Outstanding medieval stone relief acquired for Somerset after garden find

From cat's gravestone to national treasure – a powerful medieval stone relief depicting St Peter has been bought for Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton with help from the Art Fund.

The sculpture was first discovered in the garden of a house in Dowlish Wake, a village near Ilminster, where it was functioning as a makeshift gravestone for the owner's cat. A visitor was struck by the skill and scale of the frieze, prompting specialists to identify the work as an outstanding Anglo-Saxon carving dating to the 10th or 11th century.

Carved from Oolitic limestone, the carving probably formed part of a larger composition – possibly an architectural frieze. Unusually, the figure is identified by an inscription: the Latin text SC[S PE]TRUS, representing Saint Peter. The saint is depicted as a young, beardless figure wearing a tonsure, holding his right hand across his chest with two fingers raised in blessing. Peter was held to be the foundation upon which the late Anglo-Saxon church was built, giving him particular significance in religious works of the period.

While the work's provenance is unknown, the available evidence suggests that it originated from an important site in south Somerset, possibly a monastic house. The nearby Muchelney Abbey, originally dedicated to saints Peter and Paul, is one possible origin, as is the now-ruined Anglo-Saxon minster at Ilminster.

Tom Mayberry, chief executive of the South West Heritage Trust, said: 'We are delighted that this unique and beautiful sculpture has returned to the county. Working with Somerset County Council, we want to make sure that objects as outstandingly important as this one can be preserved in Somerset for everyone to enjoy and appreciate.'

The Museum of Somerset raised £150,000 to acquire the sculpture, reaching their target with help from an Art Fund grant. It has now been returned to Somerset, and will go on permanent display at the Museum of Somerset from 17 January.

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