Having not solved the puzzle of what an æstel was, nor whether the Alfred Jewel was such an æstel, we move forward to another puzzle. Who or what did the image depict? Was it King Alfred himself? Christ? St Cuthbert?
The figure holds a stylised flower-like object in each hand – not quite the usual representation of a sceptre, symbol of power. Nor is there any clear indication of sanctity.
The Experts have suggested that this is a symbolic representation of one of the Five Senses – Sight. The main evidence for the supposition is another treasure – the Fuller Brooch – in the British Museum.
It seems clear enough that the brooch depicts all five senses and the one in the middle, the chief one, Sight, holds an object in each hand which might be the equivalent of the those held by the Alfred Jewel figure; and it has a similar attitude, full facing with one of the objects held over each shoulder. Well …
Sight here seems to be holding a sort of ‘cornucopia’. What is emerging from each horn is too stylised to interpret. It could be more like flowing water than flowers. So is there a real connection with the Alfred Jewel which has a single figure (not five) and is holding two stalk-like objects? The official argument goes that Sight would be the most appropriate sense to depict on an æstel which was to aid the reading of a manuscript. Yes … but we haven’t yet established that the Jewel is one of Alfred’s æstels which was to accompany his translation, nor that an æstel was used as a manuscript pointer either. So that’s: ‘if’ and ‘if’, then ‘perhaps’.
[To be continued]