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St. Cuthbert: The Gospel Book

Part 1 of a series on the remarkable finds in St. Cuthbert's coffin

A few years back I posted a detailed, two-part series on St. Cuthbert, one of England’s most famous saints. In those posts, I gave an account of this remarkable man’s life (and death!).

But there is still more to say about Cuthbert. In particular, there’s a lot to say about the wonderful objects that were found when his coffin was opened. Today I want to start with the beautiful little Gospel book.

A Remarkable Death

In AD 698, eleven years after St. Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne died, a cult was growing up around this famous holy man who had evangelized much of northern England and who had performed miracles. Under the previous Irish/Celtic Christian practices of Lindisfarne, the idea of venerating relics, popular in Roman Christianity, was frowned upon. But Cuthbert himself had presided over the switch from the Celtic to the Roman practices, and so the monks there decided that their own Cuthbert could be a source of increased prestige for Lindisfarne. They decided to dig up his bones and put some of them in a reliquary in order to attract visitors on pilgrimage.

But all the best plans go awry, and all that. When they opened the coffin, the reliquary box at the ready, imagine their surprise when they found no bones, but instead the perfectly preserved body of Cuthbert himself.

Bede writes in his Ecclesiastical History of the English Church of this remarkable event:

…opening the tomb, [they] found his body entire, as if he were still alive, and his joints were still flexible, as if he were not dead, but sleeping. His clothes, also, were still undecayed and seemed to retain their original freshness and colour. When the brethren saw this, they were so astonished, that they could scarcely speak, or look on the miracle which lay before them, and they hardly knew what they were doing.

I suppose the first thing a modern reader might say is, “Right.” Of course, we can only take the monks’ and Bede’s words on this at face value. All of whom might be lying. However, let’s not get too carried away in accusing them of such. There are some scientific explanations for why this might be the case, having to do with embalming techniques used which could have been more effective than we suspect, along with tightly wrapped clothing that produced a mummy-like effect. Certainly, Cuthbert’s body after death would have been given the gold standard treatment as benefitted the beloved Bishop, and we don’t really know what that meant at that time.

At any rate, what we do know for sure is that Cuthbert’s fame as a saint worthy of veneration spread quickly after news got out about this astonishing event.* The monks built a new coffin to house him and people travelled to Lindisfarne as a place of pilgrimage. After the Vikings attack Lindisfarne repeatedly in the 8th century the monks left their monastery but took their most famous saint along.*

For more on that remarkable journey, see Part 2 of my post on St. Cuthbert (take my word for it, you don’t want to miss it). But now that you have the background, let’s look at the first of the objects that were discovered in his coffin, all of which date back to the 7th and 8th century.

The Gospel Book

One such object is a beautiful little Gospel book with a decorated red leather cover. It measures 5.4″ by 3.6″, just the right size to sit comfortably in the hand. It was found by Cuthbert’s head when the coffin was opened once again in AD 1104 when the monks were preparing to bury their beloved saint in their new home at Durham Cathedral. This book contains the Gospel of St. John, written in Latin on ninety-four fine vellum folios in the beautiful uncial style of lettering common to scripts of this period. There are no illuminations in the book, the only color is the red letters that begin each chapter. Take a moment to ponder the simple beauty of the text, shown on the right.

There are accounts of Cuthbert’s personal Gospel book in the stories of the saint, and so this little book was assumed to be his own possession which was buried with him in AD 687 when he died. However, subsequent studies have determined it comes from the eighth century, and it is now generally believed it was placed in the coffin after the monks discovered his uncorrupted body and reburied him behind the altar at Lindisfarne. It is likely, in fact, that it was created specifically for the burial Mass, as the book itself is in pristine condition, unlike one that would have had regular use. Of course, we cannot know for sure.

If you look at the photo you can see the markings on the left margin. Those are notations that tell the priest where to begin reading for a funeral Mass (there’s another on the next page indicating where the reading ends). There are some pages where the ink had smeared a bit and stained the previous page, which is another indication that the book was created, used at the Mass, and then shut and put in the coffin before it was completely dry.

A Unique Book

There are several unique features of this lovely little book. First of all, it is one of the smallest surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. Secondly, its pristine condition is very rare for a book of this age. When the monks found the book in AD 1104, they removed it from the coffin. Their assumption that it was the personal Gospel book of Cuthbert’s made it a treasured relic of the saint. Important visitors were allowed to wear the book in a leather bag around their necks, but on the whole, it was venerated but not used, keeping it in beautiful condition.

The leather cover and its binding are very rare for a book of this era, in fact, it is the earliest surviving European book complete with its original binding. The elaborately illuminated Gospel books such as those created at Lindisfarne and the Book of Kells had jeweled covers of precious metals, jewels, and ivory. These did not survive, likely most were taken by the Vikings. Fragments of what are thought to be mountings of these bindings have been found in Viking jewelry. The Book of Kells elaborate jeweled cover survived but was stolen in a theft in AD 1007.

The beautiful front cover. The back is also decorated, but with no raised panels.

Plain leather bindings such as this one were even less likely to survive, as they weren’t seen as valuable. So to have this example in almost pristine condition is remarkable. The cover is decorated with raised elements incorporated into the leather, and it is is made of goatskin. It is virtually the only book from this era with this type of raised element on the cover, and it is also the only surviving book cover with the typical insular style decorations common to manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels. Like I said, this is one special book!

If you look closely at the cover, you’ll notice a few things. One is the colour. Originally the interlacing symbols were yellow and indigo, but the indigo colour has faded over time. You can still detect some of the yellow on the interlacing motifs. The central motif is of a chalice from which a vine sporting fruit emerges. This motif is found in other Northumbrian illuminations and decorations. It is possibly referring both to the four Gospels (there are four “fruits” in the design) but also to Christ’s statement that “I am the vine, you are the branches” found in John 15:5.

You will also notice that the four corner decorations of the interlaced section do not match. And if you look really closely, you’ll see that the bottom left corner of the narrower outer border contains a three-pointed motif, which is different than the other corners of that border. These are not errors by the artist. It likely points to a way of distinguishing that this is St. John’s Gospel, not one of the other three, and perhaps has other symbolic religious meanings that have been lost to us.

Speaking of the unknown artist, because of some small inconsistencies in terms of being a tad off-center and a few other technical details that I won’t bore you with, some scholars suspect that this design was done freehand, without the aid of compass markings which would have been used in doing the elaborate illuminations on the decorated Gospel books such as the Lindisfarne Gospels. Freehand! Have a look at the decoration again and ponder that for a moment! The back cover also has some decoration, not raised, but consisting of two geometrical crosses, similar to what is found on some of the “carpet pages” of illuminated manuscripts of the period (given this name because they resemble carpets or mosaic tiles of Coptic or Roman origin).

Back cover.


The Most Expensive Book in the World?

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 15th century, the Gospel was confiscated by Henry the VIII’s soldiers. After that, it passed through the hands of various collectors and even dropped out of sight for about a century. It eventually ended up in Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit school in England. From 1979 on it was on long-term loan to the British Library, but in 2011 the Library began a fundraising campaign to purchase this most significant item from England’s history.

Several grants and donations were secured, and a public fundraising drive began to complete the amount needed. In 2012 St. Cuthbert’s Gospel (previously called the Stonyhurst Gospel) was purchased for £9 million, or $12.5 USD. In doing so, this important and beautiful little book, a treasure of this long-ago age, was assured a home at the British Library, which houses Britain’s most important literary artifacts.

Part of the deal for the sale was that the Gospel book would be displayed both in London and in Durham equally throughout each year. I’m sure that the monks, whose long journey to find a home for their beloved saint ended up in Durham, would be happy to know that the little Gospel book, prepared with such care and buried with Cuthbert, can still be found where they laid him to rest.

*Also along for the journey was the Lindisfarne Gospels, created in Cuthbert’s honour, some of Aidan’s bones (first Bishop of Lindisfarne), and the head of Oswald, the saintly king of Northumbria who gave Aidan the land upon which to build Lindisfarne.

**For a fascinating article all about the incorrupt corpse in medieval Catholicism, click here

More in this series: 

St. Cuthbert’s Grave: The Coffin

All images from Wikipedia.

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