The St Cuthbert Gospel is a small copy of the Gospel of St John. It is the earliest European book with an original, intact binding, and was discovered in 1104, when the coffin of St Cuthbert (d. 687), bishop of Lindisfarne, was opened at Durham Cathedral.
The manuscript was probably made in the second or third decade of the eighth century at Wearmouth-Jarrow, a major intellectual centre in the north of England. Around the same time, the monastery’s scriptorium also produced the grand Bible known as Codex Amiatinus, although the two manuscripts are dramatically different in scale. The outer leaves of the St Cuthbert Gospel have a shiny appearance, suggesting that initially the book was left unbound. Coptic influence, from Egypt, is seen in the structure of the flax-thread stitching which holds the pages together. This binding technique is distinct from the standard method subsequently adopted in medieval Europe, in which the text-block is sewn onto cords.
The covers are made of wooden boards, almost certainly birch, covered with decorated red goatskin. The back cover has rectangular borders containing a geometric, step-pattern double-armed cross, recalling John’s central role in the Crucifixion narrative. The front cover is tooled over cords, which form raised borders separating the different areas of decoration. Two tooled panels of interlace are decorated with yellow orpiment (a type of mineral) and indigo. Alone among the four corners of the single-strand interlace, the corner at the lower left forms a triquetra (three-pointed) knot, but the other three do not; and the left end of the upper panel of interlace forms a knot, in contrast to the other three ends which have a bar-shaped return. Such devices perhaps served to distinguish St John among the four Evangelists. The central motif of a stylised vine sprouting from a chalice reflects Christian imagery from the eastern Mediterranean. The plant on the cover of the Gospel has a central leaf or bud and four fruits, echoing the text, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’, from St John’s Gospel 15:5.
A CT scan in 2013 revealed the existence of a clay-like substance under the leather of the front cover. It has been proposed that the central vine motif was formed by pressing a matrix (made of wood or metal), carved with the design, on to the wet leather cover, under which lay the clay-like material and the wooden board. The CT scan also revealed the slenderness of the boards, which helps to explain the book’s unusually light weight of 162 grams.