The Lindisfarne Gospels, the St Cuthbert Gospel, the Book of Durrow, the Alfred Jewel, the Vespasian Psalter, Beowulf, items from the Staffordshire Hoard, the Domesday Book, these and many other gems are all there in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library, from October 2018 to February 2019. It is an astonishing array of manuscripts and artefacts, and some, like the great bible that Abbot Ceolfrid at Monkwearmouth (Sunderland) had loaded on to his boat by two men to take to present to the pope on 16th June 716, have not been on show in the UK for centuries (and in the case of the Ceolfrid Bible – not since 716!).
The accompanying catalogue (see above) is packed with details of each exhibit, every one of which is photographed beautifully, and there is also fascinating background information in a series of essays, which include Anglo-Saxon England and the Continent (Joanna Story), Language, Learning and Literature (Andy Orchard), Interactions with Ireland (Bernard Meehan), The Emergence of a Kingdom of England (Simon Keynes) and Conquests and Continuities (Julia Crick). Each of these essays is lavishly illustrated with many full-page illustrations of manuscripts, including that of the comet drawn at the bottom of the page of the Eadwine Psalter shown here, heralding, according to many at the time, impending significant events – as in the conquest of England.
An early manuscript in the exhibition is the earliest copy of the Rule of St Benedict. Made in England around 700 AD it shows a very ‘pure’ (in my opinion) form of Uncial script with larger initials written in red, outlined in black and with a black horizontal ornamental line, and surrounded by red dots made with a quill. This form of Uncial incorporates many pen nib angle changes and so would have been slow to write. For the letter N, for example, the pen nib angle is changed to 90° to the horizontal guideline for the first vertical stroke, the base triangular serif is then constructed with the left-hand corner of the nib, a change of pen nib angle to 0° for the narrow top serif and that thicker diagonal stroke, and then back to 90° for the second vertical stroke and again a constructed serif. Try it yourself and see how much longer this is than when you write a simple majuscule N!
And what real gems there are here! This magnificent page from the Harley Golden Gospels, so well named, is a riot of gold, pattern and colour. There is, as would be expected in a manuscript of this period (first quarter of the ninth century), interlace, but also a type of Greek key design, an intriguing pattern of semi-circles and white dots in triangles, but what caught my eye was the pattern half way down the right and left borders. This angular design, outlined in white, shows an understanding of perspective not always evident at this time. The two doe-eyed golden lions on a rich blue background, have their feet trapped in interlace – no wonder their tongues are sticking out in frustration!
Having copied out the David as Psalmist page from the Vespasian Psalter, the horns blown by the musicians to the sides of the main image are fascinating, not least because only one of the four looks happy in playing their music!
How amazing, though, that an example of those very instruments, the River Erne Horn, is on display as part of this exhibition. The wooden horn was made by splitting the yew wood into two, hollowing out the middle, and then sticking it back together again, reinforcing the join with bronze hoops. There is also a bronze mouthpiece, with the metal bent back to make a rim for the player’s mouth.
The Tiberius Psalter was made in Winchester in the second or third quarter of the 11th century, and has a series of prefatory drawings in the typical lively outline and coloured wash of that time. The incredible imagination of the artist is shown in this enlargement of St Michael (in this instance) and the dragon. The saint is poking his spear at a rather benign animal sitting on his haunches with a wonderfully curling tail, a slight snort coming from his nostrils, and a cheeky little animal representing his tongue, also about to attack the saint, and also with another tongue poking out of his mouth.
There are so many wonderful examples of manuscript illumination and scripts which are such a delight to the eye and a joy to the soul. But, of course, a favourite must be Eadui Basan, shown here in a Charter for King Cnut granting land at Ticehurst in Sussex to Ælfstan, archbishop of Canterbury. His identifiable writing includes an idiosyncratic construction of the letter d. For more information about this, please see The Art and History of Calligraphy
This exhibition is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see in one place a whole range of significant manuscripts and artefacts. It really is a ‘must-see’, but if that isn’t possible, then the exhibition catalogue, with its essays, fabulous images and detailed information about each exhibit comes a good second.