Dowlish Wake, Somerset
Found in the garden of the present owner and erected by her late husband, a builder who bought the stone as salvage
This sensitively carved relief of St. Peter, shown clean shaven with tonsured head and wearing the apparel of a bishop, 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 builder who acquired the piece was very much working around the local area. Dawlish Wake is not far from Mulcheney Abbey with Glastonbury Abbey not too far distant (see Rare Saxon carving found marking cat's grave, The Times, 27th June 2004).
Pre-Conquest sculpture is rare and much of the surviving material is extremely fragmentary. When it was first discovered the 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 twelfth century executed by a post Conquest sculptor working in an earlier style.
If the 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. 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 long elongated fingers extended in blessing. Breedon 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 century 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 (illustrated Making of England, Exh.cat.), the Whitchurch gravemarker and the Reculver fragments of the late 9th/ early 10th century (op.cit. Tweddle, Biddle and Kjøllby-Biddle, 1995). Stylistic comparisons can be found in manuscripts of the period; note 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 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 determined is that the relief is a rare survivor of English stone carving at its best.
We are grateful to Dr Dominic Tweddle for his assistance in the cataloguing of this lot.
Talbot Rice, pls.20-21, pp.98-104, 110-11; Gardner figs.51-52; Rickert pls.17-18; Making of England, Exh.cat., no.210; Tweddle, Biddle and Kjøllby-Biddle, pp. 40-61
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