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.*

* Sadly, we know very little about this music. Chant was rarely written down until the late 9th century, and in St Benedict’s day worship at Rome was modelled on Agia Sophia in Constantinople as never before or since. We can assume the music at Monkwearmouth was noticeably Greek, but beyond that point caution is required, because most of the chant heard in Greek churches today comes, at any rate in its present form, from after The Fall of Constantinople in 1453.

* That is, choirmaster of the Basilica of St Peter in Rome, and abbot of the Monastery of St Martin that stood nearby. In ‘Byzantine Rome and the Greek Popes’, Andrew J. Ekonomou asserts that John was probably an Easterner, brought in under Pope Vitalian (r. 657-672) to help St Peter’s emulate the glory of Agia Sophia in Constantinople. That Agatho (r. 678-681) was willing to lend him to the English was almost as extraordinary as the fact that the English wanted to borrow him. See also The Synod of Hatfield, where John takes time off from teaching in Monkwearmouth to help the English support the Orthodox side in the Monothelite debate.

* The Church of St Peter (Geograph Project) in Monkwearmouth, near modern-day Sunderland. The west wall and its tower (or at any rate the lower parts) are all that remains today.

* Examples of Northumbrian iconography of this period can be seen in the Lindisfarne Gospels (British Library). The impact in little Northumbria of St Benedict’s Byzantine renaissance was echoed later on a much larger scale, and with much longer-lasting results, in Kievan Rus’ – see The Conversion of Vladimir the Great. In Northumbria’s case, the Vikings destroyed it; in Kiev’s case, the Vikings embraced it.

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 words of the Easter hymn below, ‘The Day of Resurrection’, were written by St John Damascene (676-749), a Syrian monk who was a contemporary of St Benedict and St Bede. John Damascene’s music tutor, Cosmas, was a Sicilian Greek just like Pope Agatho. The hymn is sung here by George Stamos; the music belongs to a later era, though it is descended from the same Greek musical world that Rome was trying to copy in Benedict’s day.

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Saint Bede of Jarrow (19) Lives of the Saints (98) History (415) County Durham (12) Anglo-Saxon History (45) Byzantine History (2) Music and Musicians (35) Northumbrian Enlightenment (30) Bible and Saints (113)

Picture: Mattana, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. View original
An icon of Christ in the vaulted ceiling of Winchester Cathedral, dating from the 12th century. 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. For some authentic Northumbrian iconography, see the Lindisfarne Gospels at the British Library.
Based on an account by Saint Bede of Jarrow

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