Let there be light - Museums Association

Let there be light

As the Lindisfarne Gospels return to north east England, John Holt talks to the organisers of a host of events that celebrate the region’s history and shine a modern light on an ancient treasure
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A film still from artist Suki Chan's installation, Still Point

Famous for its rolling moorland, craggy coastline and mind-boggling collection of castles, the ancient Northumberland landscape will be seen in a very different light later this year, thanks to the installation of 40 illuminated sheep.

Representing a modern take on the region’s sacred sites and the pilgrimage trails that link them, the well-lit lifesize models are Hexham’s response to the Lindisfarne Gospels’ homecoming.

The sheep emerged from the gloom of lockdown conversations between digital and light artist Deepa Mann-Kler and Katy Taylor, the artistic director of the town’s Queen’s Hall Arts Centre.

“Most projects of this kind are town-based but we knew we wanted something that would encourage people to go out and explore the landscape,” says Taylor. “We talked about the gospels as a beautiful work of art and how we could play around with the traditional references in the scriptures to lost sheep, the Lamb of God and ‘the Lord is my shepherd’.

Incipit to Gospel of Matthew from the Lindisfarne Gospels, which will go on display at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle (c) British Library Board

“We deliberately kept a light touch. Visual art connected with the history of religion can so often weigh heavily with pre-conceived ideas that render them inaccessible to many people.”

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Some initial events where the sheep will all be together are planned before they are sent to new homes around the county.

“It would be great to have them lined up for a photo at the Auction Mart livestock sale at Barnard Castle,” Taylor says.

She hopes that modern-day pilgrims will take to the highways and byways to find the sheep, which will be adopted and maintained by individual villages and communities. The idea was given an extra focus by the first easing of lockdown when people started to explore the great outdoors in a very different way, says Taylor.

“Do you remember how good it was just to be allowed outside, creating our own spaces and rituals? It was something like recreating the pilgrimages made hundreds of years ago by people visiting all the saints’ places and other holy sites.

“We all have a spirit and we need to be outdoors; visiting an illuminated sheep in a farmyard, outside a village hall or high on a clifftop during dark evenings in the autumn should bring a smile to any face.”

The Festival of Flame at Hexham Abbey

Other activities include the Hexham Book Festival and a series of author events run by Northumberland Archives including palaeography – the interpretation of old handwriting – workshops. And the town’s Festival of Flame will recreate some of the gospels’ designs in tealight candle displays in Hexham Abbey and other local churches.

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“The Lindisfarne Gospels are a fantastic work of art that transcends religion,” says Taylor. “Just think of Eadfrith, a monk at Lindisfarne, sitting by candlelight creating pages and pages to make something that even now – with everything else that we have around us – is literally awesome.”

Past glories

There’s an enormous sense of pride in the north east that the gospels were produced at a time when Northumbria was the mightiest kingdom in an England undergoing enormous political and cultural change, says Julie Milne, chief curator of art galleries, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

“There’s always a buzz when it comes back here and questions are often raised about why it can’t stay,” Milne says. “The British Library looks after the volume – which is more than 1,000 years old – with the expertise, environment, budget and resources we don’t have. When you see it, the quality and richness of the colours send a shiver down the spine.”

The first moves to bring the gospels to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne – where Milne is manager – were made during Brexit. “We were keen on the idea because we were going through such a difficult time,” she says. “That has paled in comparison to the pandemic, of course, so the core theme became what the gospels mean to audiences today.”

The Crown of Light projection at Durham Cathedral

To that end, the gospels exhibition will feature a specially commissioned film by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller reflecting his own idiosyncratic take on the manuscript. A complementary exhibition with Newcastle City Library next door will look at the gospels through the prism of 21st-century digital communications.

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The Laing’s engagement programme will feature the work of Scottish artist Ruth Ewan who will take a philosophical approach to explore what is now considered sacred by contemporary audiences from a wide variety of backgrounds.

“This is especially important since the 2021 census will show record low numbers of people identifying as Christian in what is increasingly a secular society,” says Milne, who has planned the exhibition across three spaces beginning with an exploration of the gospels’ global influences.

“The island of Lindisfarne has always had an isolated, eerie beauty but it was perfectly positioned on ancient boat trade routes to receive new ideas and materials from across the world, which we can trace through digital reproduction,” she says.

The gospel truth

The second room of the exhibition, which runs from 17 September to 3 December, will be where the gospels are displayed. The enormous barrel-vaulted space will also present other famous Anglo-Saxon treasures designed to inspire awe and wonder as the Christian faith was disseminated across Britain.

These include the Rothbury Cross, which depicts scenes from the life of Jesus Christ in a style clearly influenced by the gospels, and the tiny St Cuthbert Gospel pocket book, famed for its leather binding believed to be the oldest of its kind in the world.

“The final section relates the gospels to how we live now and uses contemporary and historical art to explore how spirituality can mean different things to different people,” Milne says.

The island of Lindisfarne has always had an isolated, eerie beauty

Julie Milne, chief curator of art galleries, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Research for the exhibition uncovered Anglo-Saxon society’s similarities with modern Britain, says Taylor. “It was very multicultural as the Romans had just left and the invading mercenaries were taking over from the indigenous Britons. It was also hierarchical and there was enormous upheaval and political uncertainty.”

The town of Hartlepool was among the first responders when the original call went out from the North East Culture Partnership for communities to join in with the activities around the gospels’ return.

“We have one of the most extensively excavated Northumbrian Anglo-Saxon monasteries, the historic village of Hart, which was an administrative centre at that time, and the Tall Ships Race is coming in 2023, so we knew it was something people would get behind,” says David Worthington, the borough council’s head of culture.

This November, the town opens its local history centre based in the former home of the shipbuilder William Gray with an exhibition of historic books and manuscripts telling the story of Hartlepool’s importance as a religious site as notable as Lindisfarne and Whitby.

Adding extra local flavour, the centre will also house maritime artefacts, the accounts of the bombardment of the town in the first world war and the collection of the Andy Capp cartoon strip, the brainchild of Hartlepool resident Reg Smythe.

Artist Bethan Maddocks is presenting a series of new works at Museums Northumberland

Another Hartlepool legend is remembered up on the headland where a magnificent church is dedicated to St Hilda, the seventh-century abbess who helped to change the course of Christianity in England when she hosted a synod to finally agree how to calculate the date of Easter.

“The north east has continued to develop its own culture with influences from Scotland and the Scandinavian countries,” says Worthington. “There’s a real interest in local history and the culture connected to the sea, the idea of where we came from and the way we’re brought together by past events. It’s almost a feeling of us against the world here as we don’t have a main trainline or any motorways.

“You have to make an effort to come here and that’s why people are so proud of local traditions such as the legend of the shipwrecked monkey that was hanged in the early 19th century by the townsfolk who believed it to be a French spy.”

In Sunderland and Durham, the ancient past is being celebrated through a very modern medium as contemporary artists create work in glass for the first time in their careers. The pieces are now on display at the National Glass Centre, University of Sunderland, after a series of installations in religious buildings earlier this year.

Durham Cathedral is hosting the contemporary performance artist Monster Chetwynd’s intricate dioramas (until 11 September) that update the stories of St Cuthbert – the Bishop of Lindisfarne for whom the gospels was created – and the Venerable Bede, a monk and the author of Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731CE).

Vial bodies

In the cathedral’s glorious chapter house, artist Katie Paterson contemplated our time on Earth through her collection of geological samples.

“She has amassed materials from all over the world and we made 400 vials for her to fill with powdered objects from throughout our history,” says the glass centre’s head of arts, Julia Stephenson.

“Each sample weighs 21 grams, which reflects the view of an early 20th-century American doctor who – after weighing a person before and after death – reckoned that was the weight of a human soul.”

A series of hourglasses containing dust from a crushed meteor will sit alongside, encouraging viewers to think about the effects we have had on the planet.

Sunderland Minster was the first venue to show Pascale Marthine Tayou’s exhibition Colonial Ghost (now on show at the National Glass Centre until 11 September), a provocative installation that raises questions about Christianity and the colonisation of Africa.

“He sent us wooden carvings of figures made in his native Cameroon,” says Stephenson. “Some were traditional African figures and some were more westernised with attire that reflected their occupations. We remade them into colourful glass figures. Our maker, James Maskrey, found it a challenge because he was concerned that any inadvertent changes could raise questions about appropriation.”

Stephenson says Durham Cathedral and Sunderland Minster were both supportive of the glass projects, which had looked very impressive in front of medieval stained-glass windows.

“I approached Sunderland Minster to show Colonial Ghost because the venue has a strong relationship with the refugee community,” she says. “I didn’t know how they would react as I was basically saying: ‘you did this bad thing and I want you to show this art that says you did a bad thing’. The way they embraced the opportunity to discuss the issue was fantastic.”

John Holt is a freelance writer

Holy orders

A Northumberland Menagerie

Woodhorn Museum, Berwick Museum & Art Gallery, Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum and Hexham Old Gaol
Until October

Museums Northumberland presents a series of new works by artist Bethan Maddocks. Stories of the area’s animals, past and present, real and imagined, are told through large-scale paper-cut installations.

Paul Rooney at Lindisfarne Castle

Artist Paul Rooney has created Song (After Nature), a soundscape installed at Lindisfarne Castle. The piece explores the idea of a climate catastrophe, with nature existing only as a ghost.

The Art of Words

Holy Island
Until December

St Mary’s Church, Holy Island and Lowick and Holy Island Church of England First Schools are celebrating the Lindisfarne Gospels and the scribe who wrote them with a programme of events. A large interactive digital copy of the Lindisfarne Gospels can be viewed at the Lindisfarne Centre where people can learn more about the island’s community and heritage.

In the Footsteps of Eadfrith

Art Block, County Durham
30 August-24 September

East Durham Artists’ Network is a group of professional and amateur artists. Their work in this show will respond to the style, content and context of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Suki Chan: Still Point

Gymnasium Gallery, Berwick-upon-Tweed
18 June-4 September

This film installation by artist Suki Chan engages with sacred spaces and places of pilgrimage including Pilgrims’ Way in Northumberland, contested sacred sites in Jerusalem and abandoned Syrian villages in the Golan Heights. The film evokes the tension that marks them as places of refuge and spiritual quest, and as materially-contested sites.

Festival of Flame

Hexham Abbey and other churches and venues in Northumberland
1 September-31 October

The patterns and shapes of the Lindisfarne Gospels’ illustrations will be recreated in fire with more than 1,000 tea light candles and light-based installations, complemented by a specially-commissioned soundtrack and large-scale outdoor fire gardens.

Hereteu: Anglo-Saxon Hartlepool

Museum of Hartlepool
September 2022-January 2023

This exhibition will take visitors on a journey through the emergence of Anglo-Saxon Hartlepool under the abbess Hilda, to the destruction and occupation of the area under the Vikings and its fate at the time of the Norman Conquest.

The Written Script: An Art Form

Jarrow Hall Museum
Autumn

The exhibition will take a closer look at Mediterranean influences on early medieval manuscripts and art. Visitors will have the opportunity to see the full-sized facsimile of the Codex Amiatinus in the Bede Museum, learn about Bede the historian and take part in fun family-friendly activities and other special events.

 

 

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