A lecture presented by Jim Bloxam, Senior Conservator, and Kristine Rose, Conservator, Cambridge University Library
Review by Clare Manias
In November last year, we welcomed Jim Bloxam and Kristine Rose from England to hear about their recent reappraisal of the St. Cuthbert Gospel of St. John. The little book, measuring just 3.5 by 5 inches, dates from the end of the seventh century and is the oldest surviving complete Western binding. It was found perfectly intact in the coffin of St. Cuthbert in 1104, more than three centuries after it was placed there. Until 1769 the book was kept at Stonyhurst College, hence its former name, but now it is owned by the Society of Jesus and is on permanent loan to the British Library.
The Gospel is written on parchment leaves sewn with a Coptic link stitch into beech boards and covered with red goatskin leather, and has primary, secondary, and tertiary endbands. The method of decoration on the front board is similar to an Islamic binding, while the motif is characteristic of British Insular art in the seventh century. The back board is decorated with a design influenced by Anglo-Saxon design. Artifacts with a similar pattern were found in Sutton Hoo, a site in southeast England where Anglo-Saxon relics from the sixth and seventh centuries were found. The inner boards are lined with parchment to compensate for the pull of the wet leather on the wood. This indicates that an experienced binder made the book.
Since there are no surviving contemporary bindings, it is impossible to know for certain the methods the binder used. Earlier studies of the manuscript, by Roger Powell and Peter Walters in 1969, determined that the book had many Eastern characteristics, including the Coptic link stitch sewing and primary endband, as well as the cover design. Powell and Walters also noted the V-cuts in the parchment sections, and determined that the sewing was done not with eight strands of thread passing through once, but four strands passing through twice.
The inspiration to look at the binding again came from Jim and Kristine’s teaching a workshop on making a model of the binding in Montefiascone. In order to teach the class, a more complete description of certain elements of binding was needed to make the model more accurate.
The problem with examining a fully intact binding is that there is no access to details, such as the
sewing pattern, under the leather covering. The only way to tell if the sewing, for example, is like the original is to feel the movement of the original and compare it to the model.
In this case, Jim and Kristine were not able even to handle the binding themselves because it is becoming so brittle. The examination was done under John Mumford, head of book conservation at the British Library, who handled the binding while Jim and Kristine asked questions.
Jim and Kristine were also able to take color photographs of the outside of the binding. These were the first photographs taken of the book since the black-and-white photos that Roger Powell and Peter Waters took for their study in 1969. The color photos reveal that the front board is not flat, as originally thought, but slopes from 3mm, at the central motif, to 2mm, at the board edge, so that the front and back boards seem to be of the same thickness.
Another aspect of the St. Cuthbert Gospel of St. John that Jim and Kristine shed light on was the material under the leather that makes up the buds in the panel of the plant motif. It was previously believed that the design of the buds was composed either of strips of leather or of cord pasted directly to the board. But the way the buds looked when built up this way did not have the smoothness of the original. After thinking about what materials the binder might have had lying around his bindery in approximately 690 CE, Jim and Kristine decided to try using gesso as the underlying material, and found it relatively easy to produce the desired shape with gesso. Also, when the gesso dried, it left a dimple in the shape, but when a second layer was applied, the dimple filled in nicely, leaving a little ridge where the two layers met, which followed the shape of the buds on the original.
We thank Jim and Kristine for sharing their research with us.