Treasures Unveiled (2): A late Mediaeval Old Testament commentary

In establishing our new blog, here we showcase Durham Cathedral’s Collections in a sequence of vignettes.  The glorious breadth of Durham Cathedral’s artefacts dates back to Anglo-Saxon times; please see http://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/heritage/collections for further details.

Our second feature in this Treasures Unveiled series is an illumination from a locally produced, 14th century biblical commentary.

Below can be seen part of the first page, with a historiated initial (representing the first letter of the first word of the text, with a scene telling its own story).  This image of Saint Cuthbert, represented as a bishop blessing with his right hand while his left arm holds the crowned head of Saint Oswald, is taken from Nicholas of Lyra’s Commentary on the historical books of the Old Testament (Postilla litteralis in libros historiales Testamenti veteris).  Lyra (1270-1349) completed his text in 1331; however a colophon in this manuscript states that this copy was completed on 14th April 1386 by the Breton scribe William le Stiphel, working in Durham.

This gloriously colourful illumination was painstakingly rendered by an unknown talent; birds (here a cockerel and a peacock), flowers and foliage were motifs typical of the French style at that time (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Le Stiphel was probably a professional scribe, rather than a member of the religious community; his work is found in other Durham manuscripts dating between 1380 and 1410.  Whilst it is likely that he was based at the Durham cell at Finchale Priory, four miles north east of Durham, it is not known whether or not he was also responsible for this illumination.

Although not associated in life – Saint Cuthbert (635-687) became Bishop of Lindisfarne more than forty years after the death of Saint Oswald (604-642) – the two saints are often depicted together in this way due to the burial of Oswald’s head with Cuthbert’s body.  King Oswald’s body was dismembered after his death at the Battle of Maserfield in 642 and his head and arms placed on stakes; Bede (672/673-735) records that Oswald prayed for his soldiers when he knew his own death was near.  His head was later rescued by allies and interred with Cuthbert’s on Lindisfarne; eventually travelling with him to Durham where Saint Cuthbert’s shrine was established in 995.  Durham Cathedral was built around this shrine, and we mark his feast day on March 20th.

This manuscript has been in the collection of Durham Cathedral’s monastic library since its completion; it is listed in a library catalogue dating from 1395.

We hope you have found this vignette illuminating (pun intended), and that we’ve whetted your appetite for further delights from our collections…

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