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Opening times

  • Saturdays and Sundays
    8am-5pm
  • Mondays to Fridays
    8am-6pm
  • Café 16
    Mon-Sat 10am-4pm
  • FREE ENTRY

The Cathedral’s Copes: from artist to service 

Some years ago, the Cathedral sent a brief to two Yorkshire-based artists, Linda Shwab and Sally Greaves-Lord, to design copes (liturgical vestments) to be worn on special occasions by the members of the clergy at Newcastle Cathedral.

The brief: “To create robes which would be beautiful but practical, which would be unique to this Cathedral and bring a sense of place, of this diocese, rural and urban; would be innovative in design and comfortable to wear and would honour both the individuality and the collegiality of the Dean and Canons in their respective roles in the life of the Cathedral.

Above: The copes at the installation of Canon Peter Dobson in 2019.

The History of the Cope

The cope is a liturgical vestment worn since around the 8th century. It is semi-circular in shape, draped over the body to create a cape-like garment, open at the front and fastened by a hook or brooch at the chest. These have been made from a range of luxurious materials over the years. In the 20th century, hooded copes returned – and this is a feature of the Cathedral’s copes. Priests and bishops wear copes for special occasions.

Image courtesy of © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, shows an embroidered Cope c.1848

Here’s a look into each cope and the saint each one of them represents

St Benedict Biscop

Saint Benedict Biscop was the Abbot of Wearmouth and a Northumbrian nobleman who renounced his societal position when offered a land grant from the King. At the age of 25, he began a life of travelling and pilgrimage.  

The main image on this cope’s hood is a derivation of the Codex Amiatinus – a famous illustration of the prophet Ezra, writing in his library. The Codex Amiatinus was written at the Benedictine monastery, which Benedict Biscop founded.

A sample of illuminated text from the Lindisfarne Gospels is combined with gilded pages to create a rich textural pattern. Benedict Biscop brought late antique books over to Northumberland from Europe and Rome, and it was these books that gave much inspiration for the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Images show the Cope and the original artwork from the Codex Amiatinus.

St Cuthbert

St Cuthbert was a shepherd in his youth, born in Northumberland, around the Scottish Borders. One day in AD 651, he was watching over his sheep when he had a vision and entered life as a religious monk at Melrose Abbey in Scotland. St Cuthbert retired in AD 676 to Inner Farne of the Farne Islands – off the coast of Lindisfarne. The hood on this Cope shows photographic images of the sea at Lindisfarne – Cuthbert was known to be fond of standing in the sea to pray during his retirement.

A line drawing is taken from a beautiful 8th-century stone carving of birds eating fruit, displayed at St Paul’s Church in Jarrow, where the body of Cuthbert rested en route to Durham. The image of the iconic rainbow arch from the priory in Lindisfarne, with which Cuthbert has a strong association, is overlaid with a Celtic carving to be found at the Priory. The white birds and the stone carving reflect Cuthbert’s love of nature and sea birds.

St Finan

St Finan was the first monk sent from Iona (an island in the Hebrides) to replace St Aidan as the Bishop of Lindisfarne in AD 651. Photographic images of Lindisfarne castle and the sea, with the addition of an embellished Greek ship, are prominent on the hood. The coracle in the foreground and the embellishment to the bottom of the hood suggest a miraculous catch of fish. The overlaid text pattern is derived from a manuscript of the ‘common correcting hand’ of the Durham and Lindisfarne Gospels.

Images show the Cope and Lindisfarne Island (with the castle in view)

St Nicholas (The Dean’s and Bishop’s Copes)

St Nicholas, also known as Bishop of Myra, is the patron saint of Newcastle Cathedral. He is known for his kindness and generosity towards children and is known today as the inspiration for our modern-day Santa Claus or Father Christmas.

Although there are lots of jolly images associated with this saint, the hood represents a more serious, spiritual set of attributes. The rich navy background is embellished with crystals echoing the Celtic knot pattern found in Lindisfarne Priory and can also be read as twinkling stars or snow.

The large blue feather reflects a quote attributed to Hildegard von Bingen. “My song must float like a feather on the breath of God.” The three translucent yellow discs refer to the bags of gold given as dowries. The story connected to this imagery shows St Nicholas’ generosity, as he gifted a gold coin each to three young women so they could afford to be married and avoid an undesired life. The bishop’s crosier, based on a medieval example found in the British Museum, is embellished with the colour spectrum – St Nicholas is often depicted with his Bishop’s staff.

St Osmund

St Osmund is said to be why this cathedral church is dedicated to St Nicholas. As Bishop of Salisbury, he is well known for his affinity for writing liturgy, symbolised in the cope through musical connotations.

On the hood, there is a hand-drawn interpretation of the Kyrie eleison (an important prayer of Christian liturgy), and Christe eleison, with illuminated K and X (Greek letter Ch). The music was selected by Canon Kevin Hunt. The illuminated lettering is contemporary, and our design was developed from an architectural drawing of 1235 by Villard de Honnecourt. The images of the brass horns, taken from an old woodcut, reflect the celebratory nature of music.


The Future of the Copes

The copes have been used in many special services since their creation but there are two very significant services coming up that will see them worn by members of the Clergy. With last year’s announcements of a new Bishop and the retirement of Geoff Miller, the former Dean of Newcastle, the copes will be worn by both a new Dean and Bishop later this year. With their unique designs that harness the Cathedral’s heritage as a place of worship, they’ll carry the stories they tell into many services to come.

You can see some of our copes up close and in-person at our Treasures and Curiosities event happening on Tuesday 23 February, this half-term. If the stories of the Northern Saints or the Cathedral’s heritage have intrigued you, you can join us on one of the Northern Saints tours or History Tours, happening this February and March.

Above: The copes as worn at the Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle’s Farewell Service last year.

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