An Art Lover's Guide to Cambridge - The Gospels of St Augustine, Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
Today is Maundy Thursday, the day when Christians remember the Last Supper, the Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples the night before his arrest. There are many famous artistic depictions of this scene but one of my favourites is in the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. It is also one of the oldest.
This small illustration is one of twelve comic-strip style scenes from a page of the Gospels of St Augustine, the earliest surviving Gospel Book with figure illumination. The book is believed to have been brought to England by St Augustine when he was sent by Pope Gregory the Great to bring Christianity to England in 597. Unsurprisingly, some of the illuminations have been lost but two pages of images survive: the frontispiece to Luke's gospel and the illustrations from the Passion narrative. Above is a detail of six of these scenes, showing from top left the Entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Betrayal of Christ, Christ washing the feet of his disciples and the Raising of Lazarus. Why Lazarus you may ask? His story is not strictly speaking part of the Passion narrative but it is included here because John's gospel suggests it was the reason that the Jewish authorities decided to take action against Jesus.
There is another incongruity. In the Last Supper scene there are eight rather than twelve disciples. They are gathered around a circular table with Christ seated in the middle. He is easily recognisable from the cruciform halo behind his head. The simple, naive style makes this image, like the others on the page, easy to read. This is important. The page was designed to be didactic, a visual explanation of the Latin text. At the table all eyes are on Jesus, as the disciples listen intently to what He is saying, although they are yet to understand its significance. He holds the bread in his hand - "this is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19) - it is the moment of the first Eucharist.
I like to imagine St Augustine arriving in Kent in the late 6th century with this precious manuscript in his saddle bag. Then, as now, it would have been a rare and treasured object. Then, as now, it was a book that travelled. In recent years the journey has been from Cambridge to Canterbury where, since 1945, new Archbishops of Canterbury swear an oath on the book as part of their enthronement service, reflecting its deep significance in our nation's Christian heritage. As Dr Christopher de Hamel, former fellow librarian at Corpus Christi College, says: "It is very moving that a book of such a date still has the power to focus the mind spiritually". Whether or not you will be attending a 'virtual' Easter service this weekend, have a very Happy Easter.
The Gospels of St Augustine of Canterbury, MS 286, in Latin, made in Italy or Gaul, 6th century, parchment, 25 x 19 cm, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Above: detail of Folio 125r, Below: Folio 129v and 125r
All posts written and researched by Sarah Burles, founder of Cambridge Art Tours. The 'Art Lover's Guide to Cambridge' was sent out weekly during the first Covid 19 lockdown while Cambridge museums, libraries and colleges were closed.