Last evening while watching BBC World News I caught a report on the 1,300 year-old St. Cuthbert Gospel, which recently became the property of the British Library in London. The story of how the earliest, completely preserved European book came into the collection of the Library is an extremely interesting one, as you shall see. However it is also a rather sad, contemporary example of how many of the Christian art objects we enjoy in museums today have lost their original, intended purpose.
Last summer the British Library began a campaign to purchase the book known as the “St. Cuthbert Gospel” from the Jesuits at Stonyhurst College in England, who have owned it since the 18th century; the book is a beautifully handwritten, simple manuscript of the Gospel of St. John in the New Testament dating from the 7th century. The Library announced yesterday that, with the assistance of Christie’s auctioneers and other experts on valuation, since the book was not actually on the open market, they had finally raised the agreed-upon $14.7 million price tag for the volume, through a combination of public grants and private contributions. The Library has been in possession of the book since the late 1970′s, when it was loaned by the Jesuits for exhibition and study.
St. Cuthbert (c. 634-687) is one of the most revered of the early English saints. He was born in the Kingdom of Northumbria, in the north of present-day England, and discerned a religious vocation after spending part of his youth as a shepherd and then as a soldier. He subsequently became a monk, and was eventually ordained the Bishop of Lindisfarne, one of the most important centers of Christianity in Britain during this period.
The process for canonization of saints as we understand it today had not been fully formalized at the time of St. Cuthbert’s death, but according to St. Bede, the great chronicler of the early Church in Britain – whose superb “An Ecclesiastical History of the English People” is a must-have for any serious student of history – when several miracles were attributed to St. Cuthbert’s intercession and his coffin was opened, his body was found to be incorrupt. This led to his popularly being declared a saint, and he was re-buried in a beautifully decorated coffin in about 698 A.D., behind the main altar at his cathedral in Lindisfarne. The Gospel copy which is now the property of the British Museum was a gift from a neighboring monastery, which created and donated it to be buried with St. Cuthbert when he was re-interred.
From there the travels of this book, and indeed St. Cuthbert himself, become exceedingly strange. The coffin had to be moved multiple times due to invasions by the Vikings, until in the 10th century it finally came to rest at Durham Cathedral. During construction of a shrine to house the saint’s remains, his coffin was opened and this volume was re-discovered. It was then removed from the coffin, and kept in the cathedral priory for select visitors to examine and use as an aid to prayer; it remained there for the next 500 years.
When Henry VIII decided that he was not disgusting enough already, and decided to destroy the monastic communities in Britain so he could take their wealth and possessions for himself and his cronies, many books such as this were lost. Fortunately, someone managed to preserve this little volume from destruction, and it eventually came into the possession of the Earls of Lichfield. The 3rd Earl, in turn, presented it in the middle of the 18th century to the Reverend Thomas Phillips who, in most of the news articles I have read in researching this story, list him as a “Canon”, meaning a priest attached to a cathedral.
However it turns out that Thomas Phillips was not a Protestant dressing up and playing Catholic in property stolen from Rome, but rather the real thing: a Catholic priest. He was private chaplain to the recusant Berkeley family, who were instrumental in getting the remaining English Catholic nobility and gentry together to petition King George III for his support of the Catholic Relief Act of 1778. This Act was the first, small step toward the emancipation of Catholics following the Reformation, who up until the passage of this Act could be prosecuted, for example, for being or housing a Catholic priest, or teaching the Catholic faith in a school. Catholics were forbidden from buying or selling land, and they could in fact lose their property if a Protestant relative wished to take possession of it. Of course, legally enshrined prejudice against Catholics is still in fact part of English law today, but we will save that for another post.
For his part Father Phillips was the first English biographer of Reginald Cardinal Pole (1500-1588), the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, and published a two-volume study of this rather interesting prelate at Oxford in 1767. As an aside, Cardinal Pole was perhaps not always a saintly bishop, but he and I share a mutual dislike for Machiavelli and a preference for Count Castiglione, who is of course the patron of this blog. Cardinal Pole once described Machiavelli’s “The Prince” thusly: “I found this type of book to be written by an enemy of the human race. It explains every means whereby religion, justice and any inclination toward virtue could be destroyed”.
In 1769, Father Phillips presented the St. Cuthbert Gospel as a gift to the English Jesuit College in Liège, Belgium, where many of the English Jesuits who had been killed by Elizabeth I received their education. It then traveled back across the Channel, after the Jesuits were suppressed in Catholic Belgium and, ironically, found refuge in Protestant England in 1794. The book had remained at their school, Stonyhurst College, until it went on loan to the British Library, which now owns the well-traveled and ancient volume.
As interesting as all of this history is, I cannot help but think it a shame that this book is not still resting with the relics of St. Cuthbert. Of course it was not a book which he personally owned, since it was created several years after his death. Yet it was a mark of love, gratitude, and respect from his fellow monks, in recognition of how much he had done for them, and indeed for all early Christians in the north of England.
It also demonstrates yet again something which I have talked about periodically in these pages over the years. As much as I love things like beautifully made, historic paintings, statues, illuminated books, and other Catholic religious objects, there is something very tragic about seeing said objects in secular hands. I am of course not naive on this point: no doubt they are being better cared for than they would be if they were kept in regular use, or if they were simply gathering dust in some ancient and leaky church.
However when these things stop being ways of giving glory to God, and become little more than pretty baubles to be looked at, or remains like fossils or pottery shards to be studied scientifically, there is a type of sadness that arises for those of us who not only appreciate these things aesthetically, but also as spiritual expressions of the Catholic Faith made tangible. They were created by Catholic artisans for Catholic communities, but have been removed from the practice of the Faith, never to return. I cannot walk into the National Gallery for example, and kneel down in front of the tranquil, meditative, and magnificent 15th century Perugino altarpiece of the Crucifixion to pray and reflect on Christ’s suffering. Well, I suppose I could, but then I would probably be chased away or arrested.
In the end it is certainly a good thing that more people will be able to study this remarkable book – which by the way has been digitized and will be available to examine online – and that it will be preserved for future generations. However in isolation from its context, i.e. the shrine of a great Catholic saint, it loses some of its impact. It is no longer an ex-voto, as it was originally intended to be, but an ex-ex-voto. And for those of us who are aware of this fact, we cannot help but be a bit disappointed that it is not remaining in at least some kind of a Catholic setting.
Beginning of the Gospel of St. John from the St. Cuthbert Gospel (c. 698 A.D.)
British Library, London