In 1833, fragments of a sculptured stone were discovered during gravedigging near St Rule’s Tower, in the grounds of St Andrews Cathedral. They appeared to be part of a sarcophagus, a container for a body literally translated from Greek as ‘flesh eater’.
The St Andrews Sarcophagus, as it came to be known, is one of the finest pieces of sculpture to survive from early-medieval Europe. Detailed research has concluded that it is in fact a royal burial shrine of the late 700s. It may have been built over a king’s grave, or it may have contained a saint’s relics.
It is thought to be a memorial to Onuist (Óengus) son of Uurguist (Fergus), who died in 761. Onuist was a king from a powerful Pictish dynasty, who had founded an important monastery at St Andrews in a period that is still referred to by some as the ‘Dark Ages’.
The largest surviving panel depicts a woodland hunting scene with human and animal figures. At the centre, a Pictish king attacks a lion. To his right, the biblical King David (identified by his ram and dog) is shown rending the jaws of a second lion (a scene that appears elsewhere in Pictish carving), defending his flock.
The sculpture provides an insight into the religious beliefs, political aspirations and international contacts of Pictish kings. The underlying message of the carving is said to be that the heavenly salvation is obtainable through the good behaviour of strong kings who defend the Christian faith.
The Pictish mason who carved the monument for the king was a highly skilled artist. The sarcophagus is a supreme example of insular art, a style made up of the native art of the Celts and Anglo-Saxons, combined with aspects of Mediterranean art. The way the figures almost walk off the sculpture is reminiscent of early Christian carvings on ivory from the east Mediterranean. The sculptor is believed to have had access to artistic models derived from the eastern Mediterranean and near east, ideas from which were successfully grafted onto native traditions. The detailing of the clothes, weaponry and horse gear of the central king are typically Pictish, however King David’s clothes are Byzantine in style (except the shoes, which are native) and the ornate sword is based on contemporary Germanic types.
The current state of the sculpture suggests that the Sarcophagus stood in a building, presumably a church or a royal mausoleum. It appears to have been deliberately buried not long after its initial period of display. It is thought that the shrine was prominently placed on to the left of the altar with the large figure of the lion looking directly at the altar.
This artefact is now the key evidence for one of the early churches that stood on St Andrews’ headland and the sculpture represents almost all that is known about the early monastery in St Andrews.
- Information signs at St Andrews Cathedral
- Official Souvenir Guide: St Andrews Castle, Cathedral and Historic Burgh