The University of Kentucky Center for Visualization & Virtual Environments

Imaging Early Versions of the Bible in England

One of Lichfield Cathedral’s celebrated features is its three spires, a feature no other medieval cathedral in Britain has. Thus Lichfield town itself is full of three spire motifs: the Three Spires coffee shop, the three spires pudding available for purchase at the Tudor restaurant, and so on. The spiritual basis for the three spires is, of course, the Trinity of God: the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. The spires do indeed tower over the town, marking the cathedral’s presence for miles around.

The man responsible for the cathedral’s presence in Lichfield is the legendary St. Chad, made Bishop of Mercia in 669. Chad moved his see from Repton to Lichfield, possibly because it was a site on which the Roman Emperor Diocletian martyred Christians. Chad was canonized after his death in 672, and pilgrims started visiting his tomb. Over the centuries, church leaders built more elaborate and more elaborate facilities to house his remains.

The cathedral currently standing on the site was built between 1200 and 1340 in the Gothic style. The structure suffered significant damage during the English Civil War and lost all of its stained glass. The current stained glass is from a 16th century Flemish abbey, donated to the cathedral in 1801. The exterior is completely encrusted in statues of saints. All the stone is reddish sandstone, fairly easy to carve, according to the modern stone carvers currently creating new gargoyles for the restoration. We’ve been watching the progress of a new lion gargoyle being carved by an artisan who is basing his design on a combination of an old lion gargoyle and pictures of lions in his daughter’s “Big Cats” calendar.

Our team is working to digitally capture two medieval manuscripts, the St. Chad Gospels and a Wycliffe New Testament. The St. Chad Gospels, also historically known as the Lichfield or St Teilo Gospels, are the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and some of Luke. A second volume, containing the remainder of the gospel texts, was lost sometime prior to the early 1670s. The St Chad Gospels is written in Latin. No one knows where it was made; however, the discovery of the angel beneath Lichfield Cathedral in 2003 offers strong support for the manuscript’s making in Lichfield.

The St Chad Gospels has had an eventful life, and it is remarkable that it survives. In its early years, the manuscript was likely stolen for its gold and/or silver book cover decorated with jewels. The earliest recording of its whereabouts is in Wales: a note in the St Chad Gospels records the act of Gelhi trading his best horse for the manuscript and donating it to the altar of St Teilo at Lllandeilo Fawr (Wales). Because of the St Chad Gospels’ time in Wales, we are blessed with the oldest surviving Old Welsh writing in its margins. How the St Chad Gospels returned to Lichfield is a mystery, but marginal evidence supports its being there since the early 11th century and perhaps before. The manuscript has been rebound and “restored” and is currently on display. Stopping the hand of time and the aging of this 8th century Gospelbook is impossible, which makes the imaging work that the team is doing crucial.

The Wycliffe New Testament is a completely different type of document. John Wycliffe was a 14th century English theologian and translator who headed one of the early movements against the domination of the Roman Church. His major contribution was encouraging translations of the Latin Vulgate into vernacular English. The really spectacular thing about the Wycliffe Bible is that we can read it! Yes, it’s written in an ornate calligraphic script, and yes, there are some funny letters (when you see a letter that looks like capital “Y” in an Middle English document, remember that it is usually meant to be “Th”) but it’s English, pure glorious English, and if you spend enough time looking at it and know what the text is meant to be, you can read it. The team is well on its way through the 248 pages of the Wycliffe New Testament, and the images look great.

For more information on the Lichfield Cathedral visit their website.

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