The St Andrews Sarcophagus

St Andrews Sarcophagus

Photo © B Keeling

In 1833, during the digging of a grave in the cemetery of St Andrews Cathedral, several pieces of sculptured stone were unearthed. It soon became clear that these were the broken remains of what had once been an ancient coffin or sarcophagus. Some parts were missing and have not been found but the surviving fragments have been reassembled to show what the original sarcophagus looked like. This assemblage can be seen today in the museum in the Cathedral grounds. It is one of the most impressive of all Pictish monuments.

Only one of the long side-panels, three of the four cornerstones and one end-panel are complete. The sarcophagus originally had a stone lid but this, too, is missing. Fortunately, the figures carved on the surviving side-panel give us an important clue as to what the monument was for.

St Andrews Sarcophagus

Photo © B Keeling

This is the largest of the carved figures. It represents the Israelite king David, a ruler regarded in early medieval times as a role-model for Christian kingship. He is killing a lion by pulling its jaws apart, a motif seen also in Irish and Anglo-Saxon sculpture. This image suggests that the Sarcophagus was connected with royalty and, more specifically, that it commemorated a particular Pictish king. Here, the face of David might represent this king, like a portrait in stone.

St Andrews Sarcophagus

Photo © B Keeling

This figure is a mounted huntsman accompanied by hounds. He is tackling a ferocious beast that rears up at him on its hind legs. Below him is a man on foot armed with a spear and shield. Stags and other animals fill the remaining space on the panel. It is possible that this rider, rather than David, represents the Pictish king.

Whom did the Sarcophagus commemorate? Although this question cannot be answered with certainty, the sculptural style suggests a probable date and a likely candidate. Archaeologists and art-historians have deduced that the monument was carved between 750 and 850. It was clearly meant to be seen and admired rather than buried in the earth. There can be little doubt that it was displayed in a prominent position in a church or chapel where people could walk around it to fully appreciate its craftsmanship. Being primarily a richly decorated coffin or ‘tomb shrine’ it would have contained the mortal remains of an important person, someone who had connections with Pictish royalty and with the monastery at St Andrews. An old legend identifies the founder of the monastery as a king called ‘Hungus’ whose name in the Pictish language would be Onuist or Unuist (Gaelic: Oengus). This name was borne by two kings, either of whom might be the ‘Hungus’ of the legend. One died in 761, the other in 834. Both were sons of fathers called Uurguist (Gaelic: Fergus) The more famous of the two Onuists was the earlier, a mighty warlord who dominated North Britain in the middle of the 8th century. He is one of the most famous of all Pictish kings, his greatest achievement being the conquest of Dál Riata, the land of the Scots. Having achieved many great victories he certainly fits the martial image of David the lion-slayer. It is possible, or even probable, that the St Andrews Sarcophagus was his tomb.

St Andrews Sarcophagus

The hunting scene (Photo © B Keeling)

Further reading:

The St Andrews Sarcophagus: a Pictish Masterpiece and its International Connections, edited by Sally M. Foster (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998) [a collection of studies by eminent historians and archaeologists]

St Andrews Cathedral

St Andrews Cathedral (Photo © B Keeling)



13 comments on “The St Andrews Sarcophagus

  1. It just seems odd to me that it was ever buried. Any insights into whether it was originally buried at the time of its first use or only after it was broken and the body destroyed?

    • Tim says:

      Good question, Michelle. The likely answer is that the Sarcophagus was eventually replaced, i.e. the bones it contained were transferred to another receptacle. Here’s what Sally Foster wrote in a chapter in the book cited above:

      ‘The surface condition of the Sarcophagus requires that it was not exposed to the elements during its lifetime and was buried shortly thereafter, apparently with care. We have no knowledge of what happened to the contents, although we may assume that they were translated with reverence to another container. The shrine had presumably become old-fashioned; when we cannot tell, but prior to the 12th century is a reasonable assumption.’
      (p.46 in the chapter ‘Discovery, recovery, context and display’)

      • esmeraldamac says:

        How sad that someone could be seen as important enough to merit this standard of work, only to be discounted 2/300 years later. I guess that illustrates serious cultural, and possibly demographic, changes.

  2. […] Tim Clarkson of Senchus writes about the St Andrews Sarcophagus. […]

  3. Buannan says:

    Equally possible that the contents, being that of a king, were maintained in the cathedral until the place was trashed by Knox’s rabble in 1559. Whilst the rabble were cleansing the Cathedral of idolatry it’s highly likely such remains would have gone the same way as the various relics icons and other catholic iconography, cleansed by the flame.

    • Tim says:

      Yes, it’s possible the sarcophagus got caught up in the Reformation. Archaeologists are inclined to think it was buried earlier, but I think the jury is still out on this one.

  4. Neil McCaughan says:

    Thanks for the article, Tim.

    Is it really a sarcophagus at all? What information exists about the burial practices of early Christian Scotland and what parallels exist for putting a dead secular ruler in such an ostentatious box, elsewhere in Britain or indeed in Europe? It shares too little with late antique sarcophagi made for Christian use to be obviously in that tradition – is there actually any unambiguously Christian imagery on the main panel at all?

    And why is it so different in artistic style from other “Pictish” monuments? The exuberant use of so many animals, their outlines, and that of the equestrian figure all recall Pictish stones, but surely this is far more ambitious and accomplished. And is there any carving in Scotland comparable to the main figure? The only roughly contemporary figures from Britain that I have seen to resemble him are the Breedon and Lichfield angels, both also got up in Roman dress.

    My curiosity is piqued. I’ve ordered Sally Foster’s book.

    best wishes

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for raising these interesting points, Neil. It is indeed possible that the term ‘sarcophagus’ isn’t the best one for this monument, for the reasons you mention. Alternative descriptions such as ‘box shrine’ may be more apt. Several chapters in the Foster book deal with this issue, especially the one by Charles Thomas on ‘Form & function’ and Isabel Henderson’s ‘Primus inter pares: the St Andrews Sarcophagus and Pictish sculpture’.

      The Christian imagery is confirmed by the figure of David killing the lion. What appears to be an almost identical contemporary carving from Scotland (from Kinneddar in Moray) is shown on p.130 of the Foster book.

  5. monica says:

    How did the sarcophagus get its name?

    • Tim says:

      It was recognised as a stone coffin (sarcophagus) soon after its discovery, when the surviving fragments were put together and were seen to form a box-like shape.

  6. […] true. This is because what I haven’t told you is that in the final minutes Alex brought in the St Andrews Sarcophagus.10 One of the enigmas about this fine article of Pictish sculpture is that its iconography appears […]

  7. kendalmarie26 says:

    Reblogged this on Kendal Dewar Jewellery Design and commented:
    Some researching into the picts

  8. […] St Andrews Sarcophagus is one of the more splendid pieces of artwork left to us from Pictish Scotland. Some might say the […]

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