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The Durham Gospels

It’s been a while since I blogged about a manuscript. Today, I came across this blog post about the curious fact that the Durham Gospels — Durham Cathedral Manuscript A.II.17 — has five folios numbered 38! The post also includes an image from the Durham Gospels of Christ crucified, from folio 38v3. I think I read the Creative Commons Licence correctly, so here is the image:Not, I admit, the Lindisfarne Gospels, but, interestingly enough, of similar date (eighth century). Hugh Houghton says that both manuscripts ‘may have been produced in the same place, and the same corrector made alterations to both manuscripts.’ (The Latin New Testament, 73)

It’s probably just the coincidence of colours, but this pageĀ in toto reminds me of the Book of Kells (late eighth century), if less full-on. It is a common enough artistic conceit — the cross divides the page into quarters, in which we find angels. Sometimes we find the four beasts of the Apocalypse, in fact. Here, the top two quadrants have angels facing out, the bottom two have the soldiers, one with a spear, and one with the sponge of gall reaching up to Christ’s mouth in the image above. The historical and spiritual intersect; time is transcended, as in the world of Ephrem the Syrian.

Before the Gothic era, the Cross was the triumphant throne of Christ in mediaeval art (think on the Anglo-Saxon Dream of the Rood). He does not hang limp and lifeless here but stands enthroned between the angels (cherubim?). The full image is here; note that, since the Durham Priory Library Recreated Project uses IIIF, you can modify the contrast and brightness of the image using the ‘Toggle image manipulation’ button on the left, below the speech balloons. This will really help with being able to see the details of this particular page.

Not many images survive in the Durham Gospels, although the opening page of the Gospel of John is strikingly similar to the Lindisfarne Gospels:

The rest of the images seem to be the sort of illuminated initials that even canon law books get in an Insular context.

Textually, this is the Latin Vulgate but of a different tradition from the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Manuscripts such as this are important pieces of material culture and the visual arts from the age whence they come. It is clearly part of the cultural milieu of the Lindisfarne Gospels, written in a similar book hand with similar illustrations. It has been dated to the era of Bede, the Dream of the Rood, and the Ruthwell Cross. Since so few buildings survive from this era in England — having been rebuilt in Romanesque or Gothic style later on — a manuscript such as this takes on even greater importance.