University of Kentucky scholar hopes to uncover new clues about origin of 8th-century Gospels


William Endres is one of the few people in the world who has seen and touched the St. Chad Gospels in all of its medieval glory.

The 8th-century illuminated manuscript sits cloistered at Lichfield Cathedral in central England, its illustrations and meticulous, handwritten text protected from further erosion.

Endres — a digital humanities scholar at the University of Kentucky — has made it his mission to make the St. Chad Gospels available to scholars all over the world through constantly changing technology.

In 2010, he was part of a team that made the first 3D digital copy of the book; this summer, he will return to map the surface of its pages with a photographic technology known as Reflectance Transformation Imaging, which he hopes will turn up new clues in the mystery of its creation.

"The scholarship had really suffered for not having copies of the manuscript for scholars to study," Endres said.

Many Anglo Saxon illuminated manuscripts, which contain elaborate decorations and illustrations, were destroyed by Viking raiders. Most of those that survived were robbed of their jeweled covers, ripped apart to expose their colorful pigments.

The St. Chad Gospels, which also is known as the Lichfield or St. Teilo Gospels, is thought to have been made in the year 730 on calfskin, probably in Lichfield. It was probably stolen, and it ended up in Wales, where it was placed on the altar of St. Teilo. During that time, people wrote in old Welsh along the book's margins, one of the earliest examples of the language.

The book was returned to Lichfield in the 10th century, and it narrowly missed destruction 700 years later during the English Civil War; a Cathedral official smuggled the book out before Cromwell's armies advanced. Eventually, it returned to its home, left only with the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, and a portion of the Gospel of Luke, along with illustrations.

Endres, who became interested in medieval manuscripts after he saw a copy of Ireland's famed Book of Kells, had seen black-and-white images of the St. Chad Gospels, but he knew he could do better. Thanks to his efforts, it's now possible to page through some of the Gospels on the Lichfield Cathedral website.

Endres has since won a grant from the USC West Semitic Research Project, which is dedicated to the digital preservation of early religious artifacts. Next week, he will travel to USC for training on the RTI equipment.

"RTI allows you to take series of photographs with different directional light that emphasizes all the surface detail for you," Endres said.

This is particularly important for the St. Chad Gospels, because it contains something known as "dry-point glosses" — writing made with a dry pen that imprinted its shape on the vellum without any ink.

They were often made by scribes who believed that putting their names in a holy book would get them into heaven.

Even more exciting for Endres are three dry-point glosses on the margins of the Magnificat page, where the pregnant Virgin Mary praises God. Those glosses are three Anglo-Saxon women's names — Berhtfled, Elfled and Wulfild — indicating that women had access to the book.

"These were written in such a way so people could not see them right away," Endres said. "When you take a regular photo, they don't show up."

The RTI imaging could open up a whole new realm of scholarship, he said.

"The scholars I've talked to are really excited to see what happens with this work," Endres said.

RTI imaging can also help pinpoint where the pigment of the illuminated pages is most thin or getting ready to flake.

Endres leaves for England later this month, and he'll spend a week in Lichfield Cathedral using the new technology. He also will lecture on the Gospels and hold a children's class on calligraphy and illumination. He said he wants to show his appreciation to the community and the cathedral, which receives no state funding to preserve its ancient artifacts.

"This manuscript is very precious to Lichfield," Endres said in a statement. "The St. Chad Gospels might be a treasure of the world, but it is the Lichfield community that has protected and preserved it through the ages."