There are only 36 days left to see the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition in Durham. If you have not been yet, I urge you to do so. It is a triumph.
Durham has put the flags out for the exhibition. From the efficient park and ride buses, to the coffee shop that leaves glacier mints with the bill, to the ever pleasant stewards in the Cathedral, every step of the way put a broader smile on my face.
I cannot remember the cathedral being as well turned out – and that is before the flower festival arrives next weekend. The lunchtime eucharist and following talk were held in peace and decorum even though the building was full of visitors. Lunch in the undercroft café is great value and the new gift shop successfully combines high quality crafts and a well stocked religious bookshop with consummate ease. The Dean and Chapter are to be congratulated on this facelift.
The project to build a model lego cathedral shows this is also a fun place. Purchasing a brick makes a small contribution to the grand plan of opening up the cathedral’s treasures and showing them off to full effect. It is surprising how many of the artefacts in the Gospels exhibition have come from the cathedral’s own collection.
Two rather imposing uniformed guards man the doors to the exhibition itself. But they break into a patter of jokes and banter that puts everyone at ease and we are shepherded round the exhibition by a succession of volunteers who make sure that no one is rushed and everyone can see the exhibits. But beware that the air conditioning required to display the manuscripts makes it is cold inside. It is great stage management.
I was worried that the exhibition might just be one long queue to see ‘the book’. Not at all. It tells a very well thought out, though possibly simplified, story of the coming of Christianity, the importance of St Cuthbert’s community and how the Gospels were part of establishing the standing of Lindisfarne as a spiritual centre. It is our story.
Was the Synod of Whitby, the great gathering of the early church to settle the differences between the Roman and Celtic traditions of Christianity, really about the date of Easter and the way monks combed their hair? With the modern church so consumed with equally hair splitting issues, it was an utterly believable account.
To my mind, the wrong side won at Whitby for the wrong reason – the King was too concerned with his place in heaven to back the underdog. But it was a sensible way to resolve a difference without bloodshed and I urge Justin Welby to book everyone into guest houses in Whitby until they and sort out the church’s position on women and gay relationships without more ado.
The illustrations on the audio visuals perfectly evoke life in the sixth century and I was amused that the video describing the journey of Cuthberts tomb to its final resting place in Durham is sponsored by a road haulage company. What would the monks have given for a Fergietruck?
There is an ample dose of myth or miracle – the dividing line is a thin one – that all adds interest to the story. First, the gospels fell out of the boat taking then to Ireland only to be recovered intact and then the cortege carrying Cuthbert’s coffin got stuck in the mud on the way back from Ripon which was a sign that he really wished his bones to rest in what was to become Durham.
The supporting cast is excellent. Artefacts, including some from the recently discovered Staffordshire hoard, and other contemporary books are all well displayed and give the context for the star players.
Strange to say, my aaah moment – the point at which the exhibition leaped from being an fascinating study of early history to an emotional heart pounding experience – was not the Lindisfarne Gospel but the cross and ring recovered from Cuthbert’s tomb which looked as if they had been minted yesterday.
Cuthbert’s lasting achievement was to reconcile the different versions of Christianity and restore the fortunes of Lindisfarne when others had fled back to Ireland. He also managed to deal with affairs of state when appointed Bishop against his better instincts whilst still drawing his strength from the natural world and the silent monastic life of his hermitage. Not a bad example.
So was the Lindsfarne Gospel a disappointment after all this build up? It exceeded my expectations. I had the great book all to myself for a few minutes and marvelled at the vibrant fresh colours on St John’s title page which is currently on display. I was impressed by how the sheer size of the book as well.
It is well worth visiting the adjoining exhibition on the floor above where you can see all the illustrated pages of the Gospel in a facsimile edition and find out more about how the book was written and constructed.
I came away with an strange sense of pride about the early Christian contribution to the life and culture of our region, epitomised in the masterpiece of the Gospels. We do not sing the praises of the Northern Saints enough or recognise their place in our make up.
The carefully worded statement at the entrance of the exhibition acknowledges the role of the British Library in loaning the Gospels to Durham for a three month period and goes on to say that, for conservation reasons, the gospels will only go on tour once every seven years. After they sank to the bottom of sea, in protest at being taken to Ireland, it would be a brave curator who would risk a foreign trip again. Even so, I fear they may not return to the North East in our generation.
I hope the campaign to rehouse the Gospels in Durham continues apace as this exhibition shows how well they could fit within a grander display of the treasures of Durham Cathedral and how well the story of Northumbrian culture could be told around them. We need to make more of our inhertiance.
George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene http://www.shepherdsdene.co.uk