This remarkable carved relief of St. Peter, shown clean shaven with tonsured head and wearing the apparel of a bishop, is a rare example of early English stone carving at its finest. Its quality is equalled only by its extraordinary later history. The relief was discovered by an amateur historian in 2004, marking the grave of a stray cat called Winkle, and subsequently appeared in an article in The Times in which a leading authority on Anglo-Saxon sculpture, Dr Rosemary Cramp, was reported as describing it as being of 'national importance' (Bruxelles, op. cit.).
The relief may originally have been a section of a cross shaft, or alternatively part of a larger panel, redressed at a later date as a building stone. The oolitic limestone used is an indigenous stone of the Somerset region where the relief was found. Although its original site is unknown, the stonemason who acquired the relief, prior to its widely reported rediscovery in 2004, was very much working around the local area. Dawlish Wake is not far from Mulcheney Abbey, with Glastonbury Abbey not too far distant (see Bruxelles, op. cit.).
Pre-Conquest sculpture is rare and much of the surviving material is extremely fragmentary. When it was first discovered, the present relief was compared stylistically to the transitional Anglo Saxon/ Norman panels in Chichester Cathedral, the Raising of Lazarus and Mary and Martha Greeting Christ which were rediscovered behind the choir stalls in 1829. The Chichester reliefs are indebted to Carolingian, and ultimately Byzantine prototypes, and have been variously dated as early as 1000, in the pre-Conquest period, to the middle of the 12th century, executed by a post-Conquest sculptor working in an earlier style.
If the present relief is a section of a cross shaft, then, as the cross shaft ceased to be used following the Norman Conquest, it should be dated earlier. Classical in style, the relief displays none of the fluidity and liveliness of the Winchester style, which was to dominate, in particular as regards manuscripts, from the 10th century onwards. It has subsequently been suggested that the present relief can be compared with the late 8th/ early 9th century relief at Breedon on the Hill in Leicestershire (Gardner, op cit. nos. 51, 52). Note the treatment to the upper drapery, the drilled eyes and, in particular, the singular treatment to the hand, with the elongated fingers extended in blessing. The Breedon relief has been dated to circa 800 and certainly well before the destruction of the churches in the area by the Vikings in 874.
However, the portrayal is stiff with a far more regimented treatment to the drapery, in three quarter profile rather than full frontal, and the lettering is inconsistent with a date as early as the Breedon reliefs. It is in the 9th and early 10th centuries that the strongest parallels can be found, a period when King Alfred (871-899) and, later, his son Edward the Elder (899-925) were stimulating contact with Europe and fostering Anglo-Saxon culture. Sculptural parallels are few, but include the Lechmere stone (Webster and Blackhouse, op. cit.), the Whitchurch gravemarker and the Reculver fragments of the late 9th/ early 10th centuries (Tweddle et. al., op.cit.). Stylistic comparisons can be found in manuscripts of the period; note, for example, the book of Cerne in the 840’s and the Aethelstan Psalter of the early 10th century, with the more regimented drapery, the treatment to the hair and, in particular, the lettering with the distinctive angular S.
The most convincing parallel with works of the late 9th to early 10th century is with the St. Cuthbert stole and maniple, probably made in Winchester between 906 and 916. The woven bands of gold and coloured silks consist of full length figures of prophets and saints placed one above the other, as would have been the case on a cross shaft. Compare, in particular, with the figure of Peter the Deacon standing, partly in profile, with short tonsured hair and inscribed with near-identical letter forms, illustrated by Rickert (op.cit. pl.18). A further comparison can be made with the figure of Pope Gregory on the stole, with his head turned to the right, wearing vestments, where the shoulders are very similarly treated to those on the present relief. The abbreviation SCS is also used.
The original site for this relief is unknown, but the oolitic stone used is the local stone of the Somerset area. Whether this rare find is an example of post-Conquest sculpture in the transitional Saxon/ Norman times, or whether - as is more likely - it is a sophisticated rendering from an earlier period, must, for the present, remain open to debate. What is certain is that the relief is a rare survivor of English stone carving at its best.
D. Talbot Rice, English Art 871-1100, Oxford, 1952, pp. 98-104, 110-11, pls. 20-21; A. Gardner, English Medieval Sculpture, Cambridge, 1952, figs. 51-52; M. Rickert, Painting in Britain: The Middle Ages, London, 1954, pls.17-18; L. Webster and J. Blackhouse, Making of England. Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture AD 600-900, exh. cat. British Museum, London, 1991, no. 210; D. Tweddle, M. Biddle and B. Kjøllby-Biddle, Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, vol. iv, Oxford, 1995, pp. 40-61; S. de Bruxelles, 'Rare Saxon carving found marking cat's grave', The Times, London, 27 May 2004
We are grateful to Professor Dominic Tweddle for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.