St. Cuthbert’s Gospel of St. John Workshop

Review by Frank Trujillo

Jim Bloxam and Kristine Rose, book conservators from Cambridge University Library, taught a workshop October 31-November 3 covering the history and binding of St. Cuthbert’s Gospel of St. John. The Gospel, formerly known as the Stonyhurst Gospel, is a seminal work in the history of bookbinding. It dates from the late seventh century and was discovered in excellent condition in the burial chamber of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Northumbria in the early 12th century. The binding’s beauty, elegance and decoration have made it one of the most recognizable volumes in the Western binding canon.

Mr. Bloxam and Ms. Rose gave a well attended public lecture on the evening of the 31st of October at Columbia University’s Butler Library about the history of the binding, their extensive study of the binding and their theories with regard to its construction. The three day workshop provided an opportunity for the dozen attendees to create a facsimile binding. The workshop was held at the Academy of Medicine’s conservation lab.

The plant motif is made with gesso, cord and leather strips before being covered with leather

The plant motif is made with gesso, cord and leather strips before being covered with leather

The instructors provided pre-cut wooden boards to the class with holes bored into them in preparation for cover decoration. This allowed the workshop to advance at a brisk pace as the attendees could focus their attention on the sewing structure and the cover decoration.

The text block of St. Cuthbert’s Gospel of St. John is sewn on an unsupported sewing structure. The four sewing “holes” are v nicks cut into the edges of each gathering. The volume is sewn using four needles (two per station) and each needle has four strands of thread on it. This leads to the creation of gatherings sewn with eight strands of thread loosely twisted together. The wooden boards are attached in a somewhat elaborate manner, but Jim and Kristine ably managed to remove the mystery of the board attachment with straightforward instructions and an easy manner when faced with multiple questions.
It is a small (approximately three and a half by five inches), remarkably sturdy binding.

After sewing text block and boards, the class undertook a replica of the cover decoration. The signal feature of St. Cuthbert’s Gospel of St. John
is its cover decoration. The cover is an excellent example of Insular art. The research on the binding, its structure and material, by Jim and Kristine has led them to the conclusion that the decoration on the upper board is created through a combination of gesso, leather straps and cord.

The use of gesso in the central motif is suggested by the smoothness, height and thickness of the decoration. Cord was run through the prepared boards to create a double outline around the central decoration. The leather straps connected the double application of gesso to give the cover its vine like appearance. Endbands were sewn to the text block and the book was covered with a burgundy goatskin. The leather was worked repeatedly over the upper board to bring out its decorative elements. The spine leather was not adhered to the back of the book, but it was attached at head and tail with secondary endbands. The lower board was blind tooled in the manner of the original binding.

Jim Bloxam

Jim Bloxam

The lecture and workshop provided a fine opportunity to learn the intricacies of such a famous binding. The success of the workshop was due to the well informed instructors who were generous with their time and maintained an easy rapport with the class.

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