A Decorated Letter, in Bede's 'Life of St Cuthbert'
Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum
In the early 720s, Bede, Jarrow's best-selling author, rewrote the story of the life of St Cuthbert, bishop of Lindisfarne (Holy Island) to advertise the saint's miracles. It was not long after Cuthbert's relics had been translated (moved) into a special shrine at Lindisfarne and his body had been discovered to be incorrupt. Besides serving to promote, 'Lives' remained important because religious communities read from them daily as a way of commemorating their saints. Cuthbert's relics were taken from Lindisfarne when the monks fled the Viking attacks in the 9th century and eventually came to rest at Durham cathedral, where this manuscript of his life was made. After Edward III, Richard II and the prior and bishops of Durham founded Durham College (now Trinity College) in 1285 for the purpose of educating their monks, the manuscript was taken there for them to study and to read in their daily prayer services.
This impressive letter 'P' begins the story of Cuthbert's life. The human figure entangled in the spiralling vines with thick leaves and the dragon at its lower end represent a good example of 12th-century decoration.