“…since death is upon me I admonish you to loose no opportunity of learning from me so long as I am able to teach you.” Cuthbert, never doubting the truth of the words of Boisil, answered: “And what, I ask you, is it best for me to read, which I can yet finish in one week?” He replied: “The evangelist, John. I have a book consisting of seven gatherings of which we can get through one every day, with the Lord’s help, reading it and discussing it between ourselves so far as is necessary.” They did as he said. They were able to finish the reading so quickly because they dealt only with the simple things of the “faith which worketh by love” and not deep matters of dispute. So when the reading had been completed in seven days, Boisil the man of the Lord, having been attacked by this said disease, reached his last day and, having spent it in great gladness, he entered into the joy of perpetual light.” (Quoted fromBede’s life of St. Cuthbert, chapter VIII).
St. Cuthbert was a 7th-century, English Christian leader, renowned for his ascetic practices and the miracles attributed to him during his lifetime and posthumously. Born in Northumbria around 635, he entered the monastery of Melrose in 651, and later became guest-master at the newly founded monastery at Ripon. Cuthbert subsequently became prior of Melrose, then prior of Lindisfarne, and went on to live as a hermit on the island of Inner Farne, off the coast of Northumberland. He was consecrated as bishop of Lindisfarne in 685 but died at his Inner Farne hermitage on 20 March 687. He was elevated to sainthood in 698 when his body was reinterred in a new wooden coffin. This coffin was subsequently removed from Lindisfarne by the community of St Cuthbert and was carried with them as they travelled around the North East in the wake of Viking raids in the 9th and 10th centuries.
At the end of the 10th century, the community took Cuthbert’s coffin with them to Durham and settled there. The coffin plus a number of other relics may still be seen there in a small museum. He was one of England’s most popular and widely venerated saints both in the Anglo-Saxon period and after the Norman Conquest, and his shrine was a major medieval pilgrimage centre.
In 698 according to tradition, when St. Cuthbert was reinterred in the Church at Lindisfarne, the monks had wanted to collect the bones of the saint, in order to place them in a reliquary on the altar. Unfortunately they found his body uncorrupted, when they opened the grave of the saint. Accordingly he was reinterred, but not before a number of rich gifts were placed in his coffin, amongst those the most precious of them all, a gospel of St. John. Having eleven gatherings and not seven it is seldom identified directly with the copy, which according to Bede was so diligently perused by the saint and his teacher. It was however very proper to place the gospel of St. John in his grave. Often – as opposed to those of Marc, Matthew and Luke – considered the prime inspiration for the contemplative life, which Cuthbert was in seach of most of his life.
The book is unique in being the earliest surviving intact European book. It has a beautiful original red leather binding adorned with an interlace pattern framing a double vine scroll in the middle. The decoration is thought to have been made by using gesso to build the decoration before covering with leather and finally painting it. Traces of this can still be found.
Already in 1104, when St Cuthbert was transferred to his final resting place in Durham Cathedral, the gospel was found amongst his relics. After the reformation it entered private collections finally ending up in the library of the Jesus Society in Lancashire. For years it has been on a loan to
British Museum. Now, hvoever, the Society lacks funding and wish to sell the manuscript. The price is £9 mio. and British Museum in collaboration with the Durham Cathedral are trying to raise the money to keep this national treasure in England.