THIS summer’s North-East exhibition of the hallowed Lindisfarne Gospels will be hosted by Durham University. Mark Tallentire meets University Vice-Chancellor Chris Higgins.
THE moment the doors of Durham University’s Palace Green Library are thrown open on July 1 will mark both a beginning and an ending.
A beginning, because the three-month loan of the medieval treasure that is the Lindisfarne Gospels will have begun.
An ending, because the years of painstaking preparation for the much-anticipated display will have concluded.
For Durham University, and in particular its Vice-Chancellor Professor Chris Higgins, the return of the late 7th Century Northumbrian manuscript has been a pet project for more than half a decade.
Soon after taking up his post in 2007, Prof Higgins made getting the Gospels “home” a personal goal.
“It was the most important thing we could do for the North-East,” he says.
“The University is not here for the region – it’s here for the world.
“We’re not a charity. But we want to do what we can for the region.
“The Lindisfarne Gospels are so iconic for the North-East. They’re going to bring pleasure and education to so many people.”
At the time, the prospect of the British Library releasing one of its most prized possessions – even on a temporary basis – seemed unlikely.
Here in the North-East, the campaign for their return was badly split.
Some argued they should go to Lindisfarne, where they were created by a monk named Eadfrith, later Bishop of Lindisfarne.
Others preferred Durham, where they were kept, with the remains of St Cuthbert – to whom they were dedicated, for hundreds of years from 995 to the Reformation.
Prof Higgins grasped that, to convince the British Library the North-East could be trusted to properly care for the delicate artefact, it must be united on the matter.
“Unless we could get a consensus, the British Library wasn’t going to listen,” he reflects.
For the Durham University chief, there was only one winner.
Durham had both the academic experts capable of studying and contextualising the book and the museums capable of hosting it.
“All these things will help make the Gospels feel at home,” Prof Higgins says, from his Durham office.
“Coming here is really coming home. Eventually, everyone could see that. This was the one place we could host a world-class exhibition.”
That was one argument settled.
But, next on the agenda: precisely where in Durham?
The Cathedral would have been an obvious choice: reuniting the Gospels with Cuthbert and his Cathedral shrine.
However, this wouldn’t have worked, Prof Higgins says, for various security and conservation reasons.
Instead, Palace Green Library, just yards from the Cathedral and still within Durham’s World Heritage Site, emerged as the favourite.
Durham University launched a major refurbishment programme of the facility, moving collections commonly accessed by undergraduate students to an expanded Bill Bryson Library and preserving Palace Green for postgraduate study and special collections.
With the region speaking with one voice, the next challenge was to lobby London.
The British Library, and its predecessor the British Museum, have held the Gospels since the mid-18th Century.
Until well into the 19th Century, the Gospels were rarely publicly displayed, for fear they might be harmed by such exposure.
However, in 2009 experts decided it would be acceptable to loan out the Gospels for a period of up to three months, up to every seven years.
That December, the announcement the North-East had been waiting for followed: the Gospels were coming home, in summer 2013.
“It’s going to be fantastic,” Prof Higgins says.
“I would argue it’s going to be the most important exhibition in the country this year.
“It’s putting Durham at the heart of the nation culturally.
“It will raise the profile of the North-East and help Durham gain recognition as being capable of hosting world-class exhibitions.”
As well as the display of the book itself, there will be a preceding cultural celebration – dubbed the Festival of the North East – overseen by Northumbrian folk music star Kathryn Tickell, a celebration of the life of John Danby, who fought for the return of the Gospels for years through the Northumbrian Association but sadly died last New Year’s Eve before he could see them come “home”, performances by a 1,000-strong Lindisfarne Gospels Community Choir and numerous other treasures on show.
One of those treasures will be the Cuthbert Gospel, also known as the Stonyhurst Gospel, which is believed to have been St Cuthbert’s own copy of the Christian scriptures and is Europe’s oldest surviving book.
Its story, Prof Higgins suggests, is indicative of the “Lindisfarne legacy” – how the temporary loan will benefit Durham for years to come.
When the Cuthbert Gospel’s Jesuit owners, the Society of Jesus (British Province), decided to sell the manuscript, the British Library – encouraged by its work with Durham over the Lindisfarne Gospels – asked the University to join a £9m fundraising campaign to buy the 7th Century treasure.
The resulting cash drive ended in success last year – and the Cuthbert Gospel will henceforth be displayed alternately in Durham and London.
Beyond that, Prof Higgins has even bigger ambitions.
“We want the Dead Sea Scrolls,” he says, quite seriously.
The 972 largely Biblical texts discovered in the West Bank between 1946 and 1956 have twice been exhibited in the UK: in London in 1965 and Glasgow in 1998.
Could they follow the Lindisfarne Gospels to Durham? Much will depend on the success of this summer’s exhibition. But, given Prof Higgins’ determination, don’t rule it out.
THE Lindisfarne Gospels will be in Palace Green Library, Durham, from July 1 to September 30. For more information, visit lindisfarnegospels.com