Lindisfarne or Holy Island, a mile off the east coast of Northumberland, is also not strictly-speaking an island – except at high tide when it is completely surrounded by water. Between tides it is accessible nowadays by a causeway and there is also a safe, traditional ‘pilgrims’ way’ on foot marked by poles across the mud-flats that separate it from the mainland on its west. Its shape and size have long been subject to change because of deposition of mud and sand – today much of its northern half is covered by sand-dunes – and now its low, sandy eastern cliffs, as on Orford Ness and the Suffolk coast, are visibly eroding.
Holy Island, as its name suggests, has a long, religious history going back to the early stages of post-Roman Christianity in Britain. An Irish monk called Aidan, from the monastery on Iona, chose the island for his monastery in AD 635; the present parish church of St Mary the Virgin is probably on the site of the original monastic church. Here it was that a later prior, Cuthbert, worshipped until he became a hermit. He sought solitude on Inner Farne and died there in AD 687. Buried in the monastery on Holy Island, Cuthbert’s remains were disinterred in AD 698, perhaps in preparation for his canonization, but no skeleton lay in the grave: rather was there ‘a whole body, looking like a man asleep, exactly as he had looked when they buried him, his limbs flexed and his clothing uncontaminated by decay.’ *
It was this incorruptibility of Cuthbert’s corpse which led to the cult of St Cuthbert and, in 875, the peaceful but anticipatory removal of the corpse from Holy Island to ensure its safety in increasingly troubled times as Viking raids turned into Norse occupation. Thus began many years of journeying around northern England from one ‘safe’ place to another. Eventually, supposedly on St Cuthbert’s own instructions, his coffin came to rest where now Durham cathedral marks the end of a remarkable journey.
In the south aisle of St Mary’s on Holy Island is a, to my mind, remarkable sculpture. It is called ‘The Journey’. It is both inspired by and commemorates the long journey over some two centuries of the uncorrupted body of St Cuthbert, carried by monks of the Lindisfarne community and their successors. ‘I saw this epic journey as a great theme for a sculpture,’ writes Fenwick Lawson, the sculptor, ‘a journey of faith a journey of hope and a journey of love for fellow man; a brotherhood forged by the necessity of co-operative effort.’ I can sympathise with this ascription of motives to the brethren, and like in particular the phrase ‘a brotherhood forged by the necessity of co-operative effort.’ You can see it in the faces of the life-sized pall-bearers, each one an individual and, though numerically on a much smaller scale, reminiscent to eyes lucky enough to have seen them of the many individuals in the Chinese Terracotta Army.
I see most of all, however, a strong and vigorous sculpture, chipped and chiselled and chainsawed out of great chunks of elm, and almost visibly moving west along the aisle with a slow, swaying gait: I know what it is about but, as Lawson himself observes, the ‘object is more than the narrative: it must’ – as it does indeed – ‘speak for itself.’ I have visited it many times and, even if it actually stands still and is silent, I continue to find it very moving and eloquent.
* From K. Tristram, The Story of Holy Island, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2009, p. 91, a book followed in this account.