An Incredible Journey - The Lindisfarne Gospels | Living North

An Incredible Journey - The Lindisfarne Gospels

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We discover the gospel truth about the Lindisfarne Gospels and the book’s return to the region
‘Aside from its religious and historical significance, it’s an amazing work of art: it stands as one of the most beautiful books that I’ve ever seen’

‘We wanted to make sure our exhibition wasn’t just about a book in a box in Durham,’ says Keith Bartlett, Programme Director of Lindisfarne Gospels Durham. Thanks to a packed programme of events that will see people from all over the North East join together to celebrate the Gospels’ three-month stay in Durham, there’s no danger of that – but in any case, what an extraordinary book it is.

The Lindisfarne Gospels is over 1,300 years old. To have a book of this age at all, let alone one in near-perfect condition, is nothing short of miraculous. More than this, and unusually for a medieval manuscript, within its pages it has an account of its own origins which tells us that it was created by Bishop Eadfrith on Holy Island around 700. An extraordinary labour of love carried out by a master-craftsman (there are apparently over 10,000 red dots on just one of the pages in Luke, and it is thought that it would have taken up to six hours to do these alone), even the materials used came from the local area. Keith explains, ‘It was believed many moons ago that the inks and the pigments were evidence that the community in Lindisfarne was the centre of a trading empire – they thought it was lapis lazuli and so on, but actually what they’ve discovered more recently is that every pigment used was sourced within travelling  distance of Lindisfarne. So the book is not just made in the North, it’s actually made of the North.’ Add to this the fact it is a sacred text that is, as Durham University’s Professor Richard Gameson says, ‘also a masterpiece of calligraphy and illumination,’ and it becomes clear that the Lindisfarne Gospels is truly unique.

The book’s story is inextricably linked with the story of the region, so it’s fitting that it is coming back to Durham, its former home. A gospel book – which contains the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in beautifully illustrated and illuminated style – Eadfrith wrote it in commemoration of the life of St Cuthbert, dedicating it to ‘God and St Cuthbert, and all the saints whose relics are on the island.’  A book of worship, the monks of Lindisfarne would have regularly used the Gospels in their services celebrating the life of Cuthbert. An Anglo Saxon monk, Cuthbert lived as a hermit on Farne before being made Bishop of Lindisfarne in 685. When he died in 687 he was buried on Lindisfarne, where his tomb became a place of pilgrimage. He quickly acquired a reputation for miracles, and when his body was later dug up to be reinterred, it was discovered to be uncorrupted;  a series of events that led to his canonisation. 

In 875, fearing the threat of Viking invasion, the monks took the Gospels and various other treasures, along with St Cuthbert’s body, and fled Lindisfarne on the start of an incredible journey that would last more than 200 years. ‘Academics disagree about the distances travelled, but it’s between 500 and 1,000 miles around the whole of the North of England, covering the North East, Cumbria and into Yorkshire,’ Keith says. ‘It’s an amazing route, and a lot of tales grew up around the journey, and the Gospels. For example, at Maryport the story  goes that the monks were going to flee to Ireland, but when they got on board ship the book didn’t want to go so it jumped overboard and swam ashore.’ Given the book’s lack of crinkled pages characteristic of any volume foolish enough to go for a dip (or unfortunate enough to be near at hand at bathtime), it’s probably safe to assume that this particular tale isn’t true. 

However, the monks’ journey certainly left a mark on the region. ‘A lot of places around the north were named after St Cuthbert because his body either rested in a particular place where a church was founded, or his body passed through it, so there’s lots of St Cuthbert’s Churches, and plenty of features named after him. If you have a feature like Cuddy’s Crags, the chances are it’s named after St Cuthbert,’ Keith explains. 

The monks settled for a while at Chester-le-Street, where a priest called Aelred inserted an Old English translation of the manuscript between the lines in the Gospels. He also added notes on the creators of the book; from Ethelwald, Bishop of Lindisfarne, who bound it, to Billfrith, the hermit, who added jewels and ornamentation. However, the Gospels, monks, and the body of Cuthbert himself did not find a permanent resting place until 995. According to legend, the monks were travelling through the countryside when the cart carrying the coffin came to a halt. One of the monks had a vision of the saint asking to be taken to a place called Dunholme, but there was one problem – no one knew where it was. Just then a female cowherd walked past, and asked another girl if she had seen a lost dun cow. The girl replied that she had seen it heading in the direction of Dunholme – the place we know today as Durham. Today, the dun cow is commemorated with a sculpture on the banks of the River Wear, and in the name of at least one pub.

The monks settled on the wooded hill of Dunholme, which is now the site of Durham Cathedral. They built the White Church, completed in 1017 and later replaced by the Cathedral, and a shrine for St Cuthbert’s body. During their wanderings, the monks had continued to acquire books, and several of their other treasures will be on display alongside the Lindisfarne Gospels. These include The Durham Gospels, a gospel book copied at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the late seventh century and which Eadfrith may well have copied when he was working on the Lindisfarne Gospels. The Durham Ritual is one of the oldest service books of the English church and, like the Lindisfarne Gospels, was translated into Old English by Aelred. Finally, The St Cuthbert Gospel was found in the coffin of St Cuthbert when it was opened in 1104, and is the oldest Western manuscript in the world still in its original binding.

With their arrival at Durham, the monks’ wanderings may have been at an end, but the journey of the Lindisfarne Gospels was not. The book became one of the centrepieces of the shrine of St Cuthbert, but was removed during the Reformation (Cuthbert’s own name was removed from the dedication of the Cathedral by Henry VIII at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries). The jewelled casing was taken off, and by the 16th century the book was at the Tower of London. Thankfully, the Gospels reappeared in the collection of a bibliophile called Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, whose collection later became the core of what we now know as the British Library. The book was rebound in 1852, in a binding based on Eadfrith’s decorated pages.

The Gospels encapsulate in one book not only an important religious text, but the story of a whole community, and of that community’s links to Durham and Lindisfarne, and to the miracles of St Cuthbert. It is a precious artefact of the golden age of the Northumbrian Church. For Keith, though, as for many others, it is more than that. ‘Aside from its religious and historical significance, it’s an amazing work of art: it stands as one of the most beautiful books that I’ve ever seen. The person who painted it had amazing skill, as evidenced by the vibrant colours and incredible illustrations, so even just for that it is very much worth seeing.  But alongside that, in our exhibition to tell the story of how the Gospels were made, we’ve brought in all sorts of other gospels and artefacts. The Gospels were the culmination of two different gospel writing traditions that we probably know better as the Celtic and the Roman, and the idea is that the Celtic was the illustrated version, and the Roman was the written version. So the exhibition reflects the way that the artwork we know from one school of writing and the script from the other come together in one place and develop into a form that was repeated beyond that and reflected in the artwork of the Anglo Saxon world as a whole. The first thing you’ll see in the exhibition is pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard, dug up a couple of years ago, which is believed to be booty taken from Northumbrian kings. When you look at that you can see quite clearly how the artwork from the Staffordshire Hoard reflects the work within the Lindisfarne Gospels, and right the way through we’re intertwining the fabulous artwork  that you see in the Gospels with the various artworks that you would see in the Anglo Saxon world at the time.’ 

Of course, the Gospels’ visit to Durham doesn’t end with the exhibition at the newly renovated Palace Green Library, of which Keith says ‘We were really fortunate because Palace Green was in the process of being totally revamped when the Law and Music libraries moved out into the main library, so it gave us the opportunity to create three amazing gallery spaces, and the focus was to make sure they were suitable to take the Gospels. Durham University has invested a lot of money into making sure they are fabulous gallery spaces,  not just for this occasion, but for future exhibitions in Durham.’

Key for the whole programme team was the fact that ‘We wanted to make sure our exhibition wasn’t just about a book in a box in Durham; it is much more than that.  The region was keen to see the Gospels coming back to Durham for a visit, so it had to be something that involved the whole region.’ The programme team contacted groups they hoped would be interested in supporting the project, and ended up with over 150 organisations working on up to 300 different events happening across the whole of the period from July to September, ranging from  the major exhibition itself to a small display in a church, and from an opera to a lone folk musician on the island of Lindisfarne. ‘We use the shorthand of “a thousand miles, a thousand words, a thousand  voices, one book”,’ Keith says. ‘The thousand miles describes the journey that Cuthbert’s body took, so we’re doing sponsored cycle rides, and we’ve got a writer in residence who’s travelled the route, blogging his way around, with a photographer following him to document it. For the thousand words we’ve got performances of all different kinds; community productions and several plays, including Ed Waugh and Trevor Wood’s new play Something Funny Happened On The Way To Durham which is a light-hearted look at the journey that Cuthbert’s body and the Gospels took before they reached Durham. Illumination is a community play based in Preston which will tour round the whole of old Northumbria, and a poetry project from Newcastle University, the Lindisfarne Spiral, is a poetry trail from Bamburgh to Lindisfarne including some really well known poets. For the thousand voices,  there’s everything from a folk musician singing on Lindisfarne right the way through to an opera, but the culmination of it is going to be the thousand voice Lindisfarne Gospels Community Choir that will sing for the first time in its large form when we launch the project on 30th June in the Cathedral cloisters. The idea is that if you sing with a thousand voices on the hill in the centre of Durham, it will echo round the seven hills!’

The response has been almost overwhelming, Keith admits. ‘We’ve had people from all round the region coming together who want to be part of the community choir, and every time I’ve turned up to listen to them practice, new people have come along and I’ve thought this is going to be the time when it doesn’t sound very good, but each time our choir-mistress has managed to get it, in a very Gareth Malone way, to be a really wonderful choir within a very short space of time. It’s a completely intergenerational choir – we’ve got people from seven to seventy, if not older, and there’s quite a few whole families involved.’ Among the commissioned pieces is music for each of the Apostles, reflecting their symbols. For example, the page of the Gospels on show is the image of St John, whose symbol is an eagle, so the choir will be singing ‘On Eagle’s Wings.’ Alongside the traditional choral pieces, though, Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell and Sunderland rock band The Futureheads have also been enlisted to help, meaning that the music will reflect not only the Gospels’ relevance to the community in the past, but also in the modern day. 

The process of bringing the Lindisfarne Gospels back to Durham has been a journey for Keith too. ‘I was fortunate that I was born and bred in Durham, and brought up in a family that  was part of the community of the city, so my dad took me to see the tombs of Bede and Cuthbert, and told me all the stories. But since I’ve been part of the project I’ve learned far more than I ever thought possible about Cuthbert, the Gospels, and my own city. Having said that, though, I suspect the fact that will stick in my brain forever is that when our learning team were out and about they were trying to give young people an idea of how much the Gospels weighed – eight and a half kilos – and they looked around for things that weighed the same with a link. The Gospels were written using a variety of different hairs and feathers, and one of the hairs was from a badger, and so they came up with this: the Lindisfarne Gospels weigh the same as a fully grown badger!’

When the exhibition opens in July, Keith is looking forward to one thing above all others: ‘I just want to see how people enjoy it, because  what’s been the most fabulous thing for us was realising how passionate the people of the region are about the Gospels’ return. I’m really looking forward to seeing visitors experience the  exhibition and see the Gospels in the context of all of St Cuthbert’s treasures coming together for the first time since the Reformation. To see the people of the North East enjoying the exhibition will make the whole project worthwhile.’

Published in: November 2013

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