Jesuits sell St Cuthbert Gospel to British Library


St Cuthbert Gospel

St Cuthbert Gospel

The British Province of the Society of Jesus has decided to sell the Anglo-Saxon manuscript known as the St Cuthbert Gospel to the British Library to fund educational work and to restore an historic church.

The pocket-size Latin translation of St John’s Gospel is thought to be the oldest intact book produced in Europe. Produced in northern England in the late seventh century, it was found in the coffin of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral in 1104, having most likely been placed there ten years or so after Cuthbert’s death in 687.

The manuscript has been in the possession of the Province since 1769, and for many years was kept at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. Since 1979 it has been on loan to the British Library.

The £9m sale price, agreed with the advice of Christie’s, will be used by the Province to strengthen funding for its schools in London and Glasgow, to help with the foundation of a new school in Africa, and to restore the Grade 1 nineteenth century parish church of St Peter at Stonyhurst.

Explaining the decision to sell the manuscript, Father Kevin Fox, of the Society of Jesus, said: "It has been our privilege to possess this book for nearly two hundred and fifty years. Now, in order to answer more of the many demands on our resources, the Province trustees have decided to sell."

He added that the British Library will ensure that the manuscript is available for people from around the world to view, either directly or online: "People will be able to see the Gospel set among the Library’s other treasures of the Christian faith and of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic art."

The St Cuthbert Gospel is a small manuscript of the Gospel of St John, in Latin, that was written in the late 7th century at the twin Anglo-Saxon monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow. It is cased in its original decorated binding and is the earliest known European book to survive intact. It was discovered in 1104 in the coffin of St Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne (d.687) when the saint’s shrine was dedicated in Durham Cathedral.

The book passed into the hands of a private collector after 1540 when the Cathedral priory was dissolved. By the 18th century it was in the
possession of the 3rd Earl of Lichfield (d.1772), who gave the book to Canon Thomas Phillips (d. 1774). He in turn donated the book to the Society of Jesus in 1769; they have owned it ever since.

From 1979 the Gospel has been on loan to the British Library where it is regularly on public display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery.  The British Library, as a national institution with outstanding expertise, is uniquely placed to house and conserve the Gospel.  

Source: Society of Jesus

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