Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

27 September 2022

Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition opens in Newcastle

The British Library has loaned the Lindisfarne Gospels to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne, for an exhibition that runs until 3 December 2022.

The Lindisfarne Gospels open on a book cradle
The Lindisfarne Gospels on display in the Laing Art Gallery

The manuscript is displayed to show the spectacular decoration at the beginning of the Gospel of John. On the left-hand side is one of the book’s five densely painted carpet pages, all based on the shape of a cross. On this page, the decoration is centred on an equal-armed cross, filled with yellow interlace. The grid of geometric panels on the page is surrounded by a dense network of interlaced birds painted in pink, red, blue and yellow, set against a black ground. The bright green background of the four rectangular panels contrasts with the palette of the rest of the page.

A page filled with intricate animal and interlace decoration around the design of a cross
The carpet page at the beginning of the Gospel of John in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 210v

On the facing page are the opening words of the Gospel of John in Latin, ‘In principio erat verbum et verbum erat apud deum…’ (‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…’). The first three letters of the text form an intricately elaborated ‘INP’ monogram which dominates the page. Some of the letters on this page end in a spiral, interlace, or the head of a bird, but the letter ‘C’ in principio ends in the head of a man with long blond hair. Other than the portraits of the four evangelists, this is the only human depicted in the manuscript.

A page of decorated text, beginning with large ornate letters 'INP'
The beginning of the Gospel of John in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 211r

You can read more about the Lindisfarne Gospels and see full digitised coverage of the whole manuscript on our website.

The British Library has also loaned three other manuscripts to the exhibition, including the St Cuthbert Gospel (Add MS 89000), which the Library acquired in 2012 with the support of many donors including the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund. It is displayed in Newcastle alongside the pectoral cross from the Staffordshire Hoard which was discovered in 2009 and is on loan from Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent.

Leather book cover with a design of interlace and vines
The upper cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel: Add MS 89000

Also on loan from the British Library to the exhibition in Newcastle are the Tiberius Bede, containing Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Cotton MS Tiberius C II) and an Irish pocket gospel-book (Add MS 40618) which is displayed alongside the Mac Durnan Gospels on loan from Lambeth Palace Library.

Evangelist portrait of St Luke as a standing figure holding a book, with a border of interlaced animals
Portrait of St Luke in the Irish pocket gospel-book: Add MS 40618, f. 21v

The loan of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the Laing Art Gallery marks the sixth loan of the manuscript and the fifth time that it has been on exhibition in the North East of England. It has been displayed twice before in the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, in 1996 in the exhibition, ‘Treasures from the Lost Kingdom of Northumbria’, and again in 2000 to mark the millennium. It was also displayed in Durham Cathedral in 1987 as part of the celebrations for the 1300th anniversary of the death of St Cuthbert, and in Durham University’s Palace Green Library in 2013.

The British Library’s Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, Eleanor Jackson, has written a new book, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Art, History and Inspiration (London: British Library, 2022), to coincide with the loan of the Gospels to Newcastle. The book is an accessible introduction to the production, decoration and history of the manuscript. It is fully illustrated in colour and is available from the British Library Shop, along with a new pack of 16 Lindisfarne Gospels postcards.

A bookshop display of books about the Lindisfarne Gospels
Display of the newly published book on the Lindisfarne Gospels in the Laing Art Gallery shop

The Laing Art Gallery is also showing a short film which Turner-prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller has produced in response to the loan of the Lindisfarne Gospels to Newcastle. The film, entitled ‘The Deliverers’, is free to view at the Gallery this autumn.

Downstairs, in the Gallery’s Marble Hall, is the display, These Are Our Treasures. This free exhibition, featuring treasured objects belonging to people in the North East of England, is the result of a project led by artist Ruth Ewan. Each treasured object is displayed alongside an account of its story, as told by its owner.

An exhibition case containing objects with visitors looking at them
Part of the ‘These Are Our Treasures’ display at the Laing Art Gallery

The Gallery is holding a series of talks during the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition, and other organisations across the North East are running a programme of events. This programme includes Illuminated Sheep in Northumberland, and an exhibition, Sharing Stories, at Newcastle City Library which focuses on modern children’s stories, and includes loans from the British Library and Seven Stories in Newcastle.

The Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle is open daily from 10.00am to 7.30pm until 3 December 2022, and tickets are available to book online.

Claire Breay

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23 September 2022

Alexander the Great exhibition at the British Library

On 21 October 2022 the British Library opens a new exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. Bringing together a spectacular selection of treasures from across more than 2000 years, 25 countries and 22 languages, the show presents the amazingly varied afterlife of one of the Ancient World’s best-known figures: Alexander the Great.

Alexander and Aristotle discussing the spheres of heaven
Alexander and Aristotle discussing the spheres of heaven, Pseudo-Aristotle, Secreta Secretorum (London, between 1326 and 1327): Add MS 47680, f. 51v.

Born in ancient Macedonia more than 2350 years ago, Alexander created an empire of unprecedented size during his short life. Setting out from the Balkans, he conquered the entire Eastern Mediterranean including today’s Greece, Turkey, Iran and Egypt and beyond as far as India. Although his empire crumbled soon after his early death at the age of 32, Alexander’s legacy continued and his legendary figure is still transforming.

Alexander kneeling under the oracular trees of the Sun and the Moon with a hair-robed priest
Alexander kneeling under the oracular trees of the Sun and the Moon with a hair-robed priest in the centre. Histoire Ancienne jusqu’ au Cesar (Acre, 13th century): Add MS 15268, f. 214v (detail)

The British Library’s new exhibition explores the myths and stories of Alexander’s life and deeds in a wide range of media spanning more than twenty centuries and a huge geographical spread. Unfolding the narrative from his early years, through his conquests and personal relationships to his death, the objects on display represent the fabulous network of legends that surround almost every detail of Alexander’s life and achievements.

Alexander rising in the sky in a cage pulled by four griffins
Alexander rising in the sky in a cage pulled by four griffins, Old French Prose Alexandre Romance (France, 1444-1445): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20v (detail)

We show how Alexander became a Pharaoh in Egypt, a prophet in Islam, a saint in Christianity, an all-knowing philosopher, a magician of obscure secrets, even attempting flight and inventing the first submarine. A stunning selection of objects including ancient and medieval manuscripts from around the world alongside printed books, music, artwork, and contemporary digital installations illustrating the unparalleled afterlife of the young king of ancient Macedon.

Book your tickets now and join us for an amazing journey through space, time and across cultures to explore how Alexander in his legendary life failed to gain eternal life, but ultimately achieved immortality through his stories.

Peter Toth

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We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

27 August 2022

Help us decipher this inscription

Add comment Comments (1)

Do you fancy yourself as some sort of medieval detective? Then this might be just the right thing for you.

Hot off the press is this ultraviolet image of one of the manuscripts in our Medieval and Renaissance Women project, the cartulary of Coldingham Priory. You can read more about the project in this blogpost and you can view the cartulary in full on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site (Harley MS 6670). The cartulary was made in 1434 for the Cistercian nuns of Coldingham in Scotland, and it contains copies of a number of documents, including a charter of Alexander II, King of Scots (r. 1214–1249), and several of the Earls of Dunbar. A note at the end of the volume (f. 55v) reveals that the nuns asked John Laurence, a public notary, to make a transcript of their charters, because of their age and out of fear of English invasion, which meant they were more susceptible to burning or other accidents.

A page of the Coldingham cartulary with an inscription at the top, revealed under ultraviolet light

While we were cataloguing the manuscript, we noticed this late medieval note in the upper part of the page at the end, that someone has tried to erase, very effectively as it happens. But what does it say? We'd love your thoughts. Is it an ownership inscription of some kind, or does it give an insight into how the cartulary was made or used?

If you are able to read some or all of the words, please pop a comment into the box below or contact us on Twitter @BLMedieval. We'd be extremely grateful for your help. Here is a detail of the inscription, and you can see what it looks like with the naked eye here (Harley MS 6670, f. 57v).

Highlight of the inscription

 

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