Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Life Behind the St. Augustine Gospels

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.

Images are hardly the only interesting content of the St. Augustine Gospels, however. As was shown in the section of this post that discussed the history behind the manuscript, much can be determined by a close examination of the type of scripts used throughout its life. Unfortunately, I cannot speak to the relevance of the script on folio iii-r (left) specifically, however it is the most eye-catching to me personally. Based on a search of some of the popular scripts of the time, it appears to be most similar to Merovingian script (pictured below folio iii-r), though they are still clearly different (The style used in the St. Augustine Gospels seems freer, with more wild flourishes). There is a physical sharpness to the letters not found on the others throughout the text, and I find the backward slant aesthetically pleasing.

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.”


  1. The images in the St. Augustine Gospel are some of the oldest and unique surviving relics of their kind, as art historians have little to compare to the 1500 year old pages. While there was originally four evangelist portraits (and only one and the two preceding pages remains now, as pointed out by James), I find that particularly the images give an art historical perspective that I find very interesting. Such images like the ones depicted are very rare to find in such an early manuscript. I would like to particularly bring the attention to the presence of the miniatures of the Life of Christ. These images depict the narrative cycle of Christ, which let the viewer follow along and recognize the story being played out. These miniatures frame the evangelist portrait and continue through the two previous pages, as their presence within this piece is of great significance. Most of the scenes depicted that frame Luke on his right and left are not usually shown in later medieval manuscript imagery, which, to me, makes this gospel even more unique in its contents. They provide a rare example of christian iconography being used at the time, and provides new ways in which they were showing these methods of iconography. Such imagery isn’t commonly found in earlier manuscripts, especially in the context of these framed miniatures. It would be interesting to investigate further influence that this gospel has had in it’s imagery use, particularly in the case of the stacked miniatures. While we may not have the original set of images included in the St. Augustine Gospel, the images provided give insight into the history of imagery in manuscripts.


  2. I think I may be able to help some with the identifcation of the panels (if memory serves me right):
    1A Jesus rides into Jeruselum on a donkey as king of the Jews, rather than on a horse. This is typically understood to be a way to exemplify his distinctly not-Romaness.
    1B Last Supper, as you've already said.
    1C ??
    2A I can only assume that this is the raising of Lazarus, as Jesus (who's halo is quite faded in this panel) is directing someone to pull a person out of a building of some sort (probably a tomb or mausoleum) who is wrapped from head to toe in fabric (funerary robes)
    2B Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, typically seen as a lesson in humility.
    2C Man, that looks like a bunch of Roman soldiers peeping on two guys kissing! What pervs! Wait, no... It's a signal... If I were a betting man, I'd bet 30 pieces of silver that...
    3A ...it's the arrest of Jesus! That looks like Peter in the far left, sword drawn to defend his master, but I can't be too sure.
    3B Probably the trial, not too sure.
    3C Looks like the Mocking, as the man on the far left is donning a small laurel (of brambles no doubt) to Jesus.
    4A ??
    4C Simon (not the saint, but the random Roman citizen) assisting Jesus with the cross.

    It makes a tremendous amount of sense for St. Augustine to bring such an elaborately illustrated manuscript with him to convert the Anglo-Saxons, as it is effectively "Pagan's First Picture Bible." Whatever language barriers he may of come across, the images within the text would have helped him get the point across nonetheless. The images also make the scripture and the story more real, as they seem to become more grounded in reality. Not to mention that the showing of such imagery would have longer lasting impact on the converts who would probably spread the message about Jesus with that much more fervor!

  3. Being a religion AOC it is always extremely interesting to see religious Iconography. The twelve stations of the cross has a deeply religious meaning that transcends time in Christendom, even today the twelve stations of the cross are present in religious art as an object of veneration, especially within the Catholic tradition. For example see this work by Barnett Newman, who does the twelve stations in an abstract art style: http://www.philamuseum.org/micro_sites/exhibitions/newman/galleries/eleven.shtml. As much of my background is in Judeo-Christian studies seeing the 1500 year Christian art in the St. Augustine Gospels is very intriguing. Even more so especially since in my studies I have read quite a bit of St. Augustine’s work. I deeply respect St. Augustine and seeing a manuscript that very well may have been handled, read and used by him is both disconcerting and awe inspiring to think about. I am interested in the unidentified script that Jimmy mentioned. Is this script different enough from Merovingian to warrant a whole new category? Perhaps a St. Augustine Script? These are questions raised by the piece. As the Empiricist Historian G.R. Elton might say: “Let the historical piece pose its own questions to you, do not come to the piece asking questions”. (Paraphrase)
    -Mason Smith

  4. The St. Augustine Gospel, as mentioned, has very few illuminations left. But the ones that still exist, I found, were very captivating. The Portrait of St. Luke, f. 129v, is a portrait of one of the four evangelists. There was presumably one for each. The style of the illumination shows Roman influence. From the white robes St. Luke wears to the Roman style columns in the background. There is even a plant behind St. Luke’s head, which looks similar to depictions of laurel wreaths commonly worn on the heads of Roman rulers. It is always interesting to be able to find details like this within an illumination. The illumination is also richly colored. But there isn’t a lot of blue coloring, traditionally expensive, which could mean there wasn’t enough money for such a luxury.
    The positioning of St. Luke is also worth noticing because he appears to be thinking and looking off into the distance. He is holding a book open to the viewer, which has writing, though it is indecipherable. Often when the Evangelist’s are shown with a book it is usually their own.
    Folio 125r is the other illumination within the manuscript that survived, which shows 12 miniature images of the Passion. It is hard to make out many details within each image but it is fairly clear what each is meant to show. I enjoyed the image of the last supper because it’s very different from other depictions. It is a very basic image with very few details. There are also only eight figures depicted not including Jesus, but there are usually twelve apostles shown. I do not know why there are only eight apostles shown rather than twelve.
    The manuscript itself is very impressive and I can understand why it still holds religious significance even today.

  5. A heads-up, as I think several people have confused this point (and I remember clearly that not-so-long-ago moment when someone first explained it to me)—the St Augustine who brought Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons (c. 520-604 AD; the St Augustine of the St Augustine Gospels) is actually not the same guy as St Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD; aka one of the great fathers of the church) who wrote such works as _The Confessions_, _City of God_, and _On Christian Doctrine_.

    (I know, it's kind of nuts that two of the most important figures of late antique Christianity are both called St Augustine. But considering the fame of the first St Augustine, it's not unlikely that the second St Augustine was named after the first.)