How St Benedict Biscop brought Byzantium to Britain
The chapel of Bede’s monastery in Sunderland was full of the colours and sounds of the far-off Mediterranean world.
How St Benedict Biscop brought Byzantium to Britain

From ‘The Lives of the Abbots of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow’, by St Bede of Jarrow (early 8th century). Abridged and emended using Bede’s original Latin.

In 678, the new Pope, a Sicilian Greek named Agatho, decided to continue a recent trend of introducing Greek elements into Roman worship. St Benedict Biscop, an English abbot who visited Rome for the fifth and final time the following year, brought the sights and sounds of the eastern Mediterranean back home.

IN addition, Benedict introduced the Roman mode of chanting, singing, and ministering in the church.

With that in mind, he obtained permission from Pope Agatho to take back with him John, the archchanter of the church of St Peter* and abbot of the monastery of St Martin, to teach the English.

He also brought with him sacred pictures to adorn the church of St Peter, which he had built.** There was a likeness of the blessed Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary and of the twelve Apostles, which he intended to affix to the central vault, on boards reaching from one wall to the other.

There were also some stories from the gospels for the south wall, and scenes from the Revelation of St John for the north wall.

He wanted every one who entered the church, even if they could not read, wherever they turned their eyes, to have before them the lovable faces of Christ and his saints.

* The Basilica of St Peter in Rome. The Monastery of St Martin stood nearby.

** The church of St Peter in Monkwearmouth, near modern-day Sunderland. The tower still stands, though the rest of the church is more modern, and the icons are long gone.

From ‘The Lives of the Abbots of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow’, by St Bede of Jarrow (early 8th century). Abridged and emended using Bede’s original Latin.

The Day of Resurrection

The hymn below, ‘The Day of Resurrection’, was composed by St John Damascene (676-749), a Syrian monk who was a contemporary of St Benedict and St Bede, and whose music tutor, Cosmas, was a Sicilian Greek just like Pope Agatho. It is sung here by George Stamos.

More like this

Saint Bede of Jarrow (19) Lives of the Saints (90) History (377) County Durham (11) Anglo-Saxon History (42) Byzantine History (2) Music and Musicians (32) Northumbrian Enlightenment (29) Bible and Saints (105)

Grammar & Composition

Based on school textbooks used in Grammar Schools and Secondary Moderns from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Picture: © Olaf Tausch, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC-BY-SA 3.0. View original
The 15th century screen in the Church of St Helen in Gateley, Norfolk, with images of the saints on boards within the lower part. St Bede’s description of icons of Mary and the Apostles affixed to the central arch or vault and ‘reaching from one wall to the other’ is unfortunately patient of more than one interpretation, but roughly contemporary churches in Rome such as the Basilica of St Mary in Cosmedin, decorated by Greeks fleeing persecution in The Iconoclastic Controversy, give some idea of the kind of Byzantine architecture that St Benedict and the Byzantine Papacy admired. Bede’s chapel at the Monastery of St Paul in Jarrow remains to this day, and although the icons are no more, with a little imagination we can get some idea of what St Benedict wanted it to look like.
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