It was a delight to return to Lichfield Cathedral recently as a visitor to re-appreciate the wonderful architecture, sculpture and atmosphere of this ancient English cathedral. Helpfully the Dean and Chapter have provided touch screens in the building to assist the visitor in understanding this great English Cathedral. This may seem anathema to some but the installations are so low-key and unobtrusive as to have no deleterious effect on the Cathedral’s sanctity or general ambience. In addition to this I was pleasantly surprised to find in the Chapter House a beautifully presented display of the St. Chad’s Gospels (c730AD), a treasure of the Cathedral, sometimes also known as the St Teilo Gospels. This magnificent volume comprises 236 surviving folios, eight of which are illuminated and another four that contain framed text. They are in a remarkably good state of preservation and it sends a shiver up the spine of any real bibliophile to be close such an ancient and beautiful example of the illuminator and scribes’ art, in this case one that is over 1200 years old, older than the Book of Kells. The gospels themselves had an accompanying touch screen display running the British Library’s ‘Turning the Pages™’ software which allows the visitor to “leaf through” the virtual pages of the St Chad’s Gospels and explore the text and images. The combination of the real artefact and digital representation together worked very well, the fidelity and resolution of the digital version being particularly good. When we were there the St Chad Gospels were open at St Matthews’ Gospel, Chapter 26 verses 27-42. In these pages Jesus predicts Peter’s denial and that the disciples will fall away on account of him. ‘But’ Jesus says, ‘after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee’ which can be seen at the bottom of the left hand page, in Latin: sed cum resurrxero praecedam vos ingalileam. The touch screen system is invaluable for non-Latin readers to make sense of the text, and lends much to the enjoyment of the exhibit.
The St Chad’s Gospels were accompanied in this small exhibition in the Chapter House by some magnificent pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard (www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk ) which was discovered in a farmer’s field near Hammerwich in 2009, only 4 miles away and is the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found in England. The pieces on display are all ecclesiastical and of exquisite workmanship, such as this unusually large pectoral cross or pectorale (from the Latin pectoralis: ‘of the chest’) which would have been suspended from the neck by a cord or chain. It would have been worn by senior clergy (bishops and abbots) as a sign of their office, or by wealthy Christian lay people. Artefacts like this give a glimpse of the decorative splendour of early medieval Christianity in England and the wealth with which it was endowed.
Another area in which the touch screens are very successful is in interpreting the unique Renaissance Herkenrode stained glass windows, viewed by some as one of Europe’s greatest artistic treasures. Rescued from destruction during the Napoleonic Wars they were installed in the Cathedral in 1803 and they have recently (starting in 2010) undergone a 5 year renovation at the Barley Studio (http://www.barleystudio.co.uk/ ). The touch screens give an excellent sense of the luminosity and light characteristic of stained glass and allow the visitor to see the detail of the windows which otherwise would be far too distant and small, high up in the chancel to discern with any clarity. Again the interactivity of the touch screens allows a useful and silent interrogation of their history without disturbing other visitors or the quietude of this sacred space. In this Lichfield seems to have got the balance absolutely right, unobtrusive but reliable and nowadays simple technology deployed sparingly where it is needed and can be used to best effect. If any criticism could be made it is that the touch screens have clearly been heavily used and their casings here and there are showing signs of wear, but this can be easily refurbished and does not detract from the understanding or functionality of these digital assets. It is interesting to speculate what the next stage of unobtrusive and sensitive digital interpretation of cathedral spaces and artefacts in-situ could be as both technological capabilities and public expectations move on.