12 May 2022, The Tablet

Heart of glass – Northern saints reimagined

Heart of glass – Northern saints reimagined

View of Monster Chetwynd’s Bede diorama, above, and Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Colonial Ghost, inset right
Photos : david wood for sunderland culture; tayou: courtesy of artist and GALLERIA CONTINUA, © ADAGP, Paris


Sunderland has seen better times, but a new exhibition is a dazzling reminder of the North East’s pivotal role in British cultural history, says Laura Gascoigne

A short distance from Sunderland’s ultra-modern National Glass Centre, with its twin chimneys overlooking the Wear, stands the modest Church of St Peter, Monkwearmouth. While it’s Grade I listed, the building looks unremarkable, but its name bears witness to a venerable history. It was on this site at the mouth of the Wear in 674 that St Benedict Biscop founded St Peter’s Benedictine monastery, erecting the first stone-built church in England with the help of masons brought over from France. On his trips to Rome, the much travelled abbot had developed a taste for European design. His new church boasted the first stained-glass windows in Britain, installed by glassmakers also imported from France.

Though less famous than Bede or Cuthbert, St Benedict Biscop is a foundational figure in British cultural history – a medieval bibliophile who on his European travels acquired several hundred books, religious and secular, which formed the basis of the impressive library at St Paul’s in Jarrow, the sister monastery to St Peter’s that he went on to found in 682. Jarrow became a medieval ­centre of learning, boasting the biggest scriptorium in Europe; it was here that Benedict’s equally bookish pupil Bede would pen his 60-plus works on Scripture, grammar, ecclesiastical history, chronology and science.


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