The excavation and conservation of a 13th-century tombstone at the ruins of Dundrennan Abbey in southwest Scotland revealed that the carving may illustrate the assassination of a medieval abbot, according to archaeologists at Historic Environment Scotland (HES).
Dundrennan, meaning “hill of thorns” in Gaelic, is a Cistercian monastery dating back to the 12th century. It is perhaps most famous for hosting Mary, Queen of Scots on her last night in the country, before she fled to England in 1568.
The recently recovered gravestone shows an unknown abbot holding a crosier—a staff held by a bishop or apostle—in one hand while clutching his chest with the other, a dagger lodged into his heart. He stands atop a miniaturized male figure whose entrails are spilling out of his torso.
Adrian Cox, an archaeologist formerly of the cultural resources team at HES, believes this could represent a wounded or assassinated abbot with the small figure beneath him representing his assailant. “The symbolism is rather poignant,” said Cox, describing the carving in a post for HES, and adds that “the pointed end of the abbot’s crosier rests on [the assailant’s] head.” Ultimately, he writes, the carving depicts “the abbot as triumphant over his assailant in perpetuity.”
The ornate staff indicates the abbot’s status as a high-ranking church official. He also wears a monk’s habit, and a flower appears beside his head—a common symbol of the Cistercian order. The gravestone is one of several memorials at the abbey, where local monks and other leaders were often buried.
The carved stone would have originally covered the opening to the abbot’s tomb chest. Conservation treatments started in 2015 made the carvings more legible and highlighted their grisly theme. “Thanks to the work carried out by our conservation experts, the details of this rather gory carving can be seen with greater clarity,” said Cox.
“It could even represent a biblical story or myth,” said Rachel Pickering, senior cultural resources advisor at HES, in an email to ARTnews. “We don’t know the original location of the effigy either,” she explains. “It was ‘discovered’ on the site in 1838 [in] the chapter house and later moved into a blocked doorway in the nave.”
The chapter house was a part of the monastery where monks gathered for daily readings and listened to the abbot speak. “Effigies of higher-ranking clerics are common at medieval ecclesiastic sites, but such a depiction is quite unusual,” Pickering added.
Excavation and restoration works have revealed over 1,000 pieces of carved stone at Dundrennan Abbey, along with remnants of what was once an elaborate vaulted ceiling.
The architectural remains of the abbey are still visible to this day, including various doorways, arches, and windows. Visitors can access the abbey, which was abandoned after the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century, to view the displays of grave markers and other carvings.