The St. Augustine Gospels were written in the late sixth century AD. Allow that to sink in one more time: the St. Augustine Gospels were written in the late 500s, over 1500 years ago. For almost the entirety of its existence, it has survived in England, where it still manages to be put to good use. The St. Augustine Gospels, which are sometimes referred to as “The Canterbury Gospels” –– however incorrectly, as will be discussed later –– are a treasure for a multitude of reasons: the pure historical value of the manuscript, plus its content and the fact that it is still in use today, make it undoubtedly one of the most priceless items in the modern world.
The St. Augustine Gospels started their journey in 597 AD, with the Gregorian mission (or Augustinian mission), which was sent by Pope Gregory to convert England’s non-Christian Anglo-Saxon population. The mission, which consisted of fewer than 50 missionaries (including, of course, St. Augustine) who were sent from Rome, set forth with the then-new Gospels of St. Augustine. It is debated as to whether or not the mission took the manuscript with them, rather than having it delivered at a later date, however the script is written in an Italian uncial script which is generally agreed to be tied to the sixth century, so it is plausible that the manuscript was fully completed before the mission left for England.
By analyzing the script, it can also be determined that the St. Augustine Gospels were in England by around the turn into the eighth century, for there are edits and amendments that have been made using insular script, which was developed by the Irish Christians in the seventh century, but hit popularity between 600 and 850 AD. From this point, we can determine that it reached its destination, St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, in the 11th century, for this is the first it contained documentation related to the Abbey. This is where the name, “The Canterbury Gospels,” comes in. However, while it is widely referred to by this name, its official title is the St. Augustine Gospels, as "The Canterbury Gospels" is already used to describe a manuscript written at Canterbury in the eighth century.
But enough of the history of the manuscript; the content is where the real heart of the piece is. The St. Augustine Gospels contain few (surviving) images, though the ones that survive are, in my opinion, ones to be treasured. There were originally four miniatures for each of the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, however now only the image dedicated to Luke survives.
I would now like to bring the focus to my commentary on my personal favorite page in the manuscript, folio 125r (right), which contains 12 scenes from the Passion. I believed at first that they may be the 12 Stations of the Cross, however this is not the case. But upon my own observation (as best as I can tell on the screen of my computer), I can clearly see the depiction of the last supper (in the first row, second column) and of Jesus bearing his cross (last row, third column). Surrounding these 12 images is a very simple yet astoundingly beautiful frame. There appears to be stones, all perfectly smooth, held in place by diagonal wooden boards. Similar but thicker boards are what separates the 12 square images. Upon trying to describe the image in words, I recognize that it doesn’t sound like much, and maybe it’s not. But the splotchy and faded colors on the parchment from 1500 years gives that banal image more life than I can even imagine it having at the time of its production, for there is an authenticity and character that exists in that image that is beyond what the artist could have ever foreseen 1500 years ago.
These inscriptions are potentially the latest additions to the St. Augustine Gospels, but this does not mean that the oldest surviving codex in England is not still being used for its intended religious purposes. Every time a new archbishop takes their oaths, the manuscript is removed from its home at the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, and it is taken into the procession, ultimately continuing the work it was meant to do.
In a video presented by BBC, Dr. de Hamel describes the feeling of walking the St. Augustine Gospels down through Canterbury Cathedral, and the energy that filled the room. “A Gothic cathedral, absolutely filled with people singing very loud, makes the air vibrate. And it had this extraordinary effect that the parchment in the book began to vibrate in time with the music. Now, had I been open to a spiritual experience, I would have said that the book itself was singing.”