Open Treasures, Durham Cathedral, Review

You would think that the huge Norman cathedral that dominates the centre of Durham would be a constant reminder of the city’s rich history. Yet for those of us lucky enough to work in the city-centre, it is surprisingly easy to get carried away with the business of everyday life and take it for granted. Durham Cathedral’s Open Treasures provides a welcome remedy.

The exhibition begins in the Monks’ Dormitory, where the monks of Durham Priory had slept before its dissolution in 1540. The cathedral claims that it is probably the best-preserved example of such a room in England. It is an undoubtedly beautiful space, with high wooden ceilings and large windows through which copious amounts of natural daylight pour. Partly due to its quietness (only two other visitors were in the room while I was there), its atmosphere is calm. This not only makes for a welcome change to rammed London museums (the British Museum springs to mind…), it also allows ample time to look at the objects on display.

The Monks Dormitory | By kind permission of the Chapter of Durham Cathedral
The Monks Dormitory | By kind permission of the Chapter of Durham Cathedral

The Monks’ Dormitory holds the Durham Cathedral’s collection of large stone monuments dating from the seventh to eleventh centuries, which includes crosses, grave stones, and pre-Christian Roman objects, taken from around Durham and its surrounding area. By not keeping them behind glass, visitors can get considerably closer to them than may be possible elsewhere and can relish examining the intricate patterns that decorate their surfaces. The cathedral’s seventh- or eighth-century Ruthwell Cross is only a cast of the original, but its imposing height is still impressive: you have to strain your neck to see its top. Such objects, known as preaching crosses stood in the open-air and helped create a sacred space within a landscape. Placed inside as museum pieces, they now lie within a rather different setting. Yet one can still imagine the impact these distinctive landmarks had, as travellers would easily have spotted their great height from miles away.

It is in the Great Kitchen that the exhibition fully lives up to its name. Once again, the objects are housed in a spectacular space: one of the two surviving medieval monastic kitchens in England. The room has stone walls that curve inwards to form its incredibly high ceiling. But this unique space cannot itself detract from the treasures it contains. St. Cuthbert’s oak coffin (c.698) lies at its centre. Although it is in fragments, you can still see images of human figures chiselled onto its wooden surface. Given the fantastical stories that surround the saint and his corpse (according to Christian belief, when the coffin was opened eleven years after the saint’s death, his body had not decomposed at all, signifying St. Cuthbert’s saintliness), seeing this object in the flesh is rather special.

St. Cuthbert's Pectoral Cross | By kind permission of the Chapter of Durham Cathedral
St. Cuthbert’s Pectoral Cross | By kind permission of the Chapter of Durham Cathedral

Yet the coffin is overshadowed by the Great Kitchen’s other treasures: the earliest surviving pieces of Anglo-Saxon embroidery, found inside the coffin when it was opened in 1827. You can still see the shimmering gold thread and the detailed depictions of apostles and old-testament prophets on St. Cuthbert’s stole (a narrow strip of material worn by priests and deacons when celebrating mass). If anything deserves to be called a treasure, then these astonishingly well-preserved pieces of embroidery that are over a millennia-old are certain contenders.

Open Treasures is on permanent display at Durham Cathedral