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Scenes from the Life of St. Cuthbert: Pittington, Co. Durham (‡Durham) c.1175-1200

Photo:T.Marshall Scenes from the Life of St. Cuthbert, Pittington (194KB)

St. Cuthbert (c.634-687), a native Englishman and monk who eventually became prior and later bishop of Lindisfarne is by far the most famous saint of northern England. This is the sole surviving set of paintings (hearsay evidence suggests that there were once many more) in this church, and indeed, Durham cathedral apart, in county Durham. (I would be happy to be proved wrong on this, so please contact me if you know of any others). They are in the splays of a window at the west end of the church.

At the right is a complete view of the window aperture and its splays. In the centre of the arch, above the aperture, is some very elaborate foliated scrollwork which may be intended symbolically for vines - it resembles quite closely the detail below the figure of a prophet at Little Easton. This kind of beautifully controlled, flowing detail is typical of very high quality early decorative work.

The enlarged detail at the left below shows the scene in the lefthand splay of the window, where Cuthbert is consecrated bishop (Cuthbert is the tonsured figure kneeling at the left, having the holy oil poured over his head by Archbishop Theodore). The crowned man at the far right of the scene is probably King Egfrith of Northumbria, who was present at the consecration in York. Consecration of St. Cuthbert, Pittington (218KB)
More than any others in the English parish church, it seems to me, the Pittington paintings show the final achievement of a fully English Romanesque style, short-lived as this turned out to be. The eyes are large and basically almond in shape, but the figures have lost the remote and rather chilly icon-like quality found in so much Continental Byzantine art. The only possible comparison is with the contemporary painting of St. Cuthbert at Durham cathedral, and for once the similarities are so marked that it seems safe to say that the same hand painted them both. Pittington is only a few miles from Durham city.

At the right is the painting in the righthand splay of the window, the only depiction known to me of St. Cuthbert’s vision at the table of Abbess Aelfleda of Whitby, a close friend whom he visited more than once. The story behind this narrative painting is in Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, and a version of it can be found in Chapter XXXIV of the Medieval Sourcebook St. Cuthbert's vision at Abbess Aelfleda's table, Pittington (246KB)

Cuthbert, who had by this time become Bishop of Lindisfarne, and Aelfleda met on this occasion on Coquet island off the coast of Northumberland. The photograph shows the moment when, eating at Aelfleda’s table, the knife fell from his hand as he saw in a vision ‘the soul of a holy man’ being taken to Heaven. There is more scrollwork at the top of this painting, and below that the holy man’s soul painted as a small figure lying horizontally across the space, head at the right, legs in the air and one hand extended downwards. The saint’s story relates that at that moment, a messenger came in with the news that one of Aelfleda’s servants had fallen to his death from a tree.

This messenger is the young man in a light brown tunic at the far right of the scene, his hand on the table, speaking to Aelfleda, who wears a green veil around her head and raises her right hand from the table in shock. A tall man, also in brown, stands behind, and then comes Cuthbert in a red cloak, his left hand gripping the edge of the table as the truth of his vision is confirmed. The table is set with a fish on a dish, a cup for wine or other drink, and bread. The draped table and the robes of those sitting at it show the elegantly looping ‘dampfold’ modelling characteristic of the best Romanesque painting. The frozen moment is beautifully captured in an anonymous masterpiece that is in no way inferior to the paintings in Durham cathedral, or indeed anywhere else in England at this period.

A contemporary of Cuthbert, the monk and hagiologist Reginald of Durham declared that the three most popular saints in England were Cuthbert, Edmund and Etheldreda. All three had bodies found to be incorrupt long after their deaths, a phenomenon always regarded as a sign of great sanctity in the Middle Ages. Given the sheer quality of these paintings, it is a great pity that none of the others said to have been at Pittington have survived.

Website for St. Laurence, Pittington

St. Andrew Martyred, Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Anne teaching the Virgin to read-Corby Glen, Lincolnshire St. Antony and the Pig, Barton, Cambridgeshire St. Barbara : Hessett, Suffolk St. Bartholomew : Selling, Kent St.Catherine of Alexandria, life of : Castor, Cambs St Catherine of Alexandria, Cold Overton, Leicestershire NEW St.Catherine of Alexandria : Hardley Street, Norfolk
St.Catherine of Alexandria : Old Weston, Northants St.Catherine of Alexandria : Pickering, N. Yorks St.Catherine of Alexandria, life of : Sporle, Norfolk St. Catherine of Alexandria, Martyrdom of: Burton Latimer, Northants NEW St. Catherine of Alexandria or another female saint : Ashley, Hampshire NEW St. Clement : South Leigh, Oxon. Scenes from the life of St. Cuthbert : Pittington, Co. Durham NEW St. Dunstan holding the Devil by the nose : Barton, Cambs
St.Edmund : Boxford, Suffolk St. Edmund : Lakenheath, Suffolk St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Bishopsbourne, Kent St.Edmund, Martyrdom of : Fritton, Norfolk St. Edmund (or St. Walstan) : Gisleham, Norfolk St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Pickering, N.Yorks St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Troston, Suffolk
St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Weare Giffard, Devon St.Eloi, Broughton, Bucks St. Eloi and the possessed horse, Slapton, Northants St. Eloi, as bishop & blacksmith, Wensley, N.Yorks St.Erasmus, Martyrdom of : Chippenham, Cambs St. Etheldreda : Willingham, Cambs St. Francis Preaching to the Birds : Little Kimble, Bucks St.Francis Preaching to the Birds : Wissington, Suffolk
St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Slapton, Northants St. George & Dragon : Banningham, Norfolk St. George & Dragon : Broughton, Bucks St. George & Dragon : Earl Stonham, Suffolk St. George & Dragon : Fritton, Norfolk St. George & Dragon : Hornton, Oxon St. George dedicating himself to the Virgin : Astbury, Cheshire St. George, with the princess : Little Kimble, Bucks
St. George & the Dragon : Kirtlington, Oxon NEW St.Helena, Broughton, Bucks St.James the Great : Hales, Norfolk Life of St. James, Stoke Orchard, Gloucestershire St. James the Great, meeting pilgrims : Wisborough Green, Sussex St. James the Great, Yelden (or Yielden), Beds NEW St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Chalfont St. Giles, Bucks St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Heydon, Norfolk
St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Idsworth, Hampshire St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Old Weston, Northants St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Pickering, N. Yorks Life of St. John the Baptist : Cerne Abbas, Dorset St. John the Evangelist, Selling, Kent St. John the Evangelist, Weston Longville, Norfolk St. Margaret of Antioch : Old Weston, Northants St. Margaret and the dragon : South Newington, Oxfordshire
St. Margaret of Antioch Martyred, Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Margaret of Antioch, Life of : Charlwood, Surrey Life of St. Margaret, Wendens Ambo, Essex Martyrdom of St. Margaret, Duxford, Cambridgeshire Martyrdom of St. Margaret, Ashby St Ledgers, Northamptonshire NEW St. Martin dividing his cloak, Chalgrave, Beds St. Martin dividing his cloak, Wareham, Dorset St Michael, with kneeling donor, South Newington, Oxfordshire
St.Nicholas of Myra, life of : Little Horwood, Bucks
St. Nicholas of Myra, two miracles of : Wissington, Suffolk St. Nicholas of Myra & the Boys in the Barrel, Padworth, Berkshire St. Nicholas of Myra & the Boys in the barrel, Bishopsbourne, Kent NEW St.Paul : Black Bourton, Oxon St. Paul : Beckley, Oxon St. Paul : Selling, Kent St. Peter : Beckley, Oxon
St.Peter : Black Bourton, Oxon St. Peter, Martyrdom of : Chacombe, Northants St. Peter : Selling, Kent SS. Peter & Paul, Old Idsworth, Hampshire NEW St. Roch : Pinvin, Worcs St. Sexburga? : Willingham, Cambs S. Stephen, Martyrdom of, North Stoke, Oxon St. Stephen, Stoning of: Black Bourton, Oxon
St. Stephen, Stoning of: Catfield, Norfolk St.Swithun (?) enthroned : Old Weston, Northants Scenes from the life of St. Swithun : Corhampton, Hampshire St. Thomas Becket, blessing, Hauxton, Cambs. Archbishop, possibly Thomas Becket, blessing, Shorthampton, Oxfordshire NEW St. Thomas Becket, Murder of, Marston Magna, Somerset St. Thomas Becket, Murder of, North Stoke, Oxfordshire St.Thomas Becket, Murder of : South Burlingham, Norfolk
St. Thomas Becket, Murder of : South Newington, Oxfordshire St. Walstan of Bawburgh? or St. Edmund : Gisleham, Norfolk St. Zita : Horley, Oxon St. Zita : Shorthampton, Oxon Unidentified female saint : Heydon

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March 25 2010

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