WHEN the music stops, a church often falls silent. There is a
lack of noise - but also a dearth of other cultural expressions of
faith. The dominance of church music in worship masks a notable
absence of the visual arts: painting, sculpture, and
As the Lindisfarne Gospels demonstrate, it was pictures rather
than music that first adorned the liturgy of the word. And St
Eadfrith, the bishop who created this dazzling book, is our
country's first famous artist.
The return of the Gospels to northern England for a three-month
exhibition in Durham draws attention to much more than this single
book, world-class wonder though it is. Only by returning to the
place of its genesis can we piece together the remarkable debt that
Christian Britain owes to its northerly ancestors.
The Early Church here was not merely the patron of the arts: it
was the mother of entire genres.
Decorative stone architecture, stained-glass windows, the
Venerable Bede's church history, and even the first English poetry
and hymns from Whitby came to fruition in a 50-year outburst of
creativity either side of the year 700 - the likely date of these
Gospels. Northumbria was a large kingdom, stretching from
modern-day Hull to just beyond Edinburgh, but its cultural
footprint is greater still.
TAKEN in isolation, any one of its achievements might seem the
work of a lone genius, emerging from a supposedly harsh landscape,
in a rudimentary age. It takes the return of a great book to its
homeland for the pieces of this jigsaw to make sense. People,
places, and artefacts - saints, shrines, and relics, if you prefer
- rub up against each other and produce far more than the sum of
This indigenous treasury of artistic styles is proving markedly
popular. Visitor numbers at the Durham exhibition are exceptional.
More than 30,000 tickets were sold in the first two weeks alone. It
is housed in Durham University's Palace Green Library, next to the
city's cathedral. Advanced booking is recommended.
"The response has been excellent," the event's marketing
executive, Michele McCallion, says. "We thought many visitors would
be from this region, but a lot of people have come from the rest of
the UK, and even from overseas, many of them travelling
specifically to see the exhibition."
The official programme lists more than 120 related events:
plays, musicals, lectures, art exhibitions, and flower festivals
between now and September.
There was even a knitted Bible exhibition, held in Elvet
Methodist Church last month. "They had much more interest than they
expected," Ms McCallion says.
This is a genuinely popular cultural celebration. But how much
of the glory is rubbing off on the Church, the institution that
fostered such creative brilliance?
The looming presence of Durham Cathedral, outside the exhibition
rooms, makes plain the Church's contribution to architecture. Has
the cathedral assumed that visitors to the show will automatically
become pilgrims to its shrine?
The Dean of Durham, the Very Revd Michael Sadgrove, says that an
upsurge in visitors has been obvious from the start. "It is
inconceivable people won't come to the cathedral as well, since we
have been partners in presenting the exhibition. There are 14 of
our items on display with the Gospels, and our message is: 'You've
seen the book; now come and see the shrine of St Cuthbert, who
DEAN SADGROVE has written a book to coincide with the Gospels
exhibition, Landscapes of Faith: The Christian heritage of the
north-east. "Where there is a very close connection between
the church and the landscape, which is certainly true of north-east
England," he says, "there is a common memory that helps to define a
region's identity. The Church needs to reclaim this history, to own
it, and to be proud of it. Cathedrals can be great leaders in
mission, and this exhibition has great missionary potential."
St Mary's, on Holy Island, is among the most active of all
churches in celebrating the return of the Gospels to the region: it
is hosting a string of events throughout the summer. St Mary's, and
the cathedral, are long used to welcoming visitors, and their
programmes include worship for the faithful alongside more general
The prize exhibit in what can best be described as a spiritual
Olympiad is, of course, the Lindisfarne Gospels. The exhibition in
Durham has been put together by the university and cathedral, along
with the British Library. Limited numbers are allowed into the room
in order to preserve the correct temperature and humidity - about
1200 people a day.
Other items in the exhibition include treasures taken from the
shrine of St Cuthbert. Among these are the iconic equal-sided
cross, a portable altar, and a ring, as well as the oldest bound
book in Europe. The St Cuthbert Gospel of St John, once known as
the Stonyhurst Gospel, is, curiously, on display open; so it is
impossible to admire the seventh-century pigskin-cover
The Lindisfarne Gospels and Stonyhurst Gospel are usually
displayed in the British Library's sacred-texts room. They were
removed from Durham some time after the Reformation, and their
return has attracted queues of people to come to see them in their
THE Gospels' function as an aid for worship rather than study is
easy to forget when one is padding about the darkened space of a
museum. Dean Sadgrove believes that the proximity of the cathedral
helps to put the book into a devotional context.
"The reason why it is a Gospel book rather than the whole Bible
is that it was designed to be carried in procession," he explains.
"It does not appear in the inventory of library books on
Lindisfarne, because it was a liturgical object; it would have been
kept in the sacristy."
The original is too delicate and precious to be carried around;
so the cathedral uses a facsimile copy for processions, and staged
readings of the Bible. In this summer's ecumenical pilgrimage to
Lindisfarne, on 13 July, a facsimile copy was carried in procession
through the ruins of the monastery where it originated.
There is a possibility that the book will one day be displayed
inside the cathedral again. The cathedral is building new
exhibition space in the rooms around its cloister, due to be opened
in 2015. This Open Treasure project will enable the cathedral to
borrow precious items.
"The British Library says it will lend the Gospels to the north
every seven years, for a three-month exhibition," Dean Sadgrove
says. "It is a great aspiration for us to display them one day. Who
knows what will happen?"
PERHAPS the most thought-provoking feature of the exhibition is
the inclusion of pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard, the fabulous
collection of gold treasures discovered near Lichfield in 2009.
These items come from the ancient kingdom of Mercia rather than
Northumbria, and are of Anglo-Saxon design.
Many historians, from Bede onwards, would applaud such an
opulent demonstration of Germanic, and hence Roman, pre-eminence.
But many early treasures of the north come from the opposite
direction, the Celtic Church of Iona and Ireland. The Gospels
themselves are unarguably in this Celtic tradition. Even so, they
incorporate features from continental Europe such as the use of
geometric precision for the designs.
Perhaps it was indeed the fusion of two devout traditions
meeting in Northumbria that sparked such a flurry of creativity, as
the exhibition seems to imply. The coming together of two powerful
and relatively new cultures seems the perfect seedbed to
Celtic practice was formally declared redundant at the Synod of
Whitby in 664, but, culturally, its legacy has turned out to be
more resilient than we might think. The Lindisfarne Gospels alone
amply demonstrate the power of a good creative idea to live on.
The curious fate of one Roman introduction makes an interesting
comparison. St Augustine arrived in the south, bearing an icon of
Christ, held prominently, as his missionary party approached the
walls of Canterbury. But somehow icons never took hold in Britain
as they did in other countries. A thousand years of pre-Reformation
Christianity, and all we have are three survivors, the most famous
being the Wilton Diptych, which can be seen in the National
Gallery, in London. The panel alongside it unkindly suggests that
it was perhaps painted by a Frenchman.
No such ambiguity could hang over the Lindisfarne Gospels. Our
lack of icons contrasts sharply with the profusion of indigenous
manuscript art that the Lindisfarne Gospels did so much to
THE creative melting-pot theory certainly explains other great
visual-arts traditions that began in Northumbria.
Stained-glass-window manufacture was introduced by craftsmen from
Gaul, who arrived in the late seventh century, at the monastery of
The modern museum Bede's World, next to the Jarrow site, is
hosting events to celebrate this addition to our cultural
vocabulary. And the National Glass Centre in Sunderland, a few
steps from the Monkwearmouth site, reopened in July after a
If you are planning to visit the north-east this summer,
remember St Cuthbert's own witness, and head away from the crowds
after viewing the Gospels. Patterns and connections hinted at in
the darkened display-rooms, with their pages of untouchable books,
can be explored more deeply in the wilder and less celebrated
places connected with the northern saints.
At a time when Christianity is painted as culturally backward,
the treasures of the north tell an alternative story - a narrative
woven from the desire to inspire, to educate, to enlighten, and to
Nick Mayhew-Smith is the author of Britain's Holiest
Places: A guide to all of Britain's sacred heritage.
The Lindisfarne Gospels Durham exhibition runs until 30
September at the university's Palace Green Library. It is open from
10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. Tickets are sold for timed slots
Booking hotline: 0844 248 2013
Landscapes of Faith: The Christian heritage of the
north-east, by Michael Sadgrove, is published by Third
Millennium Publishing at £29.95 (Church Times Bookshop
Treading holy ground
The landscape artist Ramsay Gibb's painted
ONE artist has celebrated the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels
to the north with a two-year pilgrimage in paint. Ramsay Gibb, a
Scottish-born landscape painter, has trekked across northern
Britain visiting scenes associated with St Cuthbert and his
contemporaries. His works are on display in two galleries in
Northumberland until early September.
The exhibitions were commissioned by Northumberland County
Council to underline the link between the Gospels, and the place
where it was made - the Holy Island of Lindisfarne is 65 miles
north of Durham. Painting is a particularly apt way to celebrate
the Gospels, given that the book was illustrated by Britain's first
famous artist, St Eadfrith.
Gibb's interest in holy places evolved in 2008, when he set out
to paint British islands. "By coincidence, it was at Lindisfarne
where I had my revelatory moment," he says. "I walked out on to the
mudflats to start work, and realised that someone had just done the
pilgrimage walk, and gone barefoot. To see these footprints tracing
out the journey past the line of posts hit me like a lightning
bolt, to realise that this was as it has always been. . .
"I'm not a churchgoer, but I do engage with religion and with
spirituality. The modern notion of what religion and church worship
are is much more narrow than what would have been understood by St
Cuthbert. So many of the stories about him involve his interaction
with nature, with storms, with animals, with islands."
Like St Cuthbert, Ramsay also comes from the Borders region, a
place where ideas and cultures have cross-fertilised. "It is a
shame that Scotland is the one thread in this story that has been a
bit lost, the thread that goes back to Iona," he says. "Partly it
is due to the modern border, but even Bede tried to downplay the
links to Celtic Christianity. Artistically speaking, there is no
question that the Lindis- farne Gospels are in the Irish
There are no people depicted in Gibb's canvases - the land and
skies are pregnant with cosmic rather than human activity. "These
are landscapes of hope," Sir Roy Strong says in his introduction to
Gibb's exhibition; "for in them the sun does not set, but is seen
to arise in anticipation of what the new day will bring." It is the
message of both St Eadfrith the Illustrator, and the Venerable Bede
- timeless as a pilgrim's footsteps in the sand.
Ramsay Gibb's paintings are on display at the Granary,
Berwick-upon-Tweed, until 1 September; and at the Woodhorn Gallery,
near Ashington, until 8 September. A third exhibition takes place
in London at the Francis Kyle Gallery, 2-31 October.