Bringing St Cuthbert's treasures to you

We are all too aware of how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting how we go about our daily lives. For us, we are having to find new ways of celebrating our beloved Saint Cuthbert, on his feast day today. As our Open Treasure museum is currently closed, we caught up with Exhibitions Assistant, Shaun McAlister, who shared with us the fascinating history of St Cuthbert and his treasures.

Built in the 14th century, the Great Kitchen at Durham Cathedral is now part of our Open Treasure museum and amongst other amazing artefacts, it houses the treasures of St Cuthbert.  These are among the most precious and oldest objects in the whole of the cathedral’s collections.

The Great Kitchen at Durham Cathedral

At the centre of the room is the coffin of St. Cuthbert.  This is Cuthbert’s second coffin, the first would have been made of stone and undecorated.  This one was made in 698 when, eleven years after his death, the monks of Lindisfarne decided to raise up his body expecting to be able to place his bones in a small reliquary on the altar in the Priory.  Instead they found an incorrupt body, a symbol of sainthood.  The coffin is made from hand carved oak and is decorated with the depictions of Christ, the Virgin and Child, the archangels and the apostles.  The lid also contains the symbols of the four Apostles.

St Cuthbert’s coffin

After over 1,300 years, it is amazing to see how much of the coffin has survived.  The fragments that are on display now were retrieved during two excavations in 1827 and 1899.  It was during these excavations that the rest of the treasures were discovered.

The most famous of the treasures is undoubtedly the pectoral cross.  Dating from the mid-7th century it is a stunning example of Northumbrian gold work.  Decorated with shell and garnet each arm of the cross contains 12 garnets (some of which have been replaced with glass) to represent the Apostles.  The use of garnet was significant for its red colour, symbolising the blood of Christ.  Originally each of the four arms of the Cross would have been the same length but the bottom arm is now a little shorter.  It has been repaired twice, owing to breakage.  The repairs took place in the 7th century, the evidence of the skill of these repairs can still be seen on the back of the cross.

St Cuthbert’s pectoral cross

Cuthbert was also buried with two more practical objects, a comb and a portable altar.

Portable altar
Portable altar

Dedicated to St. Peter, the altar did not originally have a silver casing.  That was later added after Cuthbert’s death, when it was used as a portable relic that could be taken away from Lindisfarne to spread the word about St. Cuthbert and Christianity.

The comb is made of ivory and of the right date to have been used by Cuthbert himself.  We know that it was used on Cuthbert because one of the duties of the monks after his death was to comb his hair and beard to make him look as presentable as possible when mourners came to visit.

Ivory comb

One of those pilgrims was King Aethelstan.  He visited St. Cuthbert in 934 when his body was resting at Chester-le-Street.  He brought with him these magnificent textiles which take the form of a stole, maniple and girdle, garments worn by priests during services.  Decorated with human figures they make no mention of St. Cuthbert because they were not made with him in mind.  They were made for the Bishop of Winchester, but the Bishop and King had a rather tumultuous relationship and Aethelstan decided he wasn’t worthy of them but Cuthbert, as the countries most popular saint at the time, was.

Textiles from King Aethelstan

These extraordinary objects have to be seen to be fully appreciated, so hopefully this blog has what your appetite to visit Open Treasure for yourself when we reopen.

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