icon image of Benedict Biscop and the young Bede from Peter Murphy icons
Today (12 January) we commemorate Benedict Biscop, abbot of Wearmouth (late 7th century). From the Rev Dr Baring-Gould:
S. BENEDICT BISCOP. (a.d. 703.)
[Roman, Benedictine, and Anglican Martyrologies. Life from William of Malmesbury, Bede’s Homilies and Ecclesiastical History, Florence of Worcester, Matthew of Westminster. The following account is condensed from the life of S. Benedict Biscop, in Montalembert’s Monks of the West, Bk. xiii., c. 2.]
Benedict was born of the highest Anglo-Saxon nobility, in the year 628. While he was still very young, he held an office in the household of King Oswy. At twenty-five he gave up secular life, marriage, and his family, restored his lands to the king, and dedicated himself to the service of God. Before he settled in any community he went to Rome, whither he had been long attracted by that desire of praying at the tomb of the Apostles, which became so general among the Anglo-Saxons. He started in company with S. Wilfrid, but the two young Northumbrian nobles separated at Lyons. After his first visit to Rome, Benedict returned thither a second and a third time, having in the meantime assumed the monastic habit in the island of Lerins. Pope Vitalianus, struck with the piety and knowledge of so constant and zealous a pilgrim, assigned to him, as guide and interpreter, that Greek, Theodore, who became Archbishop of Canterbury, and who, when he went to England, transferred the monk of Lerins to be abbot of the principal monastery in Canterbury.
After thus spending two years with the new Archbishop, the abbot Benedict, instead of re-visiting his native district, went for the fourth time to Rome, 671. He was then in the prime of life ; but when it is considered what were the difficulties and dangers of such a journey — at such a time — when we remember that a journey firom London to Rome then took twice as long, and was a hundred times more dangerous than a journey from London to Australia is now, we are amazed at the energy which induced so many Anglo-Saxon monks, not once only, but many times in their life, to cross the sea and the Alps on their way to Rome. His fourth expedition was undertaken in the interests of literature. He brought back a cargo of books, partly sold, partly given to him ; and, in passing by Vienne, the ancient capital of the Gauls, on his return, he brought with him many more which he had deposited there in the charge of his friends. When he returned at length to his native Northumbria, he sought King Egfrid, the son of his former master, Oswy, then the reigning monarch, and told him all he had done during the twenty years that had passed since he left his country and the royal service. Then, endeavouring to communicate to him the religious ardour with which his own heart was filled, he explained to the King all he had learned at Rome and elsewhere, of ecclesiastical and monastic discipline, showing him the books and relics which he had brought back. Egfrid, who had not yet begun his struggle with Wilfrid, allowed himself to be won by the stories of the pilgrim, for whom he conceived a great affection ; and in order that he might apply his experience to the government of a new community, he detached from his own possessions, and presented to Benedict, an estate situated at the mouth of the Wear, a little stream which flows through Durham, and throws itself into the Northern sea, a little south of the Tyne. (Monk-Wearmouth on the north bank of the river.) This gave the name of Wearmouth to the new monastery, which was dedicated to S. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, according to the express wish of Egfrid, in agreement with that of Benedict, as an evidence of his leanings towards Rome.
This foundation was no sooner assured than the unwearied Benedict took ship again, to seek in France masons to build him a stone church, in the Roman style, for everything that came from Rome was dear to him. The church was carried on with so much energy, that, a year after the first stone was laid, the church was roofed in, and mass was celebrated under one of those stone arches which excited the surprise of the English in the seventh century. He brought glass-makers also from France, for there were none in England, and these foreign workmen, after having put glass into the windows of the church and new monastery, taught their art to the Anglo-Saxons. Animated by a zeal which nothing could discourage, and inspired by intelligent patriot- ism, and a sort of passion for beauty in art, which shrank neither from fatigue nor care, he sent to seek beyond the seas all that he could not find in England — all that seemed necessary to him for the ornamentation of his church; and not finding even in France all he wanted, he went for the fifth time to Rome. Even this was not his last visit, for some years later he made a sixth pilgrimage. On both occasions he brought treasures back with him, chiefly books in countless quantities, and of every kind. He was a passionate collector, as has been seen, from his youth. He desired each of his monasteries to possess a great library, which he considered indispensable to the instruction, discipline, and good organization of the community ; and reckoned upon the books as the best means of retaining his monks in their cloisters ; for much as he loved travelling himself, he did not approve of other monks passing their time on the highways and byways, even under pretext of pilgrimages.
Along with the books he brought a great number of pictures and coloured images. By introducing these images from Rome to Northumberland, Benedict Biscop has written one of the most curious, and, at the same time, forgotten pages in the history of art. The Venerable Bede, who speaks with enthusiasm of the expeditions of his master and friend, leads us to suppose that he brought back with him only portable pictures, but it may be supposed that the abbot of Wearmouth brought back with him both painters and mosaic-workers, to work on the spot at the decoration of his churches. How can it be otherwise explained, how pictures on wood, brought even by water from Rome to England, should have been large enough to cover the walls and arches of the two or three churches of which Bede speaks. However this may be, the result was that the most ignorant of the Christians of Northumbria found, on entering these new monastic churches, under a material form, the attractive image of the instructions which the monastic missionaries lavished on them. Learned and unlearned could contemplate and study with delight, we are told, here the sweet and attractive form of the new-born Saviour, there the Twelve Apostles surrounding the Blessed Virgin ; upon the northern wall all the parables of the Gospels ; upon the southern, the visions of the Apocalypse ; elsewhere, a series of pictures which marked the harmony between the Old and New Testaments ; Isaac carrying the wood for his sacrifice opposite to Jesus bearing His Cross; the brazen serpent opposite Jesus crucified, and so on. All these Bede, who had seen them, describes with great delight.
After Latin and Greek books, after art, it was the turn of music. On his return from his fifth voyage, Benedict brought back with him from Rome an eminent monk, called John, precentor of S. Peter’s, to establish at Wearmouth the music and Roman ceremonies with entire exactitude. As soon as he had arrived at Wearmouth, this learned abbot set out in writing the order of the celebration of all feasts for all the year, of which he soon circulated numerous copies. Then he opened classes, at which he taught, viva voce, the liturgy and ecclesiastical chants. The best singers of the Northumbrian monasteries came to listen to him, and invited him to visit their communities.
The passionate zeal of Benedict for the building and decoration of his monastic houses did not make him forget the more essential interests of his foundations. Before leaving Rome he took care to constitute his community upon the immovable basis of the rule of S. Benedict. He obtained from Pope Agatho a charter which guaranteed the liberty and security of the new monastery of Wearmouth. In order to give Benedict a new mark of sympathy, King Egfrid assigned to him another estate, near to the first. This was the cradle of the monastery of Jarrow, the name of which is inseparably linked with that of Bede. This monastery he dedicated to S. Paul, and appointed one of his most intimate friends and fellow pilgrims, Ceolfrid, abbot of the new foundation.
In order to be more at liberty to devote his time to travel, Benedict took a coadjutor in the government of Wearmouth. This new abbot was his nephew, Easterwin, his junior by twenty-two years, and like Biscop, of high birth. The noble youth took pride in following minutely the rule of the house, like any other monk. Thanks to his illustrious biographer, we know what the occupations of a Saxon thane turned monk were in the seventh century. His duties were to thrash and winnow the corn, to milk the goats and cows, to take his turn in the kitchen, the bakehouse, and the garden, always humble and joyous in his obedience. When he became coadjutor, and was invested, in Biscop’s absence, with all his authority, the young abbot continued the course of communal life ; and when his duties as superior led him out of doors to where the monks laboured in the fields, he set to work along with them, taking the plough or the fan in his own hands, or forging iron upon the anvil. He was robust as well as young and handsome ; but his look was infinitely gentle, and his conversation full of amiability. “When he was compelled to reprove a fault, it was done with such tender sadness that the culprit felt himself incapable of any new offence which should bring a cloud over the benign brightness of that beloved face. His table was served with the same provisions as that of the monks ; and he slept in the general dormitory, which he left only five days before his death, being then hopelessly ill, to prepare himself in a more solitary place, for the last struggle. When he felt his end approaching, he had still strength enough left to go down into the garden; and, seating himself there, he called to him all his brethren, who wept the anticipated loss of such a father. Then, with the tenderness which was natural to him. he gave to each of them a last kiss. The following night (March 7th, 686) he died, aged thirty-six, whilst the monks were singing matins. When Benedict returned from his last expedition to Rome he found his benefactor. King Egfrid, and his nephew, Easterwin, both dead, along with a great number of his monks, carried off by one of the epidemics then so frequent. The only survivors at Jarrow were the abbot and one little scholar, whose fame was destined to eclipse that of all the Saxon Saints and kings, who are scarcely known to posterity except by his pen. (This is Bede, who describes, further on, how the abbot and that little boy celebrated alone, and in great sadness, the whole psalms of the monastic service, with no little labour, until new monks arrived. )
Benedict Biscop did not lose courage, but promptly collected new subjects under his sway, re-commenced and pursued, with his habitual energy, the decoration of his two churches of S. Peter and S. Paul. The monks had already chosen as successor to Easterwin a deacon named Sigfried, a learned and virtuous man, but affected with lung disease, and the first of the English in whom history indicates a malady so general and so fatal to their race.
Benedict’s own turn was, however, soon to come. God preserved his life to purify him, and put his patience to a long and cruel trial, before calling him to his eternal recompense. After having devoted the first thirteen years of his abbacy to the laborious and wandering life so dear to him, and to those distant expeditions that produced so many fruits for his order and his country, he was stricken with a cruel disease, which lasted for three years, and paralysed all his members one after the other. Though kept to his bed by his infirmity, and unable to follow his brethren to the choir, he, notwithstanding, continued to celebrate each service, both day and night, with certain of the monks, mingling his feeble voice with theirs. At night his sleepless hours were consoled by the reading of the Gospels, which was kept up without interruption by a succession of priests. Often, too, he collected the monks and novices round his couch, addressing to them urgent and solemn counsels, and among other things begging them to preserve the great library which he had brought from Rome, and not to allow it to be spoiled or dispersed ; but above all, to keep faithfully the rules which, after a careful study of the seventeen principal monasteries which he had visited during his journeys, he had collected for them. He also dwelt much upon the injunction he had already often repeated, that they should pay no regard to high birth in their choice of an abbot, but look simply to his life and doctrine. ” If I had to choose between two evils,” said he, ” I should prefer to see the spot on which I have established our dear monastery fall back into eternal solitude, rather than to be succeeded here by my own brother, who, we all know, is not in the good way.”
The strength of the abbot, and at the same time that of his poor coadjutor, was by this time so exhausted by their respective diseases, that they both perceived that they must die, and desired to see each other for the last time before departing from this world. In order that the wish of these two tender friends should be accomplished, it was necessary to bring the dying coadjutor to the bed of the abbot. His head was placed on the same pillow ; but they were both so feeble that they could not even embrace each other, and the help of brotherly hands was necessary to join their lips. All the monks assembled in chapter round this bed of suffering and love ; and the two aged Saints, having pointed out among them a successor, approved by all, breathed together, with a short interval between, their last breath. Thus died, at the age of sixty-two, S. Benedict of England, a worthy rival of the great patriarch of the monks of the West, whose robe and name he bore .
- Catholic Encyclopedia
- Commemoration at orthodoxengland
- ODNB (subscription – try your local library’s online resources)
- British Association of Iconographers
- Peter Murphy’s sequence of icon-style murals for Bede’s World museum at Jarrow. He has als produced icon-style (complete with nimbus) paintings of many of the ‘legends of rock music.’ I am not sure what to make of this…
- a translation of Bede’s life of abbots of Wearmouth, including Benedict Biscop, from Medieval Sourcebook.
Troparion (Tone V)O ye faithful, let us magnify the blessed Benedict, the treasury of the wisdom of God, the image of humility and compunction; for, in accordance with his name, he ever filleth our hearts with bliss divine, as a true follower of Christ and minister of His Mysteries.
Holy Father Benedict, pray to God for us.