It’s not often that I’m impressed by a display of very old books but an exhibition in Durham this week stood out with its stunning Anglo-Saxon treasures.
The Lindisfarne Gospels, on show at Durham’s Palace Green Library, is one of the most spectacularly beautiful books ever produced.
It’s also one of the oldest books, dating from AD 700 when the bishop of Lindisfarne Abbey worked for almost a decade to produce the brilliantly coloured illustrations.
Normally it’s kept in the British Library in London but, in a rare treat, the Gospels have been allowed to go on display in their Northumbrian homeland.
The stunning illuminated manuscripts consist of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John which many consider to be the pinnacle of Anglo-Saxon art.
So it’s a great pleasure as an adopted Northumbrian to see one of the greatest books ever produced so close-up.
But it is much more than the oldest surviving bound book in Europe and a work of supreme artistry.
Behind the glorious illuminated illustrations there lies a fascinating story that would make an action-packed Hollywood movie.
The story of the Lindisfarne Gospels is a tale of monks living a life of poverty and prayer on a remote island off England whose monastic solitude was smashed apart by marauding Viking invaders.
It was AD 793 when they were subjected to the first Viking attack on Britain. A further threat of invasion from the sea followed in AD 875, this time more serious.
The monks fled their abbey and spent seven years on an epic journey which took them across land and sea, carrying their sacred posessions – the shrine of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Legend has it that they carried St Cuthbert’s coffin across hill and dale before finally laying it down at Durham in 883 AD.
It was a hazardous journey and they were forced to keep on the move to avoid potential attacks whilst also weathering the elements and difficult terrain.
The Gospels were almost lost completely on their hazardous trip. At one point the monks were shipwrecked during a storm and the gospels were thought to have sunk to the bottom of the sea.
According to legend, the monks claimed a miracle took place and the gospels were miraculously washed up on the shore, as brilliantly coloured as before their watery descent.
During their journey, there were many tales of miracles.
As the monks were travelling from Ripon to Chester-le-Street it is claimed that St Cuthbert’s body made a shuddering noise and they came to a sudden stop.
A vision of Cuthbert appeared and he demanded to be taken to Dunholme – later known as Durham – where his shrine exists to this day.
When Cuthbert’s coffin was opened nine years after his death, his body was said to be perfectly preserved.
There were to be many miracles associated with Cuthbert over the years and he became known as the Anglo-Saxon “wonder worker of England”.
Who was St Cuthbert?
So who was St Cuthbert and why is his story so special?
He was an Anglo-Saxon monk and bishop living on Lindisfarne in the late 7th Century – but he was no ordinary monk.
Cuthbert also became a hermit for periods in his life, living alone on the remote islands off the Northumbrian coast including Coquet Island and the Farnes.
One of the central works in the Durham exhibition is a life-sized statue of St Cuthbert, crafted by British artist Tim Chalk.
He’s created a striking contemporary interpretation of St Cuthbert which forms the centrepiece of the Gospels display.
It depicts the saint as an almost enigmatic figure, bathed in flowing robes, but it also has something spiritual about it.
Made of concrete, the statue shows the saint staring up at an open hole in the top of his roofless tower, reflecting on nature.
I was amused to hear that when the statue first arrived for the exhibition, it got stuck in the doors and it took a bit of miracle work to shift it.
I’m sure that even St Cuthbert might have been amused. Perhaps he even gave things a bit of an easier passage when the removal men were struggling?
Not only was Cuthbert a monk, but he was also the world’s first conservationist, decreeing that the birds on the local islands should be protected.
The eider duck became known as ‘St Cuthbert’s duck’ – or ‘a cuddy duck’ in local dialect – in his honour.
Pinnacle of art
The Lindisfarne Gospels were created to celebrate the life of St Cuthbert and were used for ceremonial purposes.
Every day at the Durham exhibition they turn the Lindisfarne Gospels’ pages so a different view is on show to the public.
When I visited a young St John was resplendent in green and red robes with an emblematic eagle symbol above his head.
The colours and detailing are remarkable, even by today’s standards – the book looks as fresh as when it was created.
Even more remarkable is the fact that he laboured with primitive colour dyes and natural lighting.
No modern, artificial lighting was available to assist him by night or on a dark winter’s day.
I was struck by the coloured dyes which he used, a palette of 90 colours based on only six mineral and vegetable extracts.
At least two of the dyes shown in the exhibition contained arsenic and other poisonous substances which made me wonder how that might have affected Eadfrith’s health over the years.
The vivid colours from natural products were surely one reason why they are so well preserved today.
The book’s jewelled cover is pretty amazing too but it’s slightly disappointing that it’s not actually from the 8th Century – it’s a much later addition.
I was also surprised to find out how laborious the process of creating the book would have been in the 7th Century.
It took the skins of 129 calves to make the Gospels but it’s thought that nearly 400 skins would have been prepared.
That’s a lot of dead cows when you live on a small, remote island!
The decorated pages were also painted using a brush made of squirrel hair – I guess you had to be opportunistic and use whatever was at hand in the 700s.
It’s also fascinating to compare the Lindisfarne Gospels with the other early illuminated books in the exhibition, many of which look like they’ve leapt out of The Name of the Rose or a Harry Potter film.
Many of the books in the exhibition at Durham Library are so old that they are valued well in excess of £1 million. I was told that one of the oldest and smallest books may even be worth as much as £9 million.
Lindisfarne’s great gift
There’s no doubt that story of the Lindisfarne Gospels is quite remarkable. It’s also fascinating to see this stunning 1,300 year old book so well-presented.
There are many other beautiful artefacts in the exhibition including St Cuthbert’s ring and stunning gold and red pendant.
The exhibition tells the story well, providing plenty of context, although the timeline is confusing in places, as the Gospels’ journey jumps around.
My only quibble was that there was very little information about the artist, Eadfrith, and very much more material about St Cuthbert.
My partner Tony was slightly underwhelmed by the exhibition despite his interest in all things antiquarian. “It’s only some old book,” he quipped dismissively as we queued in a long line.
However, I did see him studying everything very closely and muttering a few ‘wows’ under his breath when we reached the book.
Meanwhile, Tammy is polishing up her calligraphy and illuminated lettering skills for her next blog posts.
Excuse me whilst I chuck out the computer and transfer my allegiance to a hand-illuminated version of my Word Press blog in gold leaf and lapis lazuli coloured fonts.
The only problem is that it may be some time before I’m able to publish it!
The Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition describes itself as “One amazing book. One incredible journey”.
I’d certainly agree with that emotion and recommend this illuminating show to anyone interested in beautiful art.
Tammy’s top tips
The Lindisfarne Gospels are currently on display at the Durham University Palace Green Library until 30 September.
Advance booking for the exhibition is advised – tickets can be bought online and are priced at £7.50.
There’s also an opportunity to see digital slides of the Lindisfarne Gospels so you can browse through its pages and marvel at its full range of illustrations.
There are many places to visit in North East England with associations with St Cuthbert including Coquet Island, Holy Island (Lindisfarne) and the Farne Islands off the north Northumberland coast.
There are boat trips around Coquet Island from Amble harbour – you’ll see great views of the seals and bird colonies too.
Trips to the Farne Islands run from Seahouses harbour and take visitors onto Inner Farne or Staple Island.
Don’t forget to visit the splendid UNESCO World Heritage site of Durham Cathedral where St Cuthbert’s Shrine is housed today. It’s a fabulous building in its own right.
Once the Lindisfarne Gosples exhibition is finished, you can see the books back in their regular home, the British Library in London.
Read more about the Lindisfarne Gospels in this interesting BBC web feature.