The Saint Augustine Gospels


  On March 21st 2013 Justin Welby was enthroned as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. The first archbishop, Saint Augustine, arrived in Canterbury in 597, bringing with him a book of the gospels in Latin. The book still exists, and played its part in the enthronement. It is the oldest book in Britain, and the oldest illustrated vulgate in existence. It is now in the library of Corpus Christi College Cambridge.
   Sadly, many of the illuminated pages have disappeared. Two remain, as shown below. 
   The first  is an introductory page to the Gospel of Luke. Apart from Luke himself, wondering what to write next, and his winged ox, there are two side panels illustrating a range of incidents described in the gospel. Fascinatingly, many of the events depicted are rarely if ever found elsewhere in art, and the identification of some scenes is disputed. A helpful 7th or 8th century scribe added notes in the margin, but modern scholars think he got many of these wrong. 
  The second page raises fewer problems. It shows the Passion in twelve scenes, beginning at the entry into Jerusalem and ending rather abruptly on the way to Calvary -  the crucifixion is not shown. This was still a sensitive issue in 6th century Christianity.  It has been suggested that it might have been based on now-lost frescos in Rome, where the book was almost certainly created. There are certainly similarities with catacomb art from two centuries or more before, and I have included some of these. 

    Why choose this for a topic? For partly nostalgic reasons. I lived in Canterbury in the late sixties and seventies, both as a student and a teacher. The then Archbishop, Michael Ramsey, was a familiar figure around the town.  Saint Augustine's Abbey, the burial place of Augustine,  was next door to my college, and was, allegedly, haunted by phantom monks. Sadly, our one night-time ghost-hunting exploit did not produce any monks - they wisely kept well out of the way when a gang of slightly tipsy students turned up to look for them. 
  Click on the images below to explore the pages in detail. 

Illustrations to St. Luke's Gospel

The passion sequence

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