's cross at Jurby; but even in this, the ring binding the knot- work in the head compartment of the cross may be considered as representing it. The tall cross, near a cow-shed, at the cross-roads in Kirk Christ's, Rushen, is too imperfect to determine whether this ornament did or did not exist upon it.

I would here notice that the intersection of the strands in the rope or of the two cords forming the guilloche, bound to gether by a lozenge-shaped ring, suggested the notion also of lozenge-shaped pellets upon the rope itself, ultimately assuming the form even of rounded pellets, and giving rise also to the idea of scale-covered fishes or animals of a lacertine character.

A cord so pelleted and intertwined with a simple unpelleted one, gives a very fine effect, and indicates at the same time more distinctly the existence of two cords in the same interlacement. This effect is seen more particularly in figure xvi above, and it occurs again in a remarkable manner on the fragment of the Oter cross at Braddan, on the fragment of Ro's cross at the vicarage, Jurby, and on the fragment in the vestry at Kirk Michael.

Now, if to a single row of pellets running down the centre of the cord or strap others were subsequently added, and if to one end of the cord or strap so pelleted a head were added and the other end shatpened off into a tail, we should have at once the serpent or scaly fish, the lizard or dragon, presenting so remarkable an appearance on one or two of the Manx Runic monuments. See figures xx and xxi, associated with figure xxviii.

The Zoomorphic pattern being once established, the intertwining of monstrous lengthened figures of dogs, birds, fishes, and even men would readily follow. I do not say that such must necessarily have been the course of development; but I think it not improbable, and certainly it seems worthy of some consideration and more close investigation.

The common twisted rope easily becomes the snake of figure xxviii by the addition of the head and tail, and the pelleted broad strap is easily changed into the lacertine form of figures xx and xxi, but in figures xxii, xxiii, and xxiv, the limbs themselves of the animal, and more especially the legs and the tail, become the source of knot-work or scroll-ornament.

But the Manx artists were most unhappy in their carving of men and animals. In many instances, such as figures xx, xxi, xxii, xxiii, and xxiv, the evident intention was to produce a monster; but, making all allowance for the badness of the material and the effect of weathering, it is too plain that the attempt of the Manx artists to draw animals in their natural form was a miserable failure. Though they were clever enough to design and carve knot-work, their animals are little better than what a child would draw on a slate. In this respect the Manx cross makers came very far behind their fellow craftsmen in Scotland and Ireland; but this deficiency is to my mind an evidence of the greater antiquity of the Manx crosses. Al most all the figures of men on Manx crosses are drawn nude, the exceptions seeming to belong to a later date.

The great marvel to me in this knot-work ornamentation is the wonderful accuracy with which the artists have managed in all their figures to produce the regular overlap of the cords.

The alternate under and over seems to come without any mistake, however great the number of intertwining cords, and whatever be the shape of the space which the ornament is designed to fill. I have traced over many hundred feet of such knot-work in rubbings from the Manx crosses and have never found a mistake.

It seems to me as if the artists had made use of actual cords or ropes in laying down their designs upon these crosses. Let anyone take a vacant space, say a square, oblong, or circle, on a sheet of paper, and endeavour to fill it up with continuous overlapping cords, and he will perceive the difficulty of working without a design before his eyes.

It is not easy at once to produce such simple results as are found in figures xix and xxix.

Even the various forms of the triquetra found upon the Manx crosses indicate a considerable amount of ingenuity in their fabrication and in the manner in which the knot is involved, more especially where it is doubled, tripled, or quadrupled, as we see in figure xxix.

Figures xxxi and xxxii shew the manner in which the heads of the crosses were filled up, and display much taste.

Certainly, after inspecting the designs on these Runic remains in the Isle of Man, we must give up the idea, if we have ever entertained it, that the Northmen were altogether a barbarous people, and incapable of any better feelings than those allied to war and the shedding of blood.



Back index next

Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2001