The Halton Cross-Shaft
Ed Moore | Lancaster University
In the churchyard of a small Lancashire village lies a monument hosting the grandeur of Viking-Age art. Now a part of a larger composite monument, the Halton cross-shaft is a carving of both great mystery and great debate. The cross-shaft stands as a relic of a period shrouded by time, conventionally dated to the tenth century and featuring panels containing both figural and abstract scenes. The Lune Valley and the North-West as a whole is a region scarcely mentioned in literary sources; even the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is relatively silent on the region. Monumental sculpture, such as that of Halton, is one of the few windows we have into this period.
The cross-shaft represents the complexity of the Viking-Age, standing as both a monument of the Pre-Viking period, featuring motifs found throughout the Lune Valley (dated to the Anglian period), and as a testament to the cultural syncretism displayed throughout the Viking period. The cross-shaft is of particular interest given its apparent conjunction of two traditions: the epic traditions found in the Icelandic Sagas (Figures 1-3) and the symbolism of Christian art (Figures 4-5). The most significant, if not prominent, feature of the cross-shaft are the scenes associated with the Tale of Sigurðr (Figures 1-3), found within the Icelandic Vǫlsunga Saga. The Tale, and the Saga as a whole, is fascinating and well worth the read, featuring legendary swords, a hoard of treasure, miraculous powers, and the dragon Fáfnir.
This carving is fascinating because it embodies, fairly succinctly, the issues that scholars who study Viking-Age sculpture face. As an incomplete piece of sculpture, our affirmations on the scenes are based solely on what remains. With Halton, the scene of the forge, taken in isolation, can just as easily be attributed to the Wayland Tale (Figure 2). Wayland’s identity as a smith is much more central to the story than the skilled smith Reginn is in the Sigurðr Tale. However, the panel above the forge shows a male figure (Sigurðr) sucking his thumb. This scene is one of the most famous depictions of the Sigurðr Tale, the moment when Sigurðr ingests the juices of Fáfnir’s heart and gains the power to speak the language of the birds. Without this panel, the scene below would be attributed wholeheartedly to the Wayland Tale
These concerns are of import as they affect our dating of the cross-shaft. The Wayland Tale has an earlier (pre-Viking Period) appearance in England than Sigurðr’s. If the imagery on the cross-shaft were to be attributed to the Wayland Tale rather than the Sigurðr Tale, the cross-shaft’s creation date would be moved from the Viking Period to the Anglian, where the world was rather different than during the Viking-Age upheaval. However, Beowulf (produced between 700-1000CE) contains an earlier reference to the slaying of the dragon, Fáfnir, with this version crediting Sigurðr’s father with the feat instead. The cross-shaft’s creation date is, therefore, still troubled with the shadow of doubt, with only the thumb-sucking scene giving any allusion to the Sigurðr Tale.
The syncretism on the monument can also be seen in the odd blending of Scandinavian and Anglian sculptural traditions. The cross-shaft features Anglian-style panels whilst maintaining the chaos of Scandinavian art, with little logic or linear story to be told within or between individual scenes. The links between Scandinavian mythology and Christian tradition are seen elsewhere in Viking period sculpture, most famously on the Gosforth Cross. The running theory to Halton’s initial purpose is one of memorial, with scenes of Sigurðr’s battle with Fáfnir used to connotate the heroic status of the deceased or as a claim of ancestry to the Volsungs in general. With either interpretation, the Halton cross-shaft stands as a monument to the complex and over-lapping identities present in the Viking period of the North-West of England.
The Halton cross-shaft then stands as both a testament to the artistic talents of the Viking period and a sober reminder to the modern scholar that while stone sculpture is a significant window into a period with little literary coverage, that window is small and cracked.
Unknown. "Vǫlsunga Saga." In The Saga of the Volsungs, Edited and Translated by R. G. Finch. Belfast: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd.