The glorious and much travelled Lindisfarne Gospels has come home once again and is waiting to welcome its North East public.
Already more than 21,000 tickets have been sold for the exhibition Lindisfarne Gospels Durham: One Amazing Book, One Incredible Journey.
As the title suggests, the book described by the British Library as “one of the great landmarks of human cultural achievement” is the main attraction – but it is not the only attraction.
At yesterday’s media preview it became clear there are other exhibits worthy of the ticket price (£7.50 with concessions).
En route to the Lindisfarne Gospels, housed dramatically in the last of a series of linked rooms, visitors will pass treasures including the St Cuthbert Gospel of John.
This pocket-sized volume might not look much but it was sold last year to the British Library for £9m.
The little book was buried with Cuthbert and found beside the saint’s head when the coffin was exhumed. Created in 700 in the monasteries of Wearmouth-Jarrow, it is the oldest surviving bound book in Europe with passages thought to have been read out at Cuthbert’s funeral mass.
Richard Gameson, professor of the history of the book at Durham University, led a riveting tour of the exhibition.
He described the England of the early 8th Century as “rather like modern Europe, a series of independent kingdoms on the same land mass”.
He explained how Lindisfarne, with its community of monks, became a centre of learning next to the “royal citadel” of Bamburgh.
Its influence only declined when two forms of early Christianity, one of Roman and one of Irish origin, started to compete.
At the Synod of Whitby in 664, called by King Oswy of Northumbria, the Roman version got the nod and the Irish-inclined Lindisfarne community began to decline.
At this point Cuthbert was installed as prior and proved a conciliatory figure. The “cult of St Cuthbert” began with the creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Exhibits gathered from various important collections show how the fabulously decorated book gained status – along with Cuthbert – down the centuries. A book by the Venerable Bede has a coloured illustration of King Athelstan of Wessex, later the first King of England, paying homage to St Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street in the 10th Century.
He left gifts, including textiles, at Cuthbert’s shrine, seeking the saint’s blessing before going on to defeat the Viking rulers of the North.
Preserved fragments of those textiles are in the exhibition alongside Bede’s book.
Prof Gameson, whose passion will be clear to all in his audio commentary, said the exhibition was “genuinely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the Lindisfarne Gospels in context.
“It’s a chance to see how the book was made and why it was made. Many of these items haven’t been seen together for hundreds of years and every one is a treasure in its own right.”
The Lindisfarne Gospels remained in the North East until it was taken from Durham Cathedral at the time of the Reformation.
While it is regularly on display at the British Library in London, its visits north always cause excitement.
About 180,000 people saw it the last time it was in the region, at Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery in 2000 to mark the new millennium.
Shown at the same venue in 1996, queues had formed early.
The book hasn’t been seen in Durham since 1987 when it was displayed to mark the 1,300th anniversary of the death of Cuthbert, whose remains are interred there.
In the time of Henry VIII the book’s bejewelled cover was removed. Earlier an Old English translation of the Latin had been added in red ink.
These days it is treated with the greatest respect.
In 2009 experts decided each page should be displayed no more than once every five years while the book should be loaned no more than once in every seven.
In Durham there will be only one turning of the page, with a British Library staff member travelling north to perform the task.
In a bid to avoid queues and crowds, visitors can book for different time slots. About 100,000 tickets have been made available.
Meanwhile a free hands-on exhibition aimed at children is running upstairs in the Wolfson Gallery and there’s a region-wide programme of Gospels celebrations.
Coun Simon Henig, leader of Durham County Council, said: “Our bid for City of Culture was for this year. We didn’t get it but we said we would put on a year of culture anyway and we have been as good as our word.
“We need to be reminded sometimes of the region’s great heritage and this exhibition really brings it to life.”
Asked about a long-running campaign to bring the Gospels home permanently, he said: “The emphasis has been on getting this exhibition up and running in a professional way to attract a lot of visitors.
“First let’s demonstrate that Durham and the North East can do that.”
The Dean of Durham, the Very Rev Michael Sadgrove, spoke of the exhibition’s Christian message. He said: “What we are celebrating here are not just cultural icons.
“The reason so much trouble went into creating them was because it was a way of honouring the message of the Gospels.
“It is important that the Lindisfarne Gospels is being shown in the place where Cuthbert is. It’s a reminder of what this is all about.
“But we want to emphasise the importance of the message of the Gospels not just for the 8th Century but for today.”
The exhibition opens on Monday and runs until September 30. Find details on www.lindisfarnegospels.com