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.

Next Stop for Vis Center Humanities Research: England and Spain

The EDUCE research team is leading a two-stop digitization effort this summer, applying its unique technology to the creation of a digital representation of four major medieval manuscripts. Each manuscript is unique yet connected by themes that continue to engage scholars to this day.

Set up day, moving gear into the Server

The first stop, Lichfield Cathedral, is in a town near Birmingham in England. The cathedral holds in its unique library a number of significant manuscripts. One of the most precious, The Chad Gospels, dates from the eight century, close to 730 C.E. Another fascinating manuscript is a Wycliffe New Testament, dating from 1410 C.E., which until recently has been in a private collection and is largely unknown to the scholarly community.

Interior of the Lichfield cathedral

The second stop, el Escorial, is a Monastery and cathedral in San Lorenzo, Spain, just 45 minutes from Madrid. The Escorial is famous for its scholarly holdings and in partnership with the EDUCE team will be supporting the digitization of two complete copies of Homer’s Iliad, termed by scholars as the E3 and E4, both dating to the eleventh century. The scholarly commentary in these manuscripts, written on every page in and around the actual story of the Iliad, contains references to material that is long lost.

These four manuscripts vary in condition, topic, author, language, and age. But they will soon share the technology the EDUCE team will apply, new possibilities for digital restoration, and the forward-thinking access agreements that will open them up for scholarship internationally. They also represent intriguing positions in the long-term affair we have as humans with technology, text, access, literacy, and visual language.

Section of one page of illumination from Chad Gospel

Specifically, the Chad Gospels show a very early example in England of the transition from text-only Latin Bibles to text with associated images, or illuminations. The Latin text was largely inaccessible outside the scholarly community. But the illustrations provided a visual story connected to the text. The move to the illuminated manuscript was part of the move to a more visual culture, and is mirrored as well in the words themselves: word divisions across lines and pages in the Chad Gospels actually show a trend away from strict grammatical rules, in favor of a visual aesthetic. The manuscript shows that the scribe was willing to break grammatical rules if it would make the artistry more visually pleasing!

The Wycliffe Bible was controversial in its day because it provided common access to the words of the biblical text. While the Chad Gospels show a willingness to embrace visual and artistic illustrations, the language was still Latin. Wycliffe pioneered the idea of access for English speakers by translating the Latin into the common language of the day. English speakers today can still read many of the words on the pages in the Wycliffe Bible – a triumph for literacy and access.

Page 85 recto of the Wycliffe Bible (part of the book of Timothy) held at Lichfield Cathedral, a complete new testament in middle English, 1410.

Where do the manuscripts of the Iliad fit in? They date to the eleventh century, in between the dates of the Chad Gospels and the Wycliffe Bible. They represent the challenge of access and preservation. It is likely that the two Homeric manuscripts now at el Escorial, E3 and E4, were once on the shelf in a library in Constantinople. As a collection, they may very well have been stored side-by-side there with the very references they cite, most of which are lost to antiquity. Somehow when Constantinople fell in 1453, they were saved, but not without damage and the loss, at some point along the way, of many other reference materials.

Now the EDUCE team brings digitization and restoration technology to these varied texts: technology for capturing texts visually, restoring damage, preserving their aesthetic quality, and supporting a platform for global access and translation into modern languages. New technology now becomes a part of the long tradition: visually stunning images, just like the Chad Gospels; access for everyone, like Wycliffe; restoring and recovering lost information, and rescuing scholarship from obscurity and destruction, like E3 and E4.

Premiere of “Coal in Kentucky: A Documentary”

Tonight, the Vis Center premieres our most recent documentary, “Coal in Kentucky: A Documentary”. The documentary examines the significance of coal in Kentucky through the voices of coal industry professionals, activists, politicians and everyday people.

Funded through a grant from the Kentucky Cabinet for Energy and Environment, the film is presented by the University of Kentucky’s Vis Center and Department of Mining Engineering.


Listen to an interview with Stephen Bailey and Julie Martinez of the Vis Center.

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