Tag Archives: British Library

St Cuthbert’s Gospel – a rare jewel

St Cuthbert's Gospel 1St Cuthbert’s Gospels is one of the most covetable books I have ever had the privilege to see close up. Being within a foot or so of a seventh-century book that was found in the coffin of the important Northumbrian saint, St Cuthbert, was an amazing experience. When the coffin in the shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral was opened in 1104, the book was found placed there with other objects such as St Cuthbert’s pectoral cross and precious textiles. It fits in the hand, as you can see on the right, and could so easily have slipped into my pocket if no-one had been watching!



St Cuthbert Gospel, coverWhat is quite remarkable about the book is that it is still in its original binding, and as such is the oldest European bound book. Deep red leather covers wooden boards. On the front cover a scroll pattern and straight lines (which make a neat frame) have been outlined, possibly with cord or even carved wood which was then glued on to the cover. This meant that, when the red leather was pasted on, these areas became raised from the surface. In the surrounding border and in the upper and lower blocks, an interlace pattern has been indented and also coloured; the yellow pigment is more obvious than the blue in this photograph.


Coptic bindingThe gospel is a coptic binding, which means that, rather than the sections of folded pages (gatherings) being sewn on to wide tapes and these then attached to the covers, the gatherings are sewn with thick thread in a sort of chain stitch (see right) and these hold the sections of the book together and are then attached to the wooden boards (as you can see on the right). This is how codices (books as we know them) were first made and they rarely have covered spines. The wooden boards of this book (right) – made when I was at college – would then have been covered by red leather and tooled to get the effect of the St Cuthbert Gospel.

Coptic book openThe binding is particularly flexible, as you can see again here with that college-made book. When I was being filmed writing the first page of this book at the British Library I was able to speak to the conservation book binder, and he said that the spine is still completely flexible, and it would be possible to turn the book round completely on itself so that back and front cover could touch – of course he hadn’t done this!

St Cuthbert Gospel, f. 1Inside the book the text is written in the lettering style of Uncial. There are very few ascenders and descenders and the letters are essentially majuscule. The Gospel of St John starts with a long versal I in red (versals are letters where the thicker strokes are constructed out of two or more pen strokes, rather then simply changing the nib to the thickest angle and making one stroke); this letter is followed by a smaller letter N. The red ink has smudged slightly over the years. The rest of the text is in a dark brown ink. As with most scribes when writing an important manuscript, the first few words are rather tightly written, but by line four things are more relaxed, although it is only in the second paragraph that the scribe really gets into his stride. Notice, too, that the first two words (In principio – In the beginning…) are written with more pen nib angle changes than for the remaining Angled Pen Uncial script. This page, too, because it is the first page, is more discoloured and worn than the rest of the book.

St Cuthbert's Gospel 2And the remarkable aspect of this book is how even and pleasing on the page the text is. There is considerable consistency to the lettering, and it is quite easy to read with very few contractions, unlike some manuscripts written centuries later. Look out for Lazarus at the end of the second line on the right, for example (obviously this page is about the raising of Lazarus). It is written per cola et commata, that is the length of the line is determined by the sense of the text, and a subsequent clause starts on the next line. You may also be able to see the fuzzy ink indicating an erasing at the start of line 8. The scribe has scratched out whatever it was written in error and the vellum skin is rougher at this point. Look out, too, for where the ink is running out and so the scribe fills his quill for the next letter. In the second to last line the letters TT in quattuor have had additions to the start of the serifs on the crossbar (look closely, and see that the crossbars are fainter at the beginnings and ends, and so the scribe has added tiny strokes with a full quill of ink to emphasise them).

Look also at the free Calligraphy Clips page on this website for how to write this style of lettering (it’s the latest set I’ve put up so you’ll need to scroll to the bottom).

photoWhen the St Cuthbert Gospel was saved for the nation, the British Library made a film to celebrate this, and I was lucky enough to be asked to show how the first page was done. I tried to be as ‘period’ as I could. I knew that a plastic ruler wouldn’t quite cut the mustard, so I found a piece of wood to draw the lines (rather large, but it was real wood), and fished out an old bradawl from the tool box to score the lines. There is no sound on this clip, but it does show how the page would have been set out, and how the letters were written.

The book is now at the British Library, and they were thrilled to own it now, as is evident on this BBC World News item with Dr Claire Breay (a couple of seconds in on this clip). It is usually on display in the British Library, and for many years it was shown closed – very frustrating to we scribes! Conservation experts have indicated that it can now be displayed open so everyone can have a chance of studying the wonderful script for themselves.


A ‘must have’ diary …

British Library diary 2014 coverThe British Library Diary for 2014 is exquisite! Page after page of fantastic manuscripts, in rich jewel-like colours, greet each week. The images are taken from the collection of Royal Manuscripts given to the nation by George II in 1757, but with additional miniatures from selected other collections too. The cover (right) shows the Earl of Shrewsbury, with his sumptuous red velvet and fur-lined robe, decorated with circular blue and gold Orders of the Garter, presenting his book to Margaret of Anjou. It doesn’t look a very happy court, though; no-one is looking in the least bit pleased, and most seem to be actually sneering! The backcloth of blue and red squares shows the arms of England at the time. The claim to lands in France meant that the gold fleur-de-lis on a blue background took precedent in heraldry to the gold leopards of England on a red background.

Medieval miniature from the British LibraryThe very sharp printing means that it is possible to see all the details. In this miniature from the Bedford Hours (c.1410–30), Clovis, who became the first king to unite France in 481 when he was 15 years of age, is being helped on with his armour. At the same time his queen, Clothilde, is handing him his shield showing the arms of France. Note the cute little dog looking on admiringly, and the rather pathetic stone lions guarding the entrance. In the upper part of the miniature, God is giving a cloth painted with the French arms to an angel, indicating that Clovis was a Christian and so blessed. In the countryside around there is a rather fierce lion, a rabbit munching a very red apple, and a wolf making off with a sheep, and the shepherd shaking his fists as a consequence.

Medieval miniature from the British LibraryAnother book being presented is depicted in this miniature of c.1475. Here the author Jean de Wavrin is painted on his knees in front of Edward IV. The king’s robes again show the gold fleur-de-lis on a blue background, and they contrast with the rather dull grey of the writer’s clothes. Edward’s throne is quite magnificent with a wonderful red back cloth and an interesting trefoil decoration attached quite high up. Two hats are quite fun, and must have looked rather strange when viewed from the front, as the large black plumes on the blue (right) and green (left) hats look as it they would have stuck up rather like coxcombs! The burgundy wallpaper does look particularly fine. Note the arms of England sliding off the bottom of the page, with France in the first and third quarters, which are always regarded as the most important in heraldry, and England in the second and third – less important.

Medieval miniature from the British LibraryThis miniature from the Wells Apocalypse (early 14th century) shows the writing very clearly, and the prescissus, or cut off, endings to the letters are really distinctive. Note the tops of the ascenders of the letters l in the third line, and the bottoms to the letters i, u, s (looks a bit like an f) and i in the fourth line. Some think that these shapes were made by simply turning the pen to its full width horizontally, but the letters l suggest a different method. Note the little tail at the top on the right hand side, particularly with the second l (line 3). This small tail indicates that the letter was started from the right and then the pen was moved down to the left to make the downstroke. The tail wafting in from the left and the thickening of the stroke at the top was then added on afterwards. Similarly, the bottom of the strokes are made by maintaining the pen nib at an angle of about 30° which results in a slanting end to the letter, and then ‘filling’ in the rest of the stroke to make it look cut off at the end. Sadly the woman shown in the initial A doesn’t look too impressed by it all, despite her very elaborate headdress!


Was Moses Born with Horns?

Michelangelo's Moses, with tablets and hornsThis very famous Michelangelo statue from the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, shows Moses with the most exuberant and lush beard, which he seems almost to caress with his left hand, which is at the same time holding the stone tablets of law. However he also has two horns sprouting from his head.





God instructing Moses (with horns), Aaron (as a bishop with mitre and crozier) and an attendantImages of Moses with horns were used in manuscripts, too. This delightful miniature in a British Library manuscript of a rather youthful God, possibly a golden angel peeping over his right shoulder and clearly in a blue sky, is explaining the proper forms of sacrifice to a rather young horned Moses (unbearded, unlike the wonderfully soft curly bearded locks of Michelangelo’s Moses), a young Aaron – shown as a Bishop with his crozier and mitre – and an attendant.







Miniature from the Bury Bible showing MosesA favourite manuscript, the twelfth-century (about 1355) Bury Bible, now in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, has magnificent miniatures (although some are almost 30 cm, one foot square, so not so mini, though more on this in a later blog) painted by ‘the incomparable Master Hugo’. This is one is two-storey and shows Moses, in the upper part he is instructing the Israelites using the recently received laws, and below that, Moses is pointing out the birds and animals Jews can and cannot eat by law. The Jews are recognised by their Jewish hats – brims with a conical middle part. Moses has bright white, very obvious horns. Note, too, the stunning borders, intricate colourful patterns on a black background which are very characteristic of Master Hugo. Another design device he uses is to paint a plain dark green rectangle behind the main figures, which focuses the viewer on the central action. Master Hugo’s palette and painting style is quite simply stunning (more on this later too).

So why should Moses be shown with horns in this way? Was he born with horns? Other images of Moses, before he went up on Mount Sinai show Moses un-horned, so it was when he went to get the tablets of law from God that the horns appeared.

There are some theories about this. First, when Jerome was translating the Old and New Testaments into Latin Vulgate in the fourth century, it is thought that he may have mistranslated the Hebrew word qaran – meaning to shine – to qeren – meaning horn. As Hebrew was usually written without vowels, this confusion is understandable. Horns can also be quite shiny, so context is quite important. This theory seems perfectly reasonable and is one that many find very plausible.

However, when Jerome translated this text into Latin his words were: splendor eius ut lux erit cornua in manibus eius ibi abscondita est fortitudo eius (Exodus 34), which can be translated as: His brightness shall be as the light: horns are in his hands; There is his strength hid.

Now the horns seem to be not on Moses’ head but in his hands!

Others have thought that again there is no confusion by Jerome. The sun’s rays can be considered as horns in shape, and horns can be polished until they shine and reflect the light.

Statue of Pan, with horns, and DaphnisSome feel that horns are a symbol of ancient mystery. Greek and Roman gods, such as Pan (seen right with Daphnis), Triton, Dionysos, and Bacchus were horned, and so the special god-like attributes of those with horns – those who were divine and honoured – may have been applied by artists to Moses once he had received the tablets of law from God.








sculpture of Moses with horns that look like beams of lightOn a recent trip to Rome, I was delighted to see in the Piazza di Spagna, close to the Spanish Steps, at the base of the Colonna dell’Immacolata, a statue of Moses where the sculptor had decided to cover every eventuality. Here is Moses holding the tablets of law and with horns on his head, but the horns are shown as beams of light as well!