Earlier in February, I treated myself to a few hours in the British Library – situated next door to the beautifully restored St Pancras International Station – taking in the magnificent treasures of the permanent Sacred Texts Exhibition. That afternoon I tweeted:
Spent 20 glorious minutes gazing at stunning MSS of Lindisfarne Gospels. Face pressed to glass, just a few cm away. Moving, exquisite.
There are 78 Sacred Texts and Illustrated Manuscripts from all around the world, representative of every religion, on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery (alongside original Beatles lyrics and the actual Magna Carta). Best of all public access to the collection is completely free of charge!
For the sake of time and in line with personal preferences I spent much of the time concentrating on some of the most important texts of the Christian Faith. What follows is a snapshot of those treasures and the MSS that I most enjoyed.
Before that let me ask you this question: Have you ever wondered about the origin of paper and where in the world moveable type printing was first used? In which case, where best to start than with the Dawn of Printing display in the gallery?
The East – paper was invented in China in 100AD. We have Buddhism to thank for the arrival of printing in the 7th century. The world’s earliest recognisable book dates to China in 868AD. Moveable type printing was first used in a Buddhist text from Korea in 1377.
The West – In 1455, 180 copies of Johannes Gutenberg’s Bible were the first ever Bibles printed with moveable type. This was much later than that in Korea but Gutenberg’s method was far more suited commercially.
Included in the BL’s collection of Christian texts, these top 10 treasures stand out:
Codex Sinaiticus, 350AD – The Codex Sinaiticus is a treasure beyond price. Produced in the middle of the 4th century, the Codex is one of the two earliest Christian Bibles. (The other is the Codex Vaticanus in Rome.) It contains the complete Greek New Testament, plus parts of the Old Testament.
Codex Alexandrinus, 5th Century – Codex Alexandrinus is one of the three earliest and most important manuscripts of the entire Bible in Greek, the others being Codex Sinaiticus, also in the British Library, and Codex Vaticanus in Rome.
Lindisfarne Gospels, 698AD – This 7th century masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon art is originally from Holy Island in Northern England and the earliest surviving of the Latin Gospels. This book is truly gorgeous; a crinkly, illustrated MSS with jagged edges, about ¾ the size of a standard Pulpit Bible. The text is exquisitely handwritten but in uniform Latin lettering. There is a smaller Anglo-Saxon translation which was added between the Latin lines in 970AD by Aldred.
To be within a ‘nose’ of these Gospels – separated only by thin glass – is a thrilling and ethereal experience. These Gospels were written ‘For God and St Cuthbert’ by just one artist, Eadfrith who was the Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 – 721AD. This is one of my all-time favourite books.
St Cuthbert Gospel, 698AD – The St Cuthbert Gospel, a 7th century manuscript, is the earliest surviving intact European book and one of the world’s most significant treasures. It retains its exquisite original fine-tooled red leather binding and survives intact. This is the starting point for books as we know them today, an exceptional example of Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship. This handwritten Gospel is a Latin copy of John’s Gospel. It was placed in St Cuthbert’s coffin in 698AD on Lindisfarne and later found when the Saint’s coffin was opened in Durham Cathedral in 1104.
STOP PRESS (April 2012) – The St Cuthbert Gospel has now been saved for the nation (at a cost of £9m) and is now on open display in the BL Galley. It’s quite small and beautifully hand-scripted in Latin. Well worth seeing if you can.
Holkham Bible Picture Book, 1325 – 1350 This celebrated picture-book tells the Biblical story in Norman French, with the help of copious illustrations of everyday 14th-century England.
Sherborne Missal, 1400 – 1407 This early 15th-century manuscript is probably the largest and most lavishly decorated English medieval service book to survive from the Middle Ages. It came from the Benedictine Abbey in Dorset and weighs a whopping 3 stones!
Gutenberg Bible, 1455 – Probably the most famous Bible in the world and the earliest full-scale work printed in Europe using movable type.
Tyndale New Testament in English, 1526 – Tyndale’s New Testament was the first to be printed in English. The BL has one of only two copies of this earliest English translation of the Bible. It was regarded as a heretical text and Tyndale was strangled and burnt at the stake for his efforts in 1536. This was the Bible that Anne Boleyn, wife of King Henry VIII read, so eventually even members of the Royal Household accepted the text.
Geneva Bible, 1560 – The first Bible version divided into verses, produced by English Protestant exiles in Calvinist Geneva during the reign of Queen Mary Tudor. This was a much smaller Bible printed in legible Roman type.
King James Bible, 1611 – The King James, or Authorised, Version of the Bible remains the most widely published text in the English language. King James convened the Hampton Court Conference in 1604 to produce a suitable version for England and this Bible duly appeared in 1611. The 400th anniversary of the KJV was celebrated last year in 2011.