Make me an island


Images of St Cuthbert

Feast Day (new calendar): 
April 2nd
Feast Day (old calendar): 
March 20th

St Cuthbert turns three waves of the sea into blood in order to prevent his followers from taking his relics out of England. © The Master and Fellows of University College, OxfordSt Cuthbert turns three waves of the sea into blood in order to prevent his followers from taking his relics out of England. © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford Cuthbert, Lindisfarne and Durham

Cuthbert is, with little doubt, one of the better-known British saints, his holy sites on the island of Lindisfarne and in Durham have proved remarkably popular pilgrimage destinations both historically and up to the present day. Such popularity can be attributed to a number of factors: to the community gathered round him during his lifetime and the preservation and recording of stories from his life, to the discovery of his incorrupt body after his death, and to the monastic and ecclesial centre built around his relics. The association between his life and the British landscape is, however, equally significant: the Island of Lindisfarne where he spent a period of his life is both beautiful and relatively accessible, feeding into attractive Romantic ideals of Celtic spirituality, whilst the Cathedral at Durham which houses his relics dominates the landscape of the city, its Norman styling constantly reminding passers-by of the long history of Christianity in the region. The holy lives of Cuthbert and the monks which surrounded and succeeded him have come to shape experiences and imaginings of the landscape where they dwelt, and as such have worked their way into the very fabric of the area. 

Lives of Cuthbert

Our main sources for the life of Cuthbert are two lives of the saint—one metrical, one prose—written by Bede, and an earlier, anonymous life of Cuthbert—likely documenting tradition at Lindisfarne—written by a local monk towards the end of the 7th century. In addition to purely written texts, we are also lucky that illustrated editions of the saint’s life were produced and have survived. A manuscript currently in the possession of University College Oxford (Univ MS 165) and another in the possession of the British Library (Yates Thompson 26) both contain full cycles of illustrations to go alongside Bede’s prose. Whilst the British library manuscript is somewhat more elaborate, and can be viewed online, it is the earlier, Univ illustrations which we use in this post. The manuscript was produced in Durham in the late 11th century, possibly as an aid to private devotion. The illustrations alongside the text serve both to illuminate and to interpret the life of the saint, drawing out spiritual meanings and helping the reader (as they will also do here) to contemplate the events of the narrative.

Hermit and Pastor 

Of the habitation which he made for himself in the Island of Farne, when he had expelled the devils. © The Master and Fellows of University College, OxfordOf the habitation which he made for himself in the Island of Farne, when he had expelled the devils. © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford

Whilst Cuthbert’s principal goal seems to have been to live a life of solitary devotion to God, this life is often in tension with the demands of, and his service to, those around him, most notably when he somewhat reluctantly accepts the pastoral role of Bishop. His move from Lindisfarne to the more-isolated island of Farne is a physical demonstration of his desire to focus on his own solitary path. 

Univ 165 contains an illustration of Cuthbert’s eremetic life full of depth and symbolism. Magdalena Elizabeth Carrasco explores the rich Christian tradition connecting church, God and individuals with architectural imagery. In this image, the curvature of Cuthbert’s body conforms to the shape of the cell, drawing on long Christian tradition that the cell plays a crucial role in shaping the monk through his devotion to and within such a space. She suggests, at the same time, that the depiction of stones in the image, alongside the close association of an individual stone with the saint, draws on the idea of the church as living stones, representing the saints which, shaped and formed into polished and refined blocks, together form the building blocks of God’s church (see, for example, 1 Peter 2 or Ephesians 2). 

The image in the Oxford Vita Cuthberti… establishes Cuthbert himself as a squared stone, but it also makes clear how that spiritual perfection may be achieved by others who follow his example. Taken by itself, the large square block of stone would serve as a metaphor for Cuthbert’s own spiritual perfection. Yet there is clearly more at stake here than a celebration of Cuthbert’s isolated asceticism. By depicting a building composed of many stones, as well as the process of construction itself, the artist celebrates the life of the Church as it develops through time, both historically and spiritually. 

Interpreted literally, as a straightforward narrative act, the right-hand portion of the illustration is illogical, since the hermitage appears to be complete and there is no open space into which the stone may be inserted. In one sense the saint, the stone, and the hermit’s cell are discrete units, yet Cuthbert holds the stone in a way that suggests their commonality, even identity. He is as large as the cell, and the curvature of his body conforms to its shape, as though the cell has formed him physically as well as spiritually. Both saint and stone overlap the cell to suggest the equivalence of all three elements: the smooth, regular stone conveys the spiritual perfection of the man of God, achieved through the disciplined life of the hermit’s cell. The architectural imagery is neither a (relatively) realistic illustration of medieval building practices, nor an explicit statement of corporate institutional power, as might be the case with other illustrated vitae, but rather a multivalent visual metaphor, encompassing both the nature of Cuthbert’s spiritual perfection and the means by which that perfection might be emulated by others

Of his manner of life in his bishopric. © The Master and Fellows of University College, OxfordOf his manner of life in his bishopric. © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford In the illustration of Cuthbert as monk and bishop we see again not just an illustration of an event, but an image with a clear spiritual purpose. Whilst Otto Pächt emphasises the way in which the illustrations of miracles in Univ 165 depict sudden temporal changes by their layering of multiple moments side by side, Carrasco draws attention to the way in which the illustrations often seem to lean in the opposite direction, depicting simultaneity rather than sequential change, thereby emphasising “the saint’s ability to transcend conventional limitations of historical time and partake of the timeless wisdom of God”. 

In many cases the emphasis is not on sudden change ... but rather on notions of continuity and permanence. Cuthbert’s exceptional virtues enable him to intervene, as God’s agent, in the temporal affairs of men; in Cynthia Hahn’s words, he functions as a “lightening rod for the power of God.” But in addition to showing the effects of Cuthbert’s spiritual grace on the members of his community, the artist is also interested in characterizing the specific attributes of Cuthbert’s spiritual personality. Some of these, such as the gift of prophecy, are unique to Cuthbert as a saint, whereas others constitute a model of behavior accessible to the members of the monastic community entrusted with preserving Cuthbert’s legacy. In both cases, the narrative structures minimize or negate the notion of change over time in favor of portraying that which is permanently valid. This is fully in keeping with the attitude of the Durham monks, for whom Cutherbert’s incorrupt body, as well as the saint’s spiritual ideals, remained a continuous living presence. 

In the case of this image we are therefore shown qualities as applicable to those succeeding Cuthbert as to the saint himself. We are shown that, despite taking on the role of bishop, Cuthbert remains steadfast to his solitary monastic path, the connected arches symbolising the unity he brings to the dual ideals of monk and bishop. He neither becomes so involved in the affairs of the community as to neglect his path of spiritual formation, nor so closed-in on himself as to become unavailable to those around him.

How he entertained an angel, and whilst ministering to him earthly bread, was thought worthy to be rewarded with bread from heaven © The Master and Fellows of University College, OxfordHow he entertained an angel, and whilst ministering to him earthly bread, was thought worthy to be rewarded with bread from heaven © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford

How Cuthbert passed the night in the sea, praying; and when he was come out, two animals of the sea did him reverence. © The Master and Fellows of University College, OxfordHow Cuthbert passed the night in the sea, praying; and when he was come out, two animals of the sea did him reverence. © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford

How the crows apologized to the man of God for the injury which they did him, and made him a present in compensation. © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford How the crows apologized to the man of God for the injury which they did him, and made him a present in compensation. © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford

How, at a time of sickness, he restored a dying boy in health to his mother. © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford How, at a time of sickness, he restored a dying boy in health to his mother. © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford

People, Animals and Angels

Anne Lawrence-Mathers highlights a number of themes in the illustrations of Univ 165: Cuthbert’s contact with angels and animals, his gift of prophecy, his role as healer and protector of his community, and his role as teacher, true monk and scholar. Whilst the lives of Cuthbert are filled with miracles from end to end, these are not arbitrary accounts of the supernatural but, rather, serve to depict specific trajectories and characteristics of Cuthbert’s life as a saint. Mathers, for example, draws attention to the depiction of Cuthbert’s act of hospitality unwittingly offered to an angel, through which he is rewarded with bread from heaven:

The miniature shows St Cuthbert seated companionably beside the angel, holding only the latter’s hand in his bosom [rather than washing his feet]. This had the effect of emphasising St Cuthbert’s equality with the angel, even at the expense of his humility.

Bede’s narrative similarly seems to reconfigure Cuthbert's relationship with animals. As a result of his spiritual gifts and development animals do Cuthbert service and obey him, whilst simultaneously performing roles and comprehending instructions which seem to bring them out of an entirely subordinate animal kingdom and into the realm of personal relationships. Otters attend Cuthbert whilst praying, warming and drying him as he keeps vigil through the night, and Cuthbert honours an eagle who brings him food as an equal, rebuking his companion for not giving the eagle its due share in return for her ministrations. Likewise he has stern words to offer for birds feeding on the crops that he, and not they, has sown. Such things do not belong to the birds unless God had offered them specific permission. On a second occasion, when he rebukes some birds for taking thatching from a hut for their nest, the birds subsequently atone for their offence by making an offering in return.

Cuthbert’s relationships with other people are perhaps most vividly illustrated through depiction of prophecy and of healing. Whilst Cuthbert's prophecies can sometimes provoke surprise and confusion, not always foretelling the most welcome of events, the depictions of healings provide somewhat pleasanter material. The illustration of Cuthbert’s restoration of a dying boy to his mother provides one of the warmest illustrations of the manuscript, and it is clear that Cuthbert, in the scene, provides a welcome presence to those around him, his saintly power serving not to elevate or separate him into a separate realm of detached devotion but to provide precisely the loving and restorative power that the community through which he passes is in need of. He is not simply a passing healer from whom power leaks accidentally but, holding the child in his arms, he adopts a similar pose to the child's mother, as, together, they care for the ailing boy. 

After his Death

His last instructions to the brethren; and how, when he had received the viaticum, he yielded up his soul in prayer. © The Master and Fellows of University College, OxfordHis last instructions to the brethren; and how, when he had received the viaticum, he yielded up his soul in prayer. © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford

Cuthbert’s miracles continue after his death, and the healings seem to be of much the same character and power after he has been buried as during his life itself. Indeed, this is one of the characteristics of sainthood, the continued life of the saint in the kingdom of God reflected by a continued relationship with the world in which they once lived. In MS 165 this is reinforced by a continuation of the same mode of illustration both after Cuthbert's death and even further, into supplementary material documenting events beyond the frame of Bede's original narrative. Such continuity seems to be especially evident in the drawing depicting Cuthbert’s last instructions to the brethren and his yielding up of his soul in prayer. Whereas the majority of illustrations throughout the manuscript depict figures in contrasting colours, at this final moment we are offered an illustration of three monks all clothed in blue around his deathbed. Whilst it is far from clear whether all three should be seen as representations of Cuthbert or as different members of the monastic community, this illustration seems to offer a suggestion that Cuthbert’s life is one that is reproducible, offering the saint as an object of emulation whose presence and example continues to flourish within the community of monks.

St Cuthbert's body divides the sea. © The Master and Fellows of University College, OxfordSt Cuthbert's body divides the sea. © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford

Cuthbert himself, however, is not the originator of this spiritual line, and Magdalena Carrasco points to a number of illustrations which connect him with the earlier figure of Moses and of Benedict. These connections are drawn out most vividly in the illustration depicting a post-Bedan episode; the division of the sea by Cuthbert’s body as it is carried forth on dry land at high tide as the guardans of his body flee the army of William the Conqueror. The illustration is clearly drawn to resemble the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea, and the similarity of the cask bearing Cuthbert's body to the ark of the covenant reinforces this connection to the long line of saints within which Cuthbert and his community stand. This event bestows upon Cuthbert a great deal of power and status as a saintly worker of miracles, able to achieve the same miracles as a great figure such as Moses. At the same time, however, Cuthbert's saintly status belongs to him not as a new pioneer showing a path previously undiscovered, but in his faithfulness to the continued pattern of saints before and after him. In devoting himself to the tradition which he has inherited he gives this tradition fresh momentum for those who follow in his footsteps. 


While still in your youth, you laid aside all worldly cares, and took up the sweet yoke of Christ, and you were shown forth in truth to be nobly radiant in the grace of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, God established you as a rule of faith and shepherd of His radiant flock, Godly-minded Cuthbert, converser with angels and intercessor for men.

We are grateful to the librarians of University College Oxford, Elizabeth Adams and Emily Green, for their enthusiastic and helpful assistance in viewing Univ MS 165 and for granting permission to reproduce images from the manuscript. All images are copyright © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford

Sources for Further Reading:

The Illustrated Lives:
Malcom Baker (1978), Medieval Illustrations of Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 41, pp.16–49.

Magdalena Elizabeth Carrasco (2000), The Construction of Sanctity: Pictorial Hagiography and Monastic Reform in the First Illustrated Life of St Cuthbert (Oxford, University College MS 165). Studies in Iconography 21, pp. 47–89

Otto Pächt (1962), The Rise of Pictorial Narrative in Twelfth Century England. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Anne Lawrence-Mathers (2003), ‘Pictorial narrative and the cult of St Cuthbert' in Manuscripts in Northumbria in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Barbara Abou-El-Haj (1996), ‘Saint Cuthbert: The Post-Conquest Appropriation of an Anglo-Saxon Cult’ in Paul Szarmach (ed) Holy Men and Holy Women: Old English Prose Saints’ Lives and Their Contexts. Albany: State University of New York Press.

The Lives of St Cuthbert:
Sally Crumplin (2004), Rewriting History in the Cult of St Cuthbert from the Ninth to the Twelfth Centuries. PhD Thesis: University of St Andrews.

Bertram Colgrave (1939), Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert. New York: Greenwood Press.

The Cult of Cuthbert:
Dominic Marner (1963). St Cuthbert: His Life and Cult in Medieval Durham. University of Toronto Press.

Gerlad Bonner, David Rolason, Clare Stancliffe (eds 1989). St Cuthbert, His Cult and His Community to AD 1200. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

William Aird (1998), St Cuthbert and the Normans: The Church of Durham, 1071–1153. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Paul M Collins, Lindisfarne – technology and poetry: the construal of a Celtic destination.

St Lide

Feast Day (new calendar): 
August 21st
Feast Day (old calendar): 
August 8th

Saint Lide, who is also known by variants such as Elid or Elidius, was a Cornish hermit who made his residence on what is now known as St Helens in the Isles of Scilly. Whilst relatively little is known about him, it seems clear that he played an important role in establishing the Island as a site of Christian devotion. This tradition continues to the present day with the annual pilgrimage to the island in 2014 being joined by around a hundred people including a local bishop.

St Lide and Olaf Tryggvason

The view from St Helen's

A hermit living on the Scilly islands is mentioned in Heimskringla, a collection of sagas about Old Norse kings written by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century. One of the sagas tells a story about king Olaf's gradual conversion to Christianity. The episode that interests us runs as follows: The Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason was going on a long-term visit (985-988) to the British Isles and, after visiting Scotland and Ireland, he “came to the islands called the Scilly Isles, lying westward from England in the ocean”. There he met a hermit who in the holy spirit foretold to  him about his future kingdom. After the prophecy was fulfilled Olaf returned to the holy man and asked him about his wisdom."The hermit replied, that the Christian God himself let him know all that he desired; and he brought before Olaf many great proofs of the power of the Almighty. In consequence of this encouragement Olaf agreed to let himself be baptized, and he and all his followers were baptized forthwith. He remained here a long time, took the true faith, and got with him priests and other learned men."

So was Saint Lide the hermit who conferred with Olaf? The reconstructions involve a lot of guesswork. The story of a saint predicting a kingdom to a future king is a typical legendary pattern and some scholars suggest that it was taken from Pope Gregory's story about the conversion of the Gothic king Totila after meeting St. Benedict. An earlier saga by Oddr Snorrason, a 12th century Icelandic monk, also reports that Olaf was baptised on the Scilly Islands in 993. However, the legend may go back to the 11th century since among the sources for Heimskringla were scaldic poems belonging to a long-lived oral tradition. In any case, the account in the Norwegian sagas may reflect the existence of a Christian community on the Scilly Islands that was famous for its spiritual toils and gifts.

Cults of saints in Cornwall

Although the early history of Christianity in Cornwall is somewhat murky, there is evidence from an account of the life of St Samson of Dol that it was probably well-established prior to his arrival in the 6th Century. It thus goes back well before that time, possibly even to the early centuries after Christ. Whilst Lide’s shrine can be singled out for its continued ability to draw distant pilgrims through until the later middle ages, Lide stands within a rich and multi-faceted Cornish tradition of veneration. Nicholas Orme suggests that, whilst the presence of saint cults in Cornwall was not necessarily particularly unusual, what is unusual about Cornwall is its possession of a great number of distinctive local saints in addition to its veneration of more-international figures. Evidence for these can still be found dotted around the cornish countryside in the forms of place names and buildings named after particular figures. The names of St Austell or St Ives, for example will be familiar to any tourist.

Hermits and islands

The Hermit's Hut on St Helen's

Helen O’Neil suggests that the Isles of Scilly ‘were the type of site which attracted the early Celtic Christians’, noting the large number of Celtic monastic sites that were founded in the 5th and 6th centuries. A remote site such as this clearly provides an attractive location for the solitary aspects of life as a monk or hermit. Even today islands around Britain remain important pilgrimage sites, the islands of Iona and Lindisfarne being popular examples. Evidence for a cult on St Helen’s comes from a number of sources. Pope Pius II, writing in 1461 speaks of ‘The faithful who go in great numbers to the chapel of St Elidius’, granting indulgences to those who visit as a result of the site’s need for repair following raids from pirates (whom he excommunicates). Likewise the poet and antiquary John Leland, writing in the 16th Century mentions ‘Saynct Lide’s Isle, where in tymes past at her sepulchre was gret superstition’. The island houses the remains of a number of buildings, the earliest being a round hermit’s hut and oratory probably belonging to the founder. The earliest pottery dates back to the 11th century suggesting this as the period around which the island began to be inhabited. By the early 12th century O’Neil suggests that ‘the original hermit must have become a figure of veneration, as St Ilid, and have been commemorated by the erection of a chapel to mark the site of his grave’. Three rectangular huts, all enclosed by a precinct wall indicate the expansion of the site to house multiple hermits following in Lide’s footsteps.

Why did St Lide choose a remote uninhabitated island to live and to serve God? The tradition of Christian asceticism, which goes back to the Egyptian monks of the 4th century, supposes that one may save his soul and approach God only by renouncing the world's pleasures and by taking on an ongoing fight with one's own sinful passions. Christian hermits of past ages were determined to leave their ordinary life behind and to explore completely new places in order to start their new life in Christ there. Perhaps, a small island, being naturally isolated, seemed to St Lide a perfect place for praising God, thanking Him for the beauty of His creation and contemplating his own inner spiritual life.


A troparion in the Eastern Orthodox tradition is a short hymn in honor of a saint or a holiday. It summarises in one stanza the key points of the saints' life and deeds or the main events of the holiday, usually in a poetic way. E.g. the troparion of Christmas:

Your birth, O Christ our God, dawned the light of knowledge upon the earth. For by Your birth those who adored stars were taught by a star to worship You, the Sun of Justice, and to know You, Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to You.

The troparion is usually sung to one of 8 tones but can be also said without music. Not all saints have their troparia written. In cases where a saint doesn't have a troparion yet, we shall compose it ourselves based on the main principles of this liturgical genre.


O honorable father, adornment of the Scilly islands! You have disdained all wordly glory and fleeing from inhabitated places you have reached a deserted island to find the eternal beauty in a hermit's cell. 
And thus the glory of your name reached the far lands over the seas and people still gather around your holy grave praising the God and singing:
Saint Lide, pray to Christ our Lord for us.

Image credit:

For further discussion of Olaf's conversion and its historical context see Sverre Bagge (2006) 'The Making of a Missionary King: The Medieval Accounts of Olaf Tryggvason and the Conversion of Norway' In: The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 105.4 , pp. 473-513.

Other sources for further reading include:

Nicholas Orme (2000) The Saints of Cornwall. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Helen O'Neil (1964) 'Excavation of a Celtic Hermitage on St Helen's, Scilly, 1956-58'. In: Archaeological Journal 121.

David Farmer (2011) Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

King Olaf Trygvason's Saga