A reredos is a screen or decoration behind the altar. Our reredos was paid for by subscription in 1892 as a memorial to Lydia Dawnay who had died in 1890. From left to right the carved figures are King (and later Saint) Oswald, Saint Peter, the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Saint John, Saint Paul and Saint Wilfrid. The reredos was designed by Temple Moore and the figures carved by the Oor family of Roermond, Holland.
Oswald of Northumbria
This figure can be identified as Oswald, King of Northumbria 634-642AD who was later venerated as a saint. Born in approximately 604 AD Oswald is credited with helping the spread of Christianity. He can be recognised by his crown, sceptre and ermine cape (symbolising his royalty) and the book and cross symbolising his missionary work. Oswald was the son of the ruler of Bernicia (an area covering part of the North of England and Southern Scotland). His father, Aethelfrith, also became the ruler of Deira (a kingdom stretching from the Humber to the Tees), the first to unite what would become the kingdom of Northumbria.
After Aethelfrith was killed in battle Oswald fled into exile in Scotland where he converted to Christianity. The new king, Edwin, died in battle with the Welsh aggressor Cadwallon ap Cadfan, as did his successor, Oswald’s brother. Oswald then gathered a small army as he sought to defend his family’s lands from Cadwallon. The two forces met at Heavenfield, near Hexham and before the battle Oswald erected a wooden cross and prayed, inviting his army to join. The night before Oswald had a vision of Columba (an Irish monk who helped spread Christianity to Scotland) offering him support and after describing it to his council they agreed to be baptised and accept Christianity after the battle. There are suggestions that the story of Oswald’s exile and victorious return was the inspiration behind the character of Aragorn in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
Oswald became regarded as a saint quite soon after his death in battle in 642 AD. The site of his death became associated with miracles and, keen to benefit, people were soon removing earth from the site causing a hole a man’s height in depth to appear. Oswald’s head and limbs had been placed on stakes at the battle site and one miracle involved a raven taking the arm to an ash tree and when it dropped it to the ground a spring formed. Both tree and spring were associated with healing miracles. Oswald’s brother later retrieved the remains and they were moved between several priories over the years in an attempt to keep them safe from marauding forces. There was reluctance to encourage the pagan practice of displaying the heads of warriors but the arms of this saintly king were considered acceptable relics so the remains became separated. Oswald’s head was eventually interred with the remains of Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne in Durham Cathedral.
The main identifying features for this figure are the keys he holds. These are the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven as explained in the section about the Kempe window. Peter’s identity is further confirmed by the rounded beard and tonsured hair of the figure which fits with how he is commonly depicted. Originally called Simon, he was a fisherman and the brother of Saint Andrew. In lists of disciples Peter is always named first and he may have been their leader. He is considered to have been the first Pope.
Only two women are named as being present at the Crucifixion, Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary. As the former is nearly always shown with long, flowing hair it is most likely that this female carving is intended to represent the Virgin Mary.
The dedication of the church was actually altered from the original All Saints to St Mary’s at some point around the time of the 1849 rebuild. However there is very little iconography of the Virgin Mary in the church. Mary only appears three times: in the annunciation scene in the East Window; with the disciples for Jesus’ Ascension; and here at the Crucifixion. It is possible that there was more iconography in the Lady Chapel which was removed to make way for the Organ Chamber in 1886. However there is certainly far more iconography to support the dedication to All Saints and it reverted back to this name shortly after 1890.
Jesus on the cross
The identity of this figure is not in question but there are several details which are worth pointing out. Firstly the cruciform halo behind Jesus’ head which marks him out as Christ. Above the halo is a scroll with the letters INRI. The letters stand for ‘Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaerorum’ Latin for ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.’ It was customary to attach a placard to the cross naming the condemned and listing their crime and this is what the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate wrote. The Chief Priests complained that he should have written that Jesus claimed to be King of the Jews not that he was but Pilate refused to amend it (John 19:19-22).
If you look at Jesus’ right hand you can see that he has his first two fingers and thumb pointing out with the others folded into his palm. This is gesture of blessing and, because of the three extended digits, has also become a symbol of the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Saint John is named as being present during the Crucifixion and the clean-shaven youthful features of this figure combined with the book he is holding point towards this as the identity of the figure on Jesus’ left. Whilst on the cross Jesus gave his mother and John into each other’s care – even during this time of great suffering he was able to think of the welfare of others.
The pointed beard and receding hairline of this figure fit with how Saint Paul has been depicted down the centuries. The sword became attributed to Paul because, due to his Roman citizenship, he was entitled to be executed by beheading rather than crucifixion. The book the figure holds is symbolic of his contribution to the New Testament – fourteen of the twenty-seven books have traditionally been attributed to him. Paul was an apostle (but not one of the Twelve Apostles) and is regarded as the founder of the Church. Originally called Saul, Paul was a persecutor of early Christians until he had a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus, was struck blind and later healed and baptised. He then began to preach and spread the Christian message far and wide.
Saint Wilfrid was born a Northumbrian noble, entered a religious life at an early age and rose up through the ranks of the Church (at one point he was Abbot at the newly founded Ripon monastery) to become a Bishop. Wilfrid followed the Roman tradition of Christianity rather than the Celtic tradition. When he was elected as Bishop Wilfrid travelled to Gaul to be consecrated as he felt the other bishops were not suitably consecrated. On his return he ship was blown ashore on the Sussex coast which was inhabited by pagans. They attacked the ship but Wilfrid’s party were able to re-float the ship and escape. Wilfrid would later return to Sussex and convert many of the pagans there. Wilfrid is often depicted with a ship, partly for this tale but also for the other journeys he took by ship and the stories of him converting those he met. In the carving the crozier he holds and the mitre on his head are symbolic of his role as Bishop. He also holds a book to represent his missionary work.