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Living Retrospectives of Saint Michael’s Apparitions on Monte Gargano

“Where the rocks open wide,  there the sins of mankind are forgiven. This is the special place where any noxious action is washed off”.

Quotation of the Archangel’s words in the ‘De Apparitione Sancti Michaelis’,  the inscription running above the entrance to the Celestial Basilica, in D’Ovidio, 2018.

Two days before the feast of Saint Michael starts on 29th September, a colourful procession takes place in the narrow streets of the town of Monte Sant’ Angelo, in the region of Puglia. Inhabitants of Monte Sant’ Angelo, beautifully dressed up in costumes from the epoch, follow three decorated parade floats, each for the three successive episodes of the Golden Legend. Each of them beautifully reflects Saint Michael’s apparitions on Monte Gargano, according to the Golden Legend. The Basilica of Monte Sant’ Angelo is possibly the oldest and most significant sanctuary dedicated to the Archangel, and the fifth mount dedicated to Saint Michael according to the Book of Enoch. Its history is based on the narratives of De Apparitione Sancti Michaelis, which is is a hagiographical and composite foundation myth of Monte Sant’ Angelo.

The account of the first appearance of Archangel Michael on Monte Gargano in 490, which is called the ‘Episode of the Bull’ (see: The Archanegel of God from the Giant’s Mount in Apulia), is suddenly interrupted by another narrative in Liber de apparitione sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano. This interlude is referred to as the ‘Episode of Victory’, and it is the second apparition of Archangel Michael on Gargano, which is traditionally dated to the year 492, during the alleged fight between the Christians of Siponto (modern Manfredonia) and Greek pagans.

WE ARE CELEBRATING MICHAELMAS ON SAINT MICHAEL THE ARCHANGEL’S FIFTH MOUNT (MONTE SANT’ ANGELO). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

However, according to today’s historians, the events to which this episode refers took place during the war between the Lombard prince Grimoaldo and the Byzantines in the years 662-663, when the victory achieved on May 8 was considered by the Lombards to be a miracle obtained through the intercession of Saint Michael the Archangel.

Tradition says that the city of Siponto was close to surrender during the siege by enemy troops. Bishop Saint Lorenzo Maiorano obtained a three-day ceasefire from the enemies and during this time he turned to the leader of the heavenly troops for help in trusting prayer supported by penance. On the other hand, if it was indeed the event from the 7th century, this legendary Bishop of Siponto, Saint Lorenzo Maiorano, could not ask Saint Michael for the intercession as he died in the mid-6th century. Yet, repeating after the Golden Legend, after three days of prayer, Saint Michael appeared to the bishop and predicted a quick and complete victory. This promise put hope into the hearts of the beleaguered inhabitants of Siponto. Encouraged by Saint Michael’s support, the defenders left the city and took part in a fierce battle accompanied by earthquakes, thunders, and lightnings. The victory of Siponto’s troops was complete, and the enemy army was defeated.

On the third night Michael appeared to the bishop, told him that the prayers had been heard, promised him victory, and ordered that the enemy be met at the fourth hour of daylight. As the battle was joined, Mount Gargano was shaken by a violent earthquake, lightning flashed uninterruptedly, and a dark cloud blanketed the whole peak of the mountain. Six hundred of the enemy troops fell before the swords of the defenders and the fiery lightning flashes. The rest, recognizing the power of the archangel, abandoned the error of idolatry and bent their necks to the yoke of the Christian faith.

Anonymous author, Liber de apparitione sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano, The Second Apparition of Saint Michael or the Episode of the Victory (fragment), in Kosloski, 2019.
MICHAELMAS 2023: THE FIRST APPARITION OF THE ARCHANGEL ON MONTE GARGANO: THE EPISODE OF THE BULL. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Afterwards, the narrative of the First Apparition is taken up and the third apparition of Saint Michael occurs. It is called the ‘Episode of Consecration’. According to tradition, in 493, Bishop Maiorano finally decided to follow Saint Michael’s orders and consecrate the grotto in his honour. If the second event is consistent with the chronology contained in the Liber de apparitione Sancti Michaelis, Maiorano’s decisions can be treated as an expression of recognition and thanks for the Archangel’s helping in the victory. The shepherd of the diocese of Siponto was further strengthened in his decision thanks to the positive opinion given by Pope Gelasius (492-496).

MICHAELMAS 2023:THE SECOND APPARITION OF THE ARCHANGEL ON MONTE GARGANO: THE EPISODE OF THE VICTORY. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

However, Saint Michael appeared for the third time and announced that He Himself had already consecrated the cave. Then Saint Laurenco, together with seven other bishops from the region of Puglia, where Monte Gargano is located, went in procession to the holy place together with the people and clergy of the city of Siponto. Although it is easy to write about their feat of undertaking the procession to the cave up the mount, one should imagine their difficult and steep way from the Manfredonia Bay, where Siponto has been located, up to 856 metres above sea level, from where now Monte Sant’s Angelo is looking down on the Adriatic Sea, especially, when we bear in mind that there was no proper road leading to the destination. Nowadays, you can take a bus or drive yourself, struggling with curves that make up a serpentine road. This route, although tiring, compensates visitors with wonderful views. For people suffering from fear of heights or space, such an experience can be still disturbing – yet this is the power of Saint Michael’s pilgrimage way. With wings, it would be much easier to follow.

MICHAELMAS 2023:THE THIRD APPARITION OF THE ARCHANGEL ON MONTE GARGANO: EPISODE OF THE CONSECRATION. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

During the journey, a strange event took place: eagles appeared over the bishops’ heads, protecting them from the strong rays of the sun. After arriving at the cave, inside it they found a stone altar covered with scarlet cloth and a cross above it. Moreover, according to the legend, Saint Michael left a child’s footprint on the rock as a sign of his presence. The Holy Bishop, full of joy, offered the Eucharistic sacrifice to God. This event took place on September 29, 493. Since these extraordinary events, the Grotto has enjoyed the title of Celestial Basilica, because it is the only Temple in the world that has never been consecrated by human hands.

[T]he bishop of Siponto, together with seven other Apulian bishops went in procession with the people and clergy of Siponto to the holy place. During the procession a wonderful thing happened: some eagles sheltered the bishops from the rays of the sun with their outspread wings. When they arrived at the grotto they found that a primitive altar had already been erected, covered with a vermilion altar cloth and surmounted by a Cross; moreover, according to the legend, they found the footprint of Saint Michael in the rock. With immense joy the holy bishop offered the first divine Sacrifice. It was 29 September. The grotto itself is the only place of worship not consecrated by human hand and over the centuries has received the title of “Celestial Basilica.”

Anonymous author, Liber de apparitione sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano, The Third Apparition of Saint Michael or the Episode of the Consecration (fragment), in Kosloski, 2019.

The evening of 27th September was our first on Monte Sant’ Angelo. It was followed by further celebrations dedicated to Saint Michael taking place in the town and inside the Basilica. Accordingly, it is also a time of a parish festival, celebrating the Patron Saint, with a colourful fair or indulgence feast, where various sweets, toys and regional products are sold in street markets. Whereas on weekdays, four masses are celebrated in the Cave of Saint Michael in Monte Sant’Angelo, during the pilgrimage season, espeacially during Michaelmas, often up to nine masses take place. At that special time, the Sanctuary is open to growing groups of pilgrims, a number of which comes from Poland. It is also because many priests serving in the Sanctuary, who are referred to as Michaelites, are originally from Poland. On March 31, 1995, the first Michaelites arrived at the Sanctuary and began working alongside Benedictine monks, who were the previous custodians of the Basilica. Finally, the Michaelites took over full care of the Sanctuary from July 13, 1996.

Featured image: Decorations on 29th September above the Celestial Basilica dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel, during Michaelmas on Monte Gargano, where the the earliest Sanctuary dedicated to Saint Michael was built. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Bogacki, P.J., 2017. Przewodnik po Sanktuarium Św. Michała Archanioła na Górze Gargano. Monte Sant’ Angelo: Wydawnictwo “Michael”, 7th Edition.

D’Ovidio, S., 2018. ‘The Bronze Door of Monte Sant’ Angelo on Mount Gargano: Use and Perseption’, in Foletti, I., Kravčíková, K., Rosenbergova, S., Palladino, A., eds., 2018. Migrating Art Historians on the Sacred Ways. Reconsidering Medieval French Art through the Pilgrim’s Body. Reconsidering Medieval French Art through the Pilgrim’s Body, pp. 137-158. Brno-Viella, Roma: Masaryk University.

Kosloski, P., 2019. ‘This sanctuary of St. Michael was not consecrated by human hands’, in Philip Kosloski. (https://www.philipkosloski.com/this-sanctuary-of-st-michael-was-not-consecrated-by-human-hands/,2023, accessed 9th September, 2023).

Pelc, K., Ks. CSMA, 2022. ‘Monte Sant’Angelo: Góra Świętego Anioła’, in Michalici.pl. (https://bit.ly/3TBTdPo; accessed 25th December, 2023).

The Archanegel of God from the Giant’s Mount in Apulia

“The Sanctuary of Saint Michael the Archangel is famous not for the splendor of its marbles, but for the miraculous events that took place here: in its form it is modest, but rich in heavenly virtues, because Saint Michael the Archangel himself built and consecrated it, and, mindful of human weakness, he himself descended from heaven so that at that time people could become participants in the works of God.

Anonymous author, circa the first millenium A.D., in Bogacki, 2017, p. 3.

The Fifth Stop on the Line

In Puglia (Apulia), the south-eastern region of Italy, on Mount Gargano, in the city of Monte Sant’ Angelo, there is the most famous Roman Catholic Sanctuary, built in honour of Saint Michael the Archangel. Located atop a mountain, encrusted in white coat of buildings, on a peninsula of land surrounded by the Adriatic Sea, there is an extraordinary, one-of-a-kind Basilica, which consists of buildings clustered around the cave, testifying to its centuries-old tradition and history. For centuries it has been a place of prayer and reconciliation, famous throughout the Christian world. On the other side, Monte Gargano is the source of many legendary stories.

I had just returned from the Piedmont region and its fabulous sanctuary on Saint Michael’s Line, Sacra di San Michele, when another flight was yet waiting for me from Krakow to Bari. After five days since my return from Torino, I landed together with my three charming companions in the Puglia region, just on the eve of All Saints’ Day, which we spent in Giovinazzo, on the sunny Adriatic coast. On All Souls’ Day, November 2, we took a train from there to Foggia, where our driver, Leonardo, had already been waiting for us and took us to Monte Sant’Angelo, also known as Monte Gargano. It was a good day to meet Saint Michael. This was the All Souls’ Day, also known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. It is a day of prayer and remembrance for the faithful, who died. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Saint Michael the Archangel, regardless of his other functions, plays the role of a guide of souls to the Afterlife, that is to say, a psychopomp. In such a role, he usually appears in the Greek and Oriental Orthodox traditions. In art, we can find many examples of images of the dying man, with the devil at their side, and Saint Michael with a sword to defend the soul and lead it to the afterlife. This day was also the first All Souls’ Day after the loss of my beloved Godmother, who died of cancer last August. With my intention of praying for her soul, I went to the Archangel.

At the Foot of Saint Michael’s Mount

Monte Sant’Angelo is the highest inhabited point of the Gargano Peninsula, which reaches 800 metres (2625 feet) above sea level. Since 2011, the town has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the Basilica of Saint Michael. We climbed there by car driving on the road from Foggia. Right at the foot of the mountain, the road turns into a swirling serpentine all the way up to the Basilica. However, the white buildings of the town are visible from afar against the greenery of the Peninsula. Since we turned towards the coastline and found ourselves on more local roads zigzagging the Gargano Peninsula, our car was being chased by the shadows of surrounding walls of rock, leading up to the sacred mountain. At the top of the ridge, white outlines of buildings were slowly emerging in the background of the blue sky, and with every turn up along the winding road, they were becoming more and more visible and detailed.

‘Monte Sant’ Angelo up on the left’, said Leonardo.

And in a minute, we kept turning right, while climbing up a coiled road, taking us to the white city of the Archangel and his cave.

The origins of the Sanctuary date back to the end of the fifth century and to the first decades of the sixth century. The oldest written sources testifying to an ancient tradition of this place are two letters of Pope Gelasius I, written at the turn of 493 and 494. The first of them was addressed to Bishop Giusto of Larino, and the second to Bishop Herculentius of Potenza (492-496). There is also a brief account in The Martyrologium Hieronymianum (Martyrologium sancti Hieronymi or simly, the Martyrology of Jerome), under the date of September 29. Another written source is Liber de apparitione sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano, written anonymously between the sixth and tenth centuries. It is a hagiographical and composite foundation myth of Monte Sant’ Angelo, a compilation of legends on the apparitions of Saint Michael the Archangel. The final version was possibly created around 900 but a more ancient written versions of the legend had already circulated between 800 and 850. Those were compiled on the ground of earlier versions. Accordingly, the composition of the story or rather stories must already have appeared between 750 to 800. Yet, a contemporaneous anonymous writer still mentions an original version of the legend, which is estimated even for the sixth century, so one century after the described apparitions had occured.

The Apparitio and the Episode of the Bull

The text, also known as the Golden Legend, is a famous report that highlights for the first time the miracles done by the Archangel and thus emphasises the features of Saint Michael. Its eighth-century version describes in detail and at times evocatively three miraculous events that gave rise to the cult of Saint Michael the Archangel on Mount Gargano. These events are more intertwined to anient apocryphal traditions than to historic records, and are related to Saint Michael’s apparitions, three of which, represented in a simple, yet colorful way in the account, took place in the fifth century. Apart from these three apparitions described by the Golden Legend, there was also the fourth one, as miraculous as the previous ones, which took place several centuries later.

The first apparition of the Archangel is referred to as the “Episode of the lost bull”. According to the Apparitio, Saint Michael the Archangel appeared near a city called Sipontus (Siponto) in 490. A rich landowner lived there and had sheep and cattle that were grazing about the mountains. One day, he was informed that the most beautiful bull from his herd, grazing in the hills of Gargano, strayed and, instead of returning to the stables in the evening, went to the cave at the top of the hill. That fact upset the bull’s owner, who armed with bow and arrow, and accompanied by a multitude of servants went looking for the animal. After long searches in all possible places, the owner together with his men finally found the bull on the top of the mountain, kneeling at the entrance to the cave. In anger, the rich man drew his bow and fired a poisoned arrow at it to put to death the disobedient animal, but instead of striking the bull, the arrow inexplicably reversed its direction, turned back and struck the shooter instead.

[I]t happened that one bull separated himself from the rest and climbed to the top of the mountain. When the herd came in and this bull’s absence was discovered, the landowner mustered a band of his people to track it up the mountain trails, and they finally found the animal standing in the mouth of a cave at the top. The owner, annoyed at the bull for having wandered off alone, aimed a poisoned arrow at it, but the arrow came back, as if turned about by the wind, and struck the one who had launched it”.

Anonymous author, Liber de apparitione sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano, The First Apparition of Saint Michael or the Episode of the Lost Bull (fragment), in Kosloski, 2019.

Shocked by this incident, the owner of the bull went to the local bishop to tell him of the strange event that took place on the top of the mountain. It is agreed that the bishop who heard about this even was the contemporaneous Bishop of Siponto (modern-day Manfredonia), Lorenzo Maiorano. Having heard about what happened, he pronounced a three-day fast and for all citizens to ask God for an answer. When the last day of prayers was approaching the evening, Saint Michael the Archangel appeared to the bishop and spoke to him with these words:

“Know that it was by my will that the man was struck by his arrow. I am the Archangel Michael, and I have chosen to dwell in that place on earth and to keep it safe. I wished by that sign to indicate that I watch over the place and guard it.”

Anonymous author, Liber de apparitione sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano, The First Apparition of Saint Michael or the Episode of the Lost Bull (fragment), in Kosloski, 2019.

The Identity of the Landowner

After some modern scholars, the rich landowner from the above cited fragment of the Apparitio, is identified with Elvio Emanuele, the leader of the army of Siponto. Nevertheless, there are written and oral versions of an ancient Apulian myth, calling the landowner Garganus, which brings to mind the name of a historical and geographical sub-region in the province of Apulia, where the story is said to have happened, namely Gargano Peninsula or more precisely Monte Gargano. Some versions additionaly say that Garganus was not only wounded but actually killed by the reversed arrow, and consequently, these were his servants who eventually informed the bishop. When I first read that story I was surprised and even concerned that Saint Michael purposely hurt the landowner or even caused his death. There are also questions about Garganus’ behaviour: why was he so determined to kill his most beautiful animal after a long search for it? Could it be just because the animal had strayed from the heard? Answers to those questions emerge only if we omit a historic context of the the story and try to understand its ancient underlying.

The Story Behind the Name

When I visited the Gargano Peninsula as a teenager, together with my two younger sisters, we went to the coastal town of Vieste, located in Gargano National Park, and at the very edge of the Gargano Peninsula. Although we had chosen that place for purely leisure purposes, and I was not so fond of archaeology yet at that time, one evening, when the heat was not so overwhelming, we decided to take part in a guided tour around Vieste. I heard then for the very first time about mysterious peoples inhabiting once the lands, and legendary connections of that region with a race of giants, who were led by the gereatest of all, Garganus; his name later went down in local tradition, and so gave the name of the Peninsla. Needless to say, at that time I had not been aware of the fact that there was a continution of the story with Saint Michael as a heveanly hero, and of his mountain that he retrived once from evil spirits having guarded it for centuries. I was not even aware of the Sanctuary atop Monte Sant’ Angelo, lying in the proximity …

As the legend goes, Gargan or Garganus was a name of a supernatural creature and inhabitant of the cave on top of the mount, where Saint Michael later appeared. It was possibly a giant or a pagan deity, or both … Once, bloody sacrifices (possibly also including humans) were offered in front of the cave to ensure the well-being of the local population. Hence, the poisoned arrow launched at the bull may have been turned back by the Archangel because he wanted to say – no more offerings to the evil. Such a role of Garganus, as presented in the Apparitio, is similar to that played by a giant or a dragon, taking into possession a mountain or a cave and spreading terror among local people until a hero kills it and frees his human victims from evil powers. The latter archetype can be easily recognised in the character of Saint Michael slaying the dragon, who himself reveals that he punished Garganus (or Gargan) – supposedly the pagan giant deity of the cave, and placed the cave on the mount under his own special protection. This is why the name of Monte Gargano changed its dedication to Saint Michael (Monte Sant’Angelo).

Garganus Means Giant

A later tradition of a giant of similar name, Garganeus, is retold by the twelfth century French poem Florimont by Aymon de Varennes. That giant also lives on Mount Garganus, devours humans and is finally killed by the hero, who once lived on the opposite site of the Adriatic Sea. Such stories of man-eating giants actually abound in the French folklore; apart from François Rabelais’ giant, Gargantua, who comes to life in the sixteenth century, giants had apparently inhabited the Caves of Gargas in the Pyrenees region of France. There is also an interesting medieval Arthurian legend, referring to another great sanctuary of Saint Michael, also constructed on the Line, namely Mont Saint Michel, in Normandy.

The account can be read in mid-twelfth century Historia regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and in the fourteenth century Alliterative Morte Arthure. The legend goes that Arthur freed the people of Mont Saint Michel from a blood-thirty giant, who had settled there in the pagan times, as much as did the giant from Saint Michael’s Mount, in Cornwall. The latter is mostly known from the Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean (1734). Also, an Icelandic tradition has its gaint, who may be hidden under the term gargann, found among poetic names for snakes or dragons. Although it has not been yet fully explained, the word may also refer to a legendary giant or dragon, which once was the owner of a mountain.

Giants as Creatures from the Stone Age

Yet, there is much more to the story to be told. Many modern scholars have been highly interested in the origins and remnants of the literary figure of Gargantua. Hence, they studied his name, including the derivation of the prefix gar– from a pre-Indoeuropean root. After René Herval, the common root of these similar names ascribed to giants, who went down in European folklore, could be gal – ‘stone’, and the reduplicated version, galgal would indicate accumulation and probably give the meaning tumulus, a stone and earth structure typical of a prehistoric site. From galgal, the word gargas and Mount Garganus may have originated.

Furthermore, there is Gilgal (Galgala or Galgalatokai) of the 12 Stones in Western Palestine, then, the name of Saint Galganus from Sienna, whose story is curiously also marked by the apparition of Saint Michael. Those linguistic connections place Garganus, and so ancient giants, in the prehistoric cluture of megalithic stone structures, which are asrcibed by numerous legendary accounts to giants, who are said to have been their designers and engineers. On the other side, they are predominated as evil creatures related to fallen angels.

From the Giant to the Landowner

In Virgil (70-19BC) and Horace (65-27BC), the name Garganus is typically attached to a mountain, whereas in folklore, he is a wealthy man and landowner, and lives on a mountain, which is named after him. An Italian scholar, Giovanni Battista Bronzini claims that the name Garganus is likely to have originated as a personal name since palce-names have different endings, and so there is a hypothesis that Gargan was an ancient personification of an Oriental deity, and a remnant of a primitive Asian cult transplanted to Europe that reemerges in the two sites now dedicated to the Archangel, precisely, Monte Gargano and Mont Saint Michel (once called Mont-Gargan or Mont-de-Gargan). An Apulian legend about a man-eating giant, Gargan, a monstrous lord of the cave atop the mountain is thus echoed in the Apparitio, where Gargan is simply referred to as the owner of the herd in the First Apparition.

Still during his first appearing to the bishop of Siponto, Saint Michael also asked him to have his sanctuary loacted atop the mountain, in the cave, where he had demonstrated his powers, and where people could look for his intercession.

“Where the rock opens, human sins will be forgiven… The prayers you will offer to God here will be answered. Go to the mountains and dedicate this cave for Christian worship”.

Anonymous author, Liber de apparitione sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano, The First Apparition of Saint Michael or the Episode of the Lost Bull (fragment), in Bogacki, 2017, p. 5.
The Entrance to Saint Michael’s Sanctuary with the figure of the Archangel, guarding his Mount. The two-arcaded portico conceals a staircase leading down to the cave, where Saint Michael appeared, and the Celestial Basilica, consecrated with his hand. Photos by Magdalena Wrona and Joanna Pyrgies. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

From Human Fear to the Angelic Victory

As the Apparition goes, because the Monte Gargano was a mysterious and almost inaccessible mountain, and was also a place of pagan worship, the bishop hesitated for a long time before deciding to fulfil the Archangel’s command. This type of dilemmas accompanying the people appointed by the Archangel to establish his sanctuaries also appear in other accounts on the creation of the seven monasteries along Saint Michael’s Line; the Bishop of Avranches, Saint Aubert, also delayed the construction of the monastery due to pagan rituals taking place on the site designated by the Archangel, whereas Saint Giovanni, who initiated Sacra di San Michele, primarily started the construction of the sanctuary in the wrong place and was suggestively corrected by the heavenly forces.

Despite all that hesitancy, so typical of human nature, even of the saints appointed by God, Saint Michael’s sanctuaries were built along the Line, staring with the one on Monte Gargano, the place once dedicated to the pagan deity and giant. Saint Michael’s apparitions are an invitation given to man to humble himself before the majesty of God. Christians from all over the world have come to the sanctuary of Celestial Basislica, wchich is seen as the house of God and the gate of heaven. They have chosen that place to find peace and forgiveness in the arms of God’s love. For centuries, the holy cave has been the centre of countless pilgrimages, a place of prayer, and, above all, a place of reconciliation with God.

Among the pilgrims who visited this place were many popes, rulers, numerous government leaders, and ministers, as well as many saints, and thousands of pilgrims from all nations. In this special place, all of them found forgiveness, hope and peace of mind through the powerful intercession of Saint Michael the Archangel. Over the course of fifteen centuries, pilgrims flock there to honour Saint Michael, the Prince of the Heavenly Hosts, preaching, like he does, with all their life, “Who is like God!”

Featured image: The frontispiece with Saint Michael fighting the devil at the entrance to the Sanctuary on atrio superiore (the upper courtyard). Photos by Magdalena Wrona and Joanna Pyrgies. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Bogacki, P.J., 2017. Przewodnik po Sanktuarium Św. Michała Archanioła na Górze Gargano. Monte Sant’ Angelo: Wydawnictwo “Michael”, 7th Edition.

Kosloski, P., 2019. ‘This sanctuary of St. Michael was not consecrated by human hands’, in Philip Kosloski. (https://www.philipkosloski.com/this-sanctuary-of-st-michael-was-not-consecrated-by-human-hands/,2023, accessed 9th September, 2023).

Oleschko, H., 2023. ‘Płynąc z psychopompposem, part 2’, in Któż jak Bóg. Dwumiesiecznik o aniołach i życiu duchowym, no 3 (183), May-June, 2023, pp. 22-24.

Ruggerini, M. E., 2001. ‘St Michael and the Dragon from Scripture to Hagiography’, in Monsters and the Monstrous in Medieval Northwest Europe. Mediaevalia Groningana, Vo. III, Olsen, pp. 23-58. K. E. and Houwen, L.A.J.R., eds. Leuven – Paris -Sterling, Virginia: Peeters.

Farne Islands, known as the ‘Islands of the Pilgrims’

It was a relaxing end to the day as we enjoyed a sunset cruise around the Farne Islands. We departed from Seahouses Village, after very good dinner at Lewis’s Fish Restaurant in the town centre. We were staying nearby, at the White Swan Inn, in Belford, around eight kilometres from Bamburgh Castle. The hotel features sparkle clean facilities and nice, little added extras, and fabulous food in the pub area downsatirs. That evening, the weather was really promising for amazing sunset views, though some clouds were stubbornly wandering in the blue sky.

The Farne Islands and Lindisfarne

The Farne Islands lie off the coast of Northumbland in north-east England. To the north of the Farne Islands and the tidal estuary-like mud flats of Budle Bay lies the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Though the Holy Island of Lindisfarne lies just to the north of the Farne group of islands, it is argued not to belong to the Archipelago as this is not a true island; it is connected to the mainland for about twelve hours a day by a causeway that is covered and uncovered by the tides.

The modern causeway is about 1.6 kilometres long and reaches the Holy Island at a point called the snook, at the western tip of a long sandy peninsula. Visitors to Lindisfarne should always check the crossing time table to avoid being trapped in a car by the incoming tide. To the south of the causeway used usually by drivers, a series of wooden poles marked out the ancient Pilgrim’s Way across the shifting sand and mud. Modernday pilgrims can still follow it, crossing the way to the Holy Island on foot. It was used in ancient times by contemporary visitors to the religious centre of Lindisfarne. Like the causeway, it can be used only at low tide, as described by Sir Walter Scott:

For with the flow and ebb, its style
Varies from continent to isle;
Dry shod o’er sands, twice every day,
The pilgrims to the shrine find way;
Twice every day the waves efface
Of staves and sandelled feet the trace.

Sir Walter Scott, 1888, ‘Marmion: A Tale of Flooded Field’, in Simpson, D., ‘Lindisfarne: Less civilised times’, in England’s North East, 1991-2022.

Great Whin Sill Formations

The Farne lsalnds are formed from the rocks of the Whin Sill Complex (or the Great Whin Sill, a tabular layer of the igneous rock dolerite in County Durham, Northumberland and Cumbria in the northeast of England). It also creates the outcrops of rock, which gave the foundations for Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh Castles, and for parts of Hadrian’s Wall. The other outcrop of the Whin Sill Complex on Holy Island is also topped by Lindisfarne Castle. The Farne Islands are an archipelago of between 15 and 20 islands (depending on the height of the tide) lying approximately 8 kilometres north-east of the village of Seahouses.

They form an archipelago, divided into the Inner Group and the Outer Group.If Lindisfarne is excluded, the island of Inner Farne, also known as House Island, is then the largest at 16 acres and is the closest to the mainland. Lindisfarne itself measures almost 5 kilometres west-east and 3 kilometres north-south.

The Heroine from the Farnes

The Farne Islands are associated with the story of Grace Darling and the wreck of the Forfarshire. I saw a plaque commemorating her name and history in the harbor at Seahouses. Grace Darling was the daughter of Longstone lighthouse-keeper, William Darling. On September 7, 1838, when she was 22 years old, she rescued together with her father nine people from the wreck of the Forfarshire, which struck the Harcar Rock in a strong gale and thick fog.

The story of the rescue spread from the Northumberland coast and attracted extraordinary attention throughout Britain, making Grace Darling a heroine who is remembered in British folklore. Grace Darling died of consumption four years later, in 1842, and is buried in the churchyard of the village of Bamburgh, which also houses the Grace Darling Museum; it includes even the coble boat used by Grace in her famous rescue.

Less Heroic Attitudes

There is, however, another account from the seventeenth century, which gives an insight into attitudes of the Islanders, quite different from Grace Darling’s :

“The common people there do pray for ships which they see in danger. They all sit down upon their knees and hold up their hands and say very devotedly, ‘Lord send her to us, God send her to us.’ You seeing them upon their knees, and their hands joined, do think that they are praying for your safety; but their minds are far from that. They pray, not to God to save you, or send you to port, but to send you to them by shipwreck, that they may get the spoil of her. And to show that this is their meaning if the ship come well to port, they get up in anger crying `the Devil stick her, she is away from us.’“

Captain Robin Rugg, the seventeenth century governor of Holy Island, in Simpson, D., ‘Lindisfarne: Less civilised times’, in England’s North East, 1991-2022.

Paradise for Wreck Divers

The Farne Islands extend for over 8 kilometres out into the North Sea and have always been a danger to ships. For this reason, many lighthouses have been built on the islands over the years and two are still in use today. All the operational lighthouses on the Farnes are now automatic and have no resident keepers, although in former years, they did.

Ruins of some of the older lighthouses may be seen, for example on the Brownsman, which used to have two. One of them has its base remains attached to the keeper’s cottage. Earlier, beacons were on several of the islands and a light was once shone from the tower. Despite that, hundreds of ships have been wrecked on the Farnes over the years, providing plenty for wreck divers to explore.

Culdees and Benedictines

The earliest recorded inhabitants of the Farne Islands were various Culdees, some connected with Lindisfarne. This followed the old Celtic Christian tradition of island hermitages, also found in Wales, Cornwall, and Hiberno-Scotland. The islands were used by hermits intermittently from the seventh century. These included Saint Bartholomew of Farne. The last hermit was Thomas De Melsonby, who died on the islands in 1246. Hermits were replaced as elsewhere in Europe by Benedictine monks and a formal monastic cell of Benedictine monks was established on the islands around 1255.

A relaxing end to the day as we enjoyed a sunset cruise around the Farne islands that has allowed us to know many stories and legends associated with their saints, pilgrims, heroes and demons … Photography by Filipe Almeida. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The cell was dependent on Durham Abbey, then changed to Durham Cathedral. A very small cell was usually home to only two monks, although on occasion this rose to as many as six. The cell was dissolved in 1536 as part of King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. In the course of their turbulent history, the islands had belonged to County Durham till 1844, when they became the part of Northumberland County and are currently owned by the National Trust.

Saints of Northumbria and their Hermitage

The islands are first recorded in 651, when they became home to Saint Aidan, followed by Saint Cuthbert. Despite Saint Cuthbert’s reclusive lifestyle, so characteristic of the Celtic Church that he initially followed, the saint was comonly loved and respected as a caring and peaceful man, existing yet in a violent period of history.

Cuthbert isolated himself on the islands until he was called to the bishopric of Lindisfarne, but after two years, he returned to the solitude of the Inner Farne and died there in 687 but his body was moved back to Lindisfarne. He spent there 9 years, leaving like an eremit on Inner Farne. Saint Cuthbert’s life on Inner Farne was not always one of seclusion, as his reputed gift of healing brought pilgrims to the island from all over the Kingdom of Northumbria. Hence, a suggested meaning for the name of the Farne Islands, ‘Islands of the Pilgrims’, which may have derived from ‘Farena Ealande’. The first structures built by the monks Aidan and Cuthbert on Inner Farne are no longer visible. In Life of St Cuthbert, medieval scholar and monk, Bede the Venerable, gives some clues about these early buildings. After moving to Inner Farne, Saint Cuthbert erected, or rather restored, a hermitage together with a construction of a guesthouse or hospitium, which an answer to crowds of pilgrims. Cuthbert’s cell, first built by Aidan, was made of stone and turf and was – according to Bede – ‘higher than a man’. Another larger structure, a guesthouse or ‘hospitum’, probably stood where the Fishe House is sited today. It is also possible that the cell on Inner Farne in which St Cuthbert lived and died existed on the site occupied now by Saint Cuthbert’s Church (or Chapel).

Documents show that work on a larger structure began in 1369 and the older remains have been incorporated into this later building. By these means, the small chapel was part of a Benedictine cell affiliated to Durham Abbey, then Durham Cathedral. The monks of the House of Farne were wealthy enough to build such structures – they cultivated crops and kept livestock on some of the other islands. Accordingly, the today visited Chapel on Inner Farne was once part of a larger monastic complex, which included another chapel dedicated to Saint Mary, once located just to the north, and surrounding courtyards. Known as Saint Cuthbert’s Chapel, it is described as a “single-cell building of four bays”. The holy community continued to use the chapel until Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. Just to the west of Saint Cuthbert’s chapel stands Prior Castell’s Tower which dates from about 1500. It is a defensive pele tower (a small fortified keep), typical of the Northumberland coast, which was built for the contemporary Prior of Durham Cathedral monastery from 1494 to 1519. The tower initially served as an accommodation for the monks of the Benedictine cell but this was closed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

All Real Saints once Faced Some Demons

A legend goes that before Saint Cuthbert inhabited Inner Farne, he banished some ‘demons’ from the island to the nearby isle of Wideopens. Those evils spirits apparently still haunted later inhabitants of Inner Farne, long after Saint Cuthbert’s death. David Simpson provides a record of the demons’ description:

“…..clad in cowls, and riding upon goats, black in complexion, short in stature, their countenances most hideous, their heads long – the appearance of the whole group horrible. Like soldiers they brandished in their hands lances, which they darted after in the fashion of war. At first the sight of the cross was sufficient to repel their attacks, but the only protection in the end was the circumvaliation of straws, signed with the cross, and fixed in the sands, around which the devils galloped for a while, and then retired, leaving the brethren to enjoy victory and repose.”

In Simpson, D., ‘The Farne Islands: St Cuthbert and the Farne Devils’, in England’s North East, 1991-2022.

It is thought that these demons were really the spirits of indigenous ancient people who had been once cut off from the mainland.

Another Hermitage Island

Apart from Lindisfarne and Inner Farne, there is also one more tiny island related to Saint Cuthbert’s legendary hagiography. Just offshore from Holy Island Village, is the small Island of Hobthrush, or St Cuthbert’s Isle, where the saint was said to have crafted the legendary beads, known as Saint Cuthbert’s or ‘Cuddy’s Beads’. Sometimes, they can be noticed by more arrentive visitors washed up on the shores of Holy Island.

But fain St Hilda’s nuns would learn
If on a rock by Lindisfarne
St Cuthbert sits and toils to frame
The sea borne beads that bear his name.
Such tales had Whitby’s fishers told,
And said they might his shape behold,
And here his anvil sound:
A deadened clang – a huge dim form
Seen but and heart when gathering storm
And night were closing round.
But this, a tale of idle fame,
The nuns of Lindisfarne disclaim.

Sir Walter Scott, 1888, ‘Marmion: A Tale of Flooded Field’, in Simpson, D., ‘Lindisfarne: Hobthrush and St Cuthbert’s beads‘, in England’s North East, 1991-2022.

Cuddy’s beads are in fact the fossilized remains of tiny sea creatures, which inhabited the ocean depths in prehistoric times. As their surface is marked with the shape of the cross, they may have been once used as Rosary beads.

Cuddy’s Eider Ducks and Other Animal-Brothers

Today the Farne Islands are still an important nature reserve for wildlife and are the home to many species of sea birds, including Puffins, Eider Ducks, Razorbills, Guillemots, Terns, Kittiwakes, Shags and Cormorants. During the breeding season from May to the end of July there are thousands of nesting birds at the Farne Islands. For these reasons, summer visitors to Inner Farne are strongly advised to wear hats due to Arctic terns dive bombing to protect their chicks. There are also an estimated 3 to 4 thousand Grey Seals at the Farne Islands and large numbers can be counted basking on the rocks, especially at low water when more of the Islands are exposed. Saint Cuthbert was also known to have had a great love of nature and especially of birds and seals, who were often his only companions in his lonelines on Inner Farne. Saint Cuthbert had, like Hiberno-Scottish monks, and much later Franciscan monks, friendly attitude to animals, whom he treated like his brothers. Thus, he is claimed by some to be one of the first ever nature conservationists. Among other acts, Cuthbert introduced special laws in 676 protecting the eider ducks, and other seabirds nesting on the islands; these are thought to be the earliest bird-protection laws anywhere in the world. And to commemorate Saint Cuthbert’s care for birds, the eider ducks have become known as St. Cuthbert’s ducks or Cuddy’s ducks

Following your cruise around the Farne Islands, we continue to sail along our beautiful coastline to enjoy scenic sunset views as the sun was setting behind the magnificent Bamburgh Castle, with the occasional visit from local dolphins. The Farne Islands are popular with bird watchers, and as scuba diving locations, with a variety of sites suitable for all levels of divers, for the seals and wrecks.

Featured image: Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands at sunset. Photo by Felippe Almeida. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Hannaford, L., ‘The Farne Islands and Holy Island, Northumberland’, in British Geological Survey, 2023. (https://www.bgs.ac.uk/discovering-geology/maps-and-resources/office-geology/the-farne-islands-and-holy-island-northumberland/#:~:text=To%20the%20north%20of%20the,and%20uncovered%20by%20the%20tides; accessed 2nd September, 2023).

Lewis, N., [No Date], ‘History of the Farne Islands’ buildings’, in Collections & House Officer, National Trust. (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/north-east/farne-islands/history-of-the-farne-islands-buildings; accessed 2nd September, 2023).

Simpson, D., ‘Lindisfarne’, in England’s North East, 1991-2022. (https://englandsnortheast.co.uk/lindisfarne-holy-island/,2022; accessed 31st August, 2023).

Simpson, D., ‘The Farne Islands’, in England’s North East, 1991-2022. (https://englandsnortheast.co.uk/the-farne-islands/,2022; accessed 31st August, 2023).

The Shaft of A Monumental High Northumbrian Cross at Bewcastle

We are heading to ancient lands of Northumbria, one of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It was what is  now northern England and south-east Scotland. After taking a ferry from Ireland, we are first traveling along the Solway Coast in Scotland to see Northumbrian high crosses of Ruthwell and Bewastle, just at the border with England.

One of the Finest Northumbrian High Crosses

At Bewcastle in North Cumbria, there’s a parish church dedicated to Saint Cuthbert, as are most churches in Northumbria, and the shaft of an early medieval monumental cross. Bewcastle Cross with its counterpart at Ruthwell are both Northumbrian crosses, and are located on  the Solway Coast, at the border with Scotland, and in close vicinity to the Roman Wall. They are probably the finest to survive from Anglo-Saxon Britain.

Both  crosses are around 57 kilometers from each other and have similar programs and figure types. Their style and iconography look to Northumbria, and beyond there to Rome, Ravenna, the Eastern Mediterranean, including Christian Syria and Egypt. They are likely to date from after 675 when this area had come under Northumbrian rule, and when Benedict Biscop brought masons and artists from the Continent to work at the so-called Twin Monastery at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow. The Middle Eastern links are not so surprising: many monks and craftsmen fled persecution and went to the British-Isles, producing strong artistic and theological links between those two remote Christian traditions. At that time, many Syrian monks found their sanctuary in Rome, producing five Popes and great missionaries sent to the British Isles by the Apostolic Capital. Among them there was a successor of Saint Augustine of Cantenbury, Theodore of Tarsus (from modern day Turkey), who was appointed in 667 as the Archibishop of Cantenbury. Together with the Abbot, Hadrian, who himself came from northern Africa, they both created one of the greatest schools of learning and so produces outstanding scholars, like Aldhelm, Abbot of Malmesbury Abbey, and Bede the Venerable, who worked at the Monastery of Jarrow. Among Theodore’s proteges were the Northumbrian nobles who became clerics acting in favour of the Roman Church, Benedict Biscop, Ceolfirth and Wilfrid.

The Message of the Cross

Unlike Ruthwell Cross, the Cross in Bewcastle still stands unprotected under the open sky,  and so is exposed to elements. Consequently, its top has been destroyed and the surface of the  stones is badly weathered, but on a bright day the sculpture is still most impressive. On three of its sides, the Cross has only an ornamental decoration but on the fourth there are four panels. In one is a runic worn inscription. Its meaning is now not certain. Possibly, the inscription was to commemorate King Alchfrith of Deira (southern Northumbria), who died after 664, and his wife, Cyneburh. The memorial thus may have been ascribed to his half-sister Abbess Ælfflæd of Whitby (died in 714). Yet, such a theory is the realm of speculation.

Each of the other three panels of the that Cross’ side contains a monumental figure. The  three figures on the cross are crucial to its significance. In the center is Christ in Majesty, standing over two beasts at His feet who are recognizing him as their God. At the top, there’s Saint John the Baptist with the Lamb, and finally, at the base, a famous and controversial figure of a man with a falcon or eagle on a perch beside him. Most possibly, it is Saint John the Evangelist holding a pen. The two first figures are the same as on Ruthwell Cross, though different stylistically. The Bewcastle master’s figures are long and square, without round or bulging forms typical of Ruthwell Cross. Christ standing over the beasts is a subject from Psalm 91, Verses 11-13, which are  mostly interpreted in relation to the Gospel according to Saint Mark, Chapter 1st, Verse 13, when Jesus is in the desert together with wild animals, metaphorically compared to demons, and serving him angels, and Verse 24, where demons recognize Him as the Son of God.

For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.

Psalm 91:11-13

… and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

Mark 1:13

 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

Mark 1:24

The scene was usually depicted in Eastern Mediterranean art, where the beasts were a lion and a snake or a dragon. Here is a Northrumbrian variant, where the wild animals look rather like swine, and their attitude also differs from a common Mediterranean examplum. Possibly, Northumbrian artists used an imported ivory or metal relief as a model for their sculpture and adopted it to their own tradition. Saint John the Evangelist is also on Ruthwell Cross but smaller and possibly together with the three other Gospel writers. At Bewcastle, he is singled out and represented on the same monumental scale as Christ  and Saint John the Baptist. Like at Ruthwell High Cross, Saint John is shown with his symbol of the eagle. Recent reserach has revealed that a similar representation can be found in a Syrian manuscript; although Saint John is shown there in a seated position, his pose with a lamp on a stand, with the latter mistaken as the eagle, does not differ much from Saint John carved on Bewcastle Cross.

But what is the connection between Saint John the Evangelist and Saint John the Baptist? The Gospel according to Saint John starts with the description of the Logos which became the foundation of all medieval theology. Saint John the Evangelist mentions Saint John the Baptist in the sentence: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John” (John 1:6) and then follows an account of the mission of the Babtist with the verse referring to the Lamb: “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!'” (John 1:29). Hence, Saint John the Baptist is the prophet of the Logos, prophet of the Lamb and prophet of the Baptism, so he is like a predecessor of Christ and of those times where Christ appears in history and in the Bible. In turn, Saint John the Evangelist has been considered by medieval Church as the highest of the four Gospel writers. Both parts of the Gospel according to Saint John, Chapter 1, were read within the same week in the Roman Church, the part about the Babtist in the week before Christmas, and the beginning on Christmas Day.

Melting Pot of Christian Traditions

Regarding the decoration of the Cross on the remaining three sides, there are multiple and various interlaces, as well a kind of floral elements, together with possibly some animal elements as well. A style the crosses in Bewcastle and Ruthwell was inspired by Christian art of Rome and the Mediterranean but as much as the contemporaneous iconology of Hiberno-Scotland, that of Northumbria was also influenced by Oriental Churches of Syria and Egypt. International artistic links are very visible in an ornamental decoration of the crosses. On Bewcastle Cross there are all the motives from different parts of the the Christian world, so it’s the  Mediterranean, Continent, Southern Europe and, of course, the prevalent Celtic element. Eyecatching are birds, some beautifully ornamented plants, possibly flowers. Foliage patttern and animal designs enclosed in medallions and braided patterns may have derived from Coptic sources, possibly from Coptic textiles and manuscripts brought to the British Isles by Eastern artists themselves. Various representations visible on high crosses of Northumbria thus originated from a melting pot of many different elemnts coming to one decoration, complex system used by Christian masters.

The Bewcastle Cross and a nearby Ruthwell Cross on the Solway Coast, are probably the finest to survive from Anglo-Saxon Britain. Like High Crosses in Ireland there are a particular Bible in stone. Photography by Filipe Almeida. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In Favour of Rome and its Church

Bewcastle Cross is possibly earlier than the Cross in Ruthwell. It may be because Bewcastle Cross is simple and more precise than Ruthwell Cross. Moreover, it seems mild and its forms less sophisticated. The both have been assigned to the second half of the seventh century. Yet, their age is still being discussed. They are likely to date from after 675 when Benedict Biscop and Ceolfirth brought masons, glaziers and metal workers from abroud (mostly from Gaul) to work in building their new monastery, the likely base from which the team came to carve Bewcastle Cross. They were filled win an ardour for Rome, Benedict visiting it five times. They were so fascinated with the culture of the Continent so  they brought back books and such artifacts as icons, paintings, sculptued objects, so models for their creations on the British Isles. By these means, they followed the Continental art and fasion to adorn their churches, which included Biscop’s Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, founded respectively in 674 and 681, and Wilfrid’s Ripon and Hexam, said to be the largest church north of the Alps. So the Anglo-Saxon clerics brought back books but they also created books here in Northumbria in the so-called Twin Monastery.

Accordingly, Monkwearmouth & Jarrow, were very romanized; they accumulated great models, illuminated books, manuscripts, created there at the scriptorium, which were yet modeled on the Continental artifacts. And this Monastery was also very important because in Jarrow there was a historian of the English history, Bede the Venerable. So, he created a very important historical account of the Anglo-Saxons, the so-called Ecclesiastical History of the Anglo-Saxons, which was biased,  still it gives today a great insight especially in the eighth century. Bede died in 731. He actually spent all his lifetime in Jarrow from nine years old till his  death in the eighth century but still he had a lot of information from around.

From Cumbria to Northumberland

After leaving behind County Durham and legendary lands of Prince Bishops, we resumed our journey northward, along the Northumberland Coastline, designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and, finally, we arrived to Norham, with another medieval church dedicated to Saint Cuthbert and the twelfth century Castle of Prince  Bishops, whose power once reached even there, furthest to the north, at the border with Scotland.

Featured image: Bewcastle Church and the Shaft of Bewcastle High Cross. Photo by Felippe Almeida. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Brown, M. P. 2003. ‘Painted Labyrinth. The World of the Lindisfarne Gospels. (London, The British Library).

Lethaby, W. R., 1912. ‘The Ruthwell Cross’, in The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, June, 1912, Vol. 21, No. 111, pp. 145-146.

Saxl, F., 1943. ‘The Ruthwell Cross’, in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld institutes, Vol. 6, pp. 1-19.

Thomson, Dr D., [date uknown]. ‘Bewcastle Cross’, in Bewcastle [Official Website] (https://www.bewcastle.com/bewcastle-cross; accessed 19th May, 2023).

 

 



  

The Pages of the Book of Kells Inspired by Angels

…before the morning on which the scribe was to begin the book, an angel stood before him in a dream and showing him a picture drawn on a tablet which he had in his hand,[and] said to him, “Do you think that you can draw this picture on the first page which you propose to copy?” The scribe, who doubted his skill in such exquisite art, in which he was uninstructed and had no practice, replied that he could not. Upon this the angel said, “…[e]intreat your Lady to offer prayers for you to the Lord…and give you spiritual vision…”

The scribe having done as he was commanded…All these, aided by divine grace, the scribe made himself master of, and faithfully committing them to his memory, exactly copied in his book in their proper places. In this manner the book was composed, an angel furnishing the designs, St. Brigit praying, and the scribe copying. 

— Topographia Hibernica (A Topography of Ireland) (c. 1188), Chapter 39: How the Book was Composed

Angels on Folio 285r in the Book of Kells in the Trinity College, Dublin. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Book of Kells in Dublin

The Book of Kells is one of great heirlooms of the Celtic, Hiberno Scottish world. It has been on a permanent display at Trinity College Dublin since the seneteenth century, where it was brought from Kells sometimes after 1661. At that stage, the monastery in Kells was falling into ruins and was additionally threatened by the soldiers of Oliver Cromwell. Thus the Bishop of Meath, Henry Jones (circa 1605 – 1681) thought to be safer to bring the Book of Kells to Dublin, where it has been preserved at Trinity College Library for over three hundred years until now, classified as TCD MS 58. In the Library of Trinity College in Dublin, the Book has been admired by millions who have made a pilgrimage to see it from all the world and to have been dazzled by the beauty and its intricacy of its craftsmanship. Yet, what exactly does the Book of Kells mean? What is the nature of the historical and artistic context that gave rise to it? Where was it made and by whom? What has been its fate across the centuries, from the time of its origins until the present?

The Greatest of Insular Gospel Codices

The Book of Kells is handwritten and hand-decorated book that now contains 340 parchment leaves, which gives a total of 680 pages (folios). At Trinity, the Book remains open with two of its pages visible to visitors. Only one of its pages is turned over every day, so in order to look through the whole manuscript, one would have to allocate at least one year of daily visits. The pages measure about 13 inches (33.02 cm) by 8 inches (20.32 cm). Originally, it had more leaves than that and had a form of the one single book, while it is now in four seperate volumes, one for each Gospel, which was the result of its successive rebounding in 1953 by a bookbinder Roger Powell to preserve its rare pages in a better condition. It contains the text of the four Gospels according to SS Matthews, Mark, Luke and John in the Latin translation that Saint Jerome had made in Rome during the 380s AD. It is an example of a particular type of book that modern scholars call the Insular Gospel Book, that is to say, a copy of the four Gospels that were made in the British Isles between the middle of the seventh century and the early ninth century. Hence the term Insular has been coined. Like other manuscripts of the same kind, the Book of Kells was intended as a large liturgical Gospel Codex, which was possibly displayed as a relic on an altar and may have been carried in processions during Christian festivals to be shown to laypeople.

During the hundred and fifty years or so, during which the Insular Gospels were made, the genre underwent significant development. The earliest member of this genre, the Book of Durrow, made either in Ireland or Northern England, around the year 650 AD., contains a relatively simple repertory of artwork. The Book of Kells was among the very last Insular Gospel Codices to be made, and it surpasses all others in the amount and quality of its artistic decoration. One of the Insular books, which is closest to the Book of Kells in its intricacy and grandeur is the Book of Lindisfarne Gospels, now preserved in the British Library, in London. It was made a several decades, possibly a century, before the Book of Kells appeared. The Lindisfarne Gospel Book represents a very sophisticated exemplum of the genre and only the Book of Kells surpasses it.

The basic structure of the Book is the same as the Lindisfarne Gospels and other manuscripts but the Book of Kells adds further decorative pages over and above this basic structure. It literally abounds, as no other Insular illuminated manuscript, in decorations on almost each folio, including famous full-page illuminations and exceptionally lavish Hiberno-Scottish incipits (the first few words of the text), which many a time turn into elaborate frontispieces. Yet, although the Book of Kells goes far beyond any other representative of this genre of Insular Gospel book, there is known nothing for sure, which is the major difference between it and the Lindisfarne Gospels, including the fact there are no notes in the artwork about its authorship. Stylistically, the Book of Kells can be dated around the year 800 but possibly it was not fully compeleted exactly in this particular year. Given its magnificence, it is likely that it was made at the great monastery on the Island of Iona.

The Masterpiece of Iona

Iona itself is a very small island, of only about 3,5 miles (around 56 km) from N-S and 1,5 miles (24 km) E-W. It is located off the southwestern tip of the much larger Island of Mull, which itself stands off the western coast of Scotland. It was here on Iona that in the early 560, Saint Columba founded the monastery which became the headquarters of the Columban Church, which extended across a considerable portion of western Scotland, and it was from Iona that Saint Aidan was sent to Northumbria in around 635 AD., to found the monastery of Lindisfarne. The Celtic monks had a particular taste for remote locations, such as Skellig Michael, one of the first Saint Michael’s sanctuaries on Apollo/Michael Axis. They were all set apart from the hurly-burly of the world, where the monks can give themselves over fully to the life of the spirit. Having left Ireland in self-imposed exile for the purpose of seeking God, the great Columbkille, known as Saint Columba in the Latin form of his name, also chose a distant and remote island for his new home and monastery. This was a man of vurnerable life and of blessed memory, the father and founder of monasteries, who was given the same name as the Old Testament Prophet Jonah. What is pronounced Iona in Hebrew and is translated as Columba in Latin means a dove. So great a name coud not have been given to a man of God but by divine providence. For it is shown in the Gospel that the Holy Spirit descended upon the only begotten Son of God in the form of that little white bird.

The Work of Angels

Saint Columba was born in County Donegal around 520 AD. into a culture of the written world. To the Earliest Irish Church the written word was the Word of God. From the Hand of God came Scripture. God was the author of the book and that book was Scripture. So the best art and hand-craft were used in Hiberno-Scottish literal tradition to write and explain Scripture. For the Irish the skill of writing and the miraculous were very close together, and so Insular books were miracles in themselves, as if they had been only created by divine or mystical assistance of heavenly beings.

if you apply yourself to a more closer examination, and are able to penetrate the secrets of the art displayed in these pictures, you will find them so delicate and exquisite, so finely drawn, and the work of interlacing so elaborate, while the colours with which they are illuminated are so blended, and still do fresh, that you will be ready to assert that all this is the work of angelic, and not human, skill…

— Topographia Hibernica (A Topography of Ireland) (c. 1188), Chapter 38: Of a Book Miraculously Written

Such beliefs are not surprising. All in all, there are so many miracles reported in Hiberno-Irish hagiographies about saints and their encounters with angels, about their books created with their miraculous skills of writing. And as such, the Book of Kells had remined enigmatic for a very long time.

The Melting Pot of Christian Cultures

Early Christian communities’ life in the Dark Ages, like the one of the monks from Iona was not simple as they lived in a tangible threat of Viking raids. On the other side, independent on the Roman Church, they were free to use christianised Celtic traditions of pagan origins, yet deeply combined with Oriental Christian iconology, mostly coming from the Desert of Egypt, to eventually create the greatest work of art ever to come on the British Isles. The first reference to the Book of Kells appeared only in the twelfth century, where it was found in Kells, Co. Meath. That’s why it has got its modern name. Like the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Book of Kells has had an eventful history over the centuries. At Kells it was treated with great reverence. Even though Saint Columba had alrady died circa 597 AD., during the eleventh century it was believed to have been written by his own hand and thus was known as the “Great Gospel of Colmcille, the chief relic of the Western world”. The Book had remained at Kells until the monastery was abolished in 1539. At that moment in history, it passed through the hands of Gerald Plunket, plausibly a relative to the last Abbot of Kells, who inscribed notes onto the pages of the Book’s marginalia; at the very beginning, he added a note observing that this manuscript surpasses the cunning of all men. He struggled the text on several of the major decorated pages, entering his transcriptions at the bottom of this pages. By 1621, the Book of Kells had come into the hands of a prominent Anglican clergyman and scholar, the Archibishop  of Armagh, James Ussher, who calculated that the World had been created on October 23rd, in 4004 BC. Having been displayed at Trinity College, in 1849, the Book of Kells was proudly presented to the Queen Victoria, who signed her name on the front …

If it was originally made on Iona, it reached Kells when the monks of Iona fled the island in the eraly ninth century, under the pressure of Viking attacks. The whole monastery would have been involved in making over the Book, and there were around several hundred men working in the monastery. It is indeed the work of very fine artists, painters and calligraphers. Its uniqueness lies in its decoration, the scale of it and in the intensity of it. Apart from figural representations, Hiberno-Scottish artists went back to very early Celtic art, which loves the assymetry of curves. They were also insipred by contemporaneous masterpieces of matalwork. Both, book illuminators and craftsmen used such devices as compass, rulers and templates, so they all started from initial drwaings to create a final artwork either in metal, sculpture or painting.

From Iona to Kells

In 795, Iona was subjected to a ferocious Viking raid, one of the earliest Vikings’ attacks on Western Europe. Iona continued to suffer at the hands of the Vikings in the ensuing years until in 807, when most of the monks led by their abbot migrated to Ireland and built a new monastery for themselves at the inland location in Kells of County Meath. So was the Book of Kells written on Iona before the Viking raids or was it written in Kells after the community migrated there? Or could it perhaps have even began on Iona and completed in Kells? These are questions never to be answered for sure. Neither names can be put to the makers of the Book of Kells, unlike in the case of the Book of Lindisfarne Gospels. Yet, it is based on detectable differences in style both in the handwriting and in the artwork, the manuscript seems to be the work of  a team of three or four scribal artists.

Anonymous artists of the Book of Kells

The art historian and archaeologist, Francoise Henry, called the artist of the Book of Kells’ Chri Rho page the goldsmith, not only for the use of yellow but also for fine details of his work, which was reminiscent of metalwork. The so-called ‘goldsmith’ was also responsible for the eight circle cross page or carpet page. The ‘illustrator’ is the name she gave to the artist who executed the Temptation page and page normally identified as the Arrest of Christ. Additionally, there is a ‘portrait painter’ – as she called him, who was responsible for the depiction of the Virgin and Child. In contrast to the personalities that Francoise Henry gave the artists, she simply termed the scribes A, B and C, “to which I’m inclined to add the fourth scribe D. Th e scribe A was a sovereign conservative who concentrated entirely on script. On the other hand, the scribe B was a unbind personality who clearly enjoyed using different coloured inks. The scribe C integrated his script closely into the decoration. The scribe D, I regard as the most accomplished of all. In some places, I have the impression that he was responsible for both, decoration as well as script”.

Folio 285 r of the Book of Kells is a fully decorated page corresponding to the moment of the Passion (Luke 24:1), “Una autem sabbati valde”, between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, just before the time, when the women approach the empty sepulchre and find two shiny men instead of the buried Christ. Angels and archangels are very present throughout the whole Book of Kells, where they play a very significant part in the manuscript, both as messengers and protectors. Judeo-Christian radition teaches that there have always been angels to call upon. In fol. 285 r, they guard the sepulchre where Jesus lies. These are possibly the four archangels of presence, SS Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel, though the latter’s cult was forbidden by the Roman Church in the eighth century. It is one of the two fully decorated text pages, yet they miss the miniatures, which usually illustrate the content. They are possibly lost to us today. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Content for the Initiated

Moreover, it is believed that the Book of Kells has a few layers of understanding. The basic one generates from the scale of the work itself to be admired as the work of angels. As such, it was venerated by both, educated and illiterate believers who were dazzled by its colours. It was a mircale itself for laypeople to see the divine rainbow enclosed in the Book. There were various types of inks used in writing manuscripts. The most common ink was made using inkberry holly but there were also used various plant and mineral extracts. Some of the pigments were produced locally, like those received from oak galls or lamp black. Others were very exotic, such as lapis lazuli brought from the far East. What that does tell us about the contemporaneous trade links is the fast that these remote Insular religious centres, like Iona, were plugged into the international exchange of goods. In the Book of Kells, the range of colours used is much wider than previously, its illuminators went even a stage further; they overpainted with colour wahes, they engaged a little bit with a sort of pointilist optical mistic by having different little decorative motifs overlying the base colours. Yet, another level of the insight the Book of Kells has offered is not a visual and not for the illiterate at all, as it contains an extremely encoded text for the initiated. Letters on many of its pages can be only put into phrases and read when a reader exactly knows what he is looking for. The words in the Book of Kells are even more hidden and difficult to be discerned in between their curves and shapes than in any other codices, including the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The Hostage of the Centuries

The Book of Kells has not survived the centuries intact. Near 1006 or 1007, it was stolen from the sacristy of the Church of Columba in Kells. It was not for the Book of Kells itsel, as its thief was most possibly illiterate, but for the Book’s wonderful binding and the casket, in which it was held, that had kept the attention of the thief, who stripped off the binding and threw the Book in the bog, from where it was happily recovered three months later. It is very difficult to imagine the richness of such a book cover for the Gospel Codex of a similar caliber but we can get some idications from the surviving book shrines. The closest complete example that has survived is the cover of the Soiscél Molaisse, which was once a used as an Irish cumdach for a more pocket Gospel Book. It originated from an eighth-century wooden core embellished in the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. The cover shows the ringed cross, surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists and these representations, of course, find their parallels on a few pages from the Book of Kells. At one time or another, the latter has lost about 30 leaves, including about 10 leaves at the beginning, about 12 at the end and 8 or 9 leaves at various points within the Book. Some of the lost leaves would have included the major decorations. After it was sent to Dublin, the worst came; the Book of Kells was savagely trimmed by a binder at some point in its history, when the manuscript was rebound but it is not known exactly when. It is specifically visible on Folio 291v, with the Portrait of Saint John, where the Evangelist is enbraced by a larger figure with his head partly chopped off. Rebounding was to make the Book look tidy, with its edges fitting perfectly its new binding, which turned out to be extremely harmful to the Book itself.

The Book Of Kells was created at the turn of the ninth century and shows today how the monks of the monastery of Iona, founded by Saint Columba, combined the influences of the east with Celtic and Pictish craft traditions in metal working and stone carving, to create a work so astonishing. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Arrangement of Insular Manuscripts

The beginning of each Gospel in all Insular Gospel Codices is the following: The Evangelist portrayed, carpet page, opening words of the Gospel. In the Book of Kells the sequence is similar but not quite the same. The first page of the sequence is a page showing all four of the Evangelists’ symbols: angel, lion, ox and eagle. This is on a left-hand page. The facing page is left blank. The next left-hand page has a picture of the Evangelist but only two of the original four Evangelists’ portraits had survived , those showing Matthews and John. The picture of Matthew faces the opening words of his Gospel, which is, as mentioned above, much more difficult to read in the Book of Kells than in the Lindisfarne Gospels. In the Book of Kells there is also a sequence of not one but of three decorated pages at the point of Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 1, Verse 18). First comes a picture of Christ Himself, holding the Book of Life in His hand. This image of Christ occupies a left-hand page. It faces a Carpet Page, which incorporates a double-cross design. After turning that page over, there are the opening words of Matthew Chapter 1, verse 18, with the letters X P I, abbreviating Christ’s name in Greek. The Book of Kells has lost its first pages but they may have contained Saint Jerome’s letter to his comissioner, Pope Damasus, but it does still have a set of Canon Tables. Instead of having the columns headed by the names of the Evangelists, as in the Lindisfarne Gospels, there are their symbols. What more distinguishes the Book of Kells from other Insular Gospel codices is that it goes far beyond them, both, in the amount and elaborateness of decoration, and in the number of miniatures; it includes all three pictures depicting key moments in Christ’s life on earth. It is worth emphasising that these three scenes are the only narrative representations of events in Christ’s life to be found in any Insular Gospel works. At the front of the Book, following the Canon Tables, comes the deception of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child group surrounded by four archangels, alluding to Christ’s birth on earth. Toward the end of Matthew’s Gospel appears the picture depicting the Arrest of Christ after Judas had betrayed Him. And within Saint Luke’s Gospel, immediately after the section of text describing baptism comes the image representing Christ’s Temptation.

Regarding pages with regular text, the style of the handwriting is the same as for the Lindisfarne Gospels, yet there are touches of colour and decoration scattered across the pages. Each verse of the text begins with a collet and decorated initial so that even on pages of regular text the decoration of Kells goes beyond that of Lindisfarne. Also some text pages are afforded special treatment, e.g. the page that contains the beginning of Saint Luke’s listing of the ancestors of Jesus. The page with the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5,3-48) is also given a special treatment, so it is once again more colourful and more elaborate. Pages of text that describes events at the end of Jesus’ life are treated even more decoratively, like the page that begins the account of the Crucifixion in Saint Matthew’s Gospel.

Comments on the Book

It has been long recognised that the Book of Kells is a consummate masterpiece of early medieval design. The pioneer scholar of the study of the medieval manuscripts, John Obadiah Westwood (1805–1893) wrote, commenting on both, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells: “I have examined with the magnifying glass the pages of the Gospel of Lindisfarne and the Book of Kells for hours together, without ever detecting of false line or an irregular interlacement. And when it is considered that many of these details consist of spiral lines and are so minute, as it is impossible to have been executed without a pair of compasses, it really seems an enigma not only with what eyes but also with what instruments they could have been drawn”.

Despite its overhelming grandeur, the Book of Kells rarely appears in known medieval accounts of annals, and if it does, authors dedicate to it just short passages. The exception comes from twelfth-century chronicler, Gerald of Wales or Giraldus Cambrensis’ (1146-1223), who travelled across Ireland in 1180s gives a long and elaborate medieval description of The Book of Kells in a really literal and descriptive manner, as if it was a fairy tale. Topographia Hibernica by Giraldus Cambrensis shows how much the author was amazed by the beauty of the Book’s illuminations when he traveled to Ireland. He describes it as “so delicate and exquisite, so finely drawn”. Having applied the whole range of iconographical, iconological, technical and stylistic elements, the Book of Kells reached the highest level in its genre. It is so fascinating to discover there ancient Celtic motifs and techniques, interlaced with Oriental iconological religious ideas and iconography, with some additions of the European Meditteranean stylistic touches. All these aspects make the Book of Kells a real masterpiece and a glorious refection of knowledge speard in one of the enlightened enclaves in the contemporaneous world. For its intricacy, the Book of Kells was authentically believed to have been created with divine or mystical assistance. In Giraldus’ account, the scribe working on the Book was inspired by an angel and one of the major Patron Saints of Ireland, Saint Brigit. Yet invoking such a heveanly assistance of angels was not an uncommon phenomenon, frequently described as real events, especially in Insular chronicles or hagiographies, and was also practiced by means of adapted orthopraxy, by means of various rituals, which were not always in accordance with the canonical orthodoxy assumed in Rome. It is finally not surprising that in the eyes of medieval public, the Book of Kells was regarded as the “work of not men but of angels”. Those seems appropriate words to be applied to this most beautiful book …

Among all the miracles in Kildare, none appears to me more wonderful than that marvelous book which they say was written in the ti[m]e of the Virgin at the dictation of an angel. It contains the Four Gospels according to St. Jerom[e], and almost every page is illustrated by drawings illuminated with a variety of brilliant colours. In one page you see the countenance of the Divine Majesty supernaturally pictured; in another, the mystic forms of the evangelists, with either six, four or two wings; here are depicted the eagle, there the calf; here the face of a man, there of a lion; with other figures in almost endless variety…

— Topographia Hibernica (A Topography of Ireland) (c. 1188), Chapter 38: Of a Book Miraculously Written.

Featured image: In front of the representation of the page with Angels or Archangels on Folio 285r in the Book of Kells in the Trinity College. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Beckett, W. 1996. ‘The Mists of Time’, in Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting, S.1, E.1. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Giraldus Cambrensis, The Topography of Ireland, accessed March 21, 2018, Thomas Wright, trans. (Cambridge, Ontario 2000), pp. 55-6.

Giraldus Cambrensis [Gerald of Wales] (c. 1146-1223) in Topographia Hibernica (A Topography of Ireland) (c. 1188), in Medieval Hollywood. (https://bit.ly/42T43Sv; accessed 14th May, 2023).

Grahams, T. 2009. ‘The Book of Kells: A Celtic Treasure’, in UNM Youtube Channel. The University of New Mexico. (https://bit.ly/3O8qMWw, 2009; accessed 14th May, 2023).

Grigor, M., Lenton, L. 2009. The Book of Kells – The Works of Angels? Crescendo Concepts LTD.

Lewis, S. 1980. Sacred Calligraphy: the Chi-Rho Pagein the Book of Kells. Traditio , 1980, Vol. 36, pp. 139-159. Cambridge University Press.