Sacred Glamour

A portrait of Saint Luke from the Augustine Gospel book, late 500s
Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
A portrait of Saint Luke from the Augustine Gospel book, late 500s

Manuscript 286 in the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, is a superficially unexciting volume, measuring ten and a half inches tall, eight and a half inches wide, and three inches thick, in an austerely plain modern binding. Produced in Italy toward the end of the sixth century, its 530 pages contain the text of the four New Testament Gospels in Latin, in double columns on tissue-thin sheepskin parchment, its lines spaced out “by clauses and pauses” for reading aloud, in the beautiful, clear “Uncial” script, whose rounded capitals were adopted as the formal handwriting of early Western Christianity. A series of Anglo-Saxon and Latin inscriptions added between the tenth and twelfth centuries record benefactions to St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, establishing that the manuscript was once part of the monastic library there—its final pages retain the rusty imprint of the clasp by which it was chained to its library shelf.

But in the abbey’s tradition, this was no workaday library text but a precious relic, one of the very books brought to England by Saint Augustine of Canterbury, the monk sent by Pope Gregory the Great in AD 597 to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Medieval origin traditions are rarely a safe guide to historical fact, but this one is probably reliable. The text of the Gospels in Ms 286 for the most part follows the Latin translation by Saint Jerome, the so-called Vulgate Bible. But at some crucial points it adopts instead phrasing from an older translation, the Vetus Latina. Both versions were in use in the Papal Palace in late-sixth-century Rome, and while Pope Gregory generally used the Vulgate for his biblical preaching, he too reverted on occasion to the older translation when he believed that it preserved theological insights obscured in the Vulgate. Remarkably, every one of these deviations from the Vulgate text in Ms 286 can be matched in Saint Gregory’s Gospel commentaries, making it overwhelmingly likely that Ms 286 was indeed produced to Gregory’s specifications in the papal scriptorium, and passed from there via Augustine to Canterbury.

Gregory was revered as medieval England’s own apostle—Gregorius noster, or “our Gregory”—and every artifact connected to him was held to be sacred. In Canterbury, books associated with Gregory and Augustine were kept with other holy relics on the high altar. Most of those relics perished when St. Augustine’s Abbey was dissolved in the Reformation. The Augustine Gospel book was among thirty or so volumes rescued—or looted, depending on your point of view—by Matthew Parker, Queen Elizabeth I’s Protestant archbishop, who left it, along with the rest of his magnificent library, to his alma mater, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Sacred glamour persists around Ms 286: since 1945 it…

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