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Hills of the north, rejoice

09 August 2013

The Lindisfarne Gospels have returned home to the north-east of England, highlighting the rich Christian heritage of the region. Nick Mayhew-Smith explores the Church's place among the variety of cultural celebrations

The British Library Board

Home truths: the Evangelist St Matthew from the Lindisfarne Gospels

Home truths: the Evangelist St Matthew from the Lindisfarne Gospels

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 illustrations.

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 their parts.

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 inspired them.'"

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 cultural events.

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 ornamentation.

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 spiritual home.

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 cross-fertilise ideas.

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 inspire.

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 Monkwearmouth-Jarrow.

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 £2.3-million refit.

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 create.

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 only.

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 £26.95).



Treading holy ground

The landscape artist Ramsay Gibb's painted pilgrimage

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 tradition."

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.


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