Saints and Prophets Statues from St. Marys Abbey

1150AD - 1200AD

On 17th January 1829, an exciting announcement was printed in one of York’s local newspapers, The York Herald, and General Advertiser.

“The progress of the excavations among the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, on the Manor Shore, has within the last few days, brought to light some of the most interesting relics of its sculptured magnificence…”

These discoveries were the life-size statues of saints and apostles found deep underground. It is thought that the statues were sculpted in the late 12th century, but there is still disagreement about the precise date. It is also unclear how they came to be so deliberately buried. Decorative religious pieces were often buried to protect them at the time of the Reformation in the reign of Henry VIII. Or it is possible that the statues were buried in some ceremonial way when the Norman abbey church was replaced in the late 13th century.

Whatever the reason, the statues are of the very highest craftsmanship and the fact that they were buried for so long has preserved the fine carving of works that are more than 800 years.

The statues depict various figures from the Bible. Not all of the figures represented are clear but there are two Biblical figures that are easy to identify: Moses and St. John the Evangelist.

The statue of Moses is particularly striking. Drawing on the image presented in the Bible, in one hand he carries stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. In his other hand he carries a staff, around which there is a serpent as described in the Old Testament. Interestingly, Moses is also depicted as having horns – this image of Moses was common but it is thought it resulted from an incorrect translation of the text of the Bible.

One of the other statues is thought to show St. John the Evangelist, a figure with short hair and a clean shaven face.

It was perhaps only by luck that these statues were found buried deep below ground on the site of St. Mary’s Abbey, but in this case the excavators revealed some of York’s truly great hidden treasures.


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