Treasure of the month


Durham Cathedral has acquired an internationally renowned collection of manuscripts and historic artefacts over the centuries. Each month we feature one of these objects as 'Treasure of the Month' on our website.

Some items from the Cathedral's collections are on display in Open Treasure, a new world-class visitor experience at the heart of the Cathedral's medieval monastic buildings. 

January 2018 - The Durham Gospels

DCL MS A.II.17, Lindisfarne or Melrose, early 8th Century. 

 
The Treasure of the Month for January is truly one of Durham Cathedral Library’s greatest treasures.
 
The finest of the three insular Gospel books preserved in Durham Cathedral Library, the book known as The Durham Gospels is thought to be an elder sibling of the Lindisfarne Gospels; the style of the Insular Half-Uncial script and the decoration are nearly identical. However, this manuscript is written in long lines, rather than two columns ‘per cola et commata’ like its more celebrated relation, which suggests a slightly earlier date – most likely, around 700 AD. Its scribe may well be the same one which annotated the text of the Lindisfarne Gospels.
 
Sadly, and unlike the Lindisfarne Gospels, the book has been much damaged in the past and has lost much of its text and illumination. Only the Gospel of Saint John retains its elaborately decorated opening page; this Gospel has therefore, at an earlier period, been bound at the beginning of the book. A much damaged but still impressive full-page miniature of the Crucifixion precedes the opening of the Gospel of Saint Mark: in an image that most closely resembles 8th-century Irish art, Christ covers all but the very edges of the cross; two seraphim look down from above, while Longinus with his lance, and Stephaton holding a sponge to Christ’s lips are below. His wide-open, green-coloured eyes demonstrate His triumph over death. This is the earliest illustration of the Crucifixion in any western manuscript.
 
Additions to the text suggest that the Durham Gospels was used daily into at least the late 10th or early 11th century – if not the aftermath of the Norman Conquest. Notes on the manuscript suggest when particular passages should be read – Luke 7.19 is specified for Advent, for example; Luke 2.1 for Christmas. This denotes a clear liturgical purpose – the Durham Gospels was a working manuscript. Additions to the text also indicate that the manuscript was moved from Wearmouth-Jarrow, on to Chester-le-Street, and then eventually to Durham – arriving with the rest of Cuthbert’s community in 995: meaning it has been part of the collections here for well over a millennium.
 
The Durham Gospels has been fully digitised, and is available to view, free of charge, online, as part of the Durham Priory Library Recreated Project. This project, working in partnership with Durham University, aims to fully digitise the surviving manuscripts and early printed books from Durham Priory Library’s pre-Dissolution collection. Around one hundred manuscripts – including the Durham Gospels, shelfmark DCL MS A.II.17 – have already been digitised and are fully viewable here.