St Dunstan

By tradition, this is a self-portrait by the saint when he was Abbot of Glastonbury. Above him one of the Latin verses reads: ‘I pray thee, Christ, protect me Dunstan.’ Dunstan was the prime mover of the cultural revival in the tenth century.
--Roy Strong, The Story of Britain

The “self-portrait” of St Dunstan shows him prostrate at the feet of Christ. It is a clear example of the distance between the 10th century, during which the Churches of Constantinople and Rome were still one in spirit and in communion, and the later Middle Ages and Renaissance time periods, when the Western church had gone its own, separate way. There is no humanism in St Dunstan’s drawing. He appears in his drawing without dignity, power, or honour, for such attributes belong to Christ.

Yet he was enormously talented and able. He was a skilled musician, metalworker, and bell-maker. He was the advisor of kings and leader of Benedictine revival in England. And he “passed the early years of his life at Glastonbury where the memory of its past history, the old books which its library still contained and its yet living connexions with Irish scholarship offered him great opportunities.” (Peter Blair, Anglo-Saxon England)

Michael Wood, in his In Search of England, speculates that the later legends associated with Glastonbury, the stories of Avalon, Once-and-Future King Arthur, the Holy Grail, etc., got their start indirectly from St Dunstan. Wood suggests that St Dunstan’s leadership of the monastery, which eventually propelled Glastonbury into first rank among England’s great abbeys, along with his Benedictine emphasis on learning, planted the seeds of belief in its unique importance as a spiritual centre of the nation.

But perhaps St Dunstan’s contribution to English life is more in keeping with his self-portrait and is simpler, more humble, and more widespread than Wood implies or than his association with Anglo-Saxon royalty suggests. Among the products of the 10th century monastic reforms was a book that regulated life in English monasteries according to the Benedictine rule called Regularis Concordia. Remembering St Dunstan’s skill and delight in bell-making, we might note with gratitude his enduring influence the next time we hear the bells ringing from the parish church in some pretty English village, for, according to Peter Blair, there is “a sentence which recurs in the Regularis Concordia almost as a refrain,” and we might imagine that St Dunstan’s hand wrote it: “‘then all the bells shall peal.’”