The Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library Cotton MS Nero D.IV) is an illuminated manuscript gospel book produced around the year 700 in a monastery off the coast of Northumberland at Lindisfarne and which is now on display in the British Library in London. The manuscript is one of the finest works in the unique style of Hiberno-Saxon or Insular art, combining Mediterranean, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic elements.
The Lindisfarne Gospels are presumed to be the work of a monk named Eadfrith, who became Bishop of Lindisfarne in 698 and died in 721. Current scholarship indicates a date around 715, and it is believed they were produced in honour of St. Cuthbert. However, it is also possible that Eadfrith produced them prior to 698, in order to commemorate the elevation of Cuthbert's relics in that year, which is also thought to have been the occasion for which the St Cuthbert Gospel (also British Library) was produced. The Gospels are richly illustrated in the insular style and were originally encased in a fine leather binding covered with jewels and metals made by Billfrith the Anchorite in the 8th century. During the Viking raids on Lindisfarne this jewelled cover was lost and a replacement was made in 1852. The text is written in insular script.
In the 10th century an Old English translation of the Gospels was made: a word-for-word gloss inserted between the lines of the Latin text by Aldred, Provost of Chester-le-Street. This is the oldest extant translation of the Gospels into the English language. The Gospels may have been taken from Durham Cathedral during the Dissolution of the Monasteries ordered by Henry VIII and were acquired in the early 17th century by Sir Robert Cotton from Thomas Walker, Clerk of the Parliaments. Cotton's library came to the British Museum in the 18th century and went to the British Library in London when this was separated from the British Museum.
The Lindisfarne Gospels is the best documented and most complete Insular manuscript of the period (Backhouse 2004). The Lindisfarne Gospels have been a subject of study for generations of scholars and art lovers (Backhouse 1981, 8). The origin and reason for producing the manuscript are given in a colophon provided by the tenth century priest, Aldred (Backhouse 1981, 7).
Lindisfarne, also known as “Holy Island,” is located off the coast of Northumberland in northern England (Chilvers 2004). In around 635 AD, the Irish missionary Aidan founded the Lindisfarne monastery on “a small outcrop of land” on Lindisfarne. King Oswald of Northumbria sent Aidan from Iona to preach to and baptize the pagan Anglo-Saxons, following the conversion to Christianity of the Northumbrian monarchy in 627. By Aiden’s death in 651, the Christian faith was becoming well-established in the area.
In the tenth century Aldred, a priest, recorded the creators of the Lindisfarne Gospels. About 250 years after the production of the book Aldred added an Old English translation between the lines of the Latin text, and in his colophon he recorded the names of the four men who helped contribute to the production of the Lindisfarne Gospels.Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, was credited with writing the manuscript, Ethelwald, Bishop of the Lindisfarne islanders was credited with binding it, Billfrith, an anchorite, was credited with ornamenting the manuscript, and finally Aldred includes himself as the person who glossed it in Anglo-Saxon English. Some scholars have argued that Eadfrith and Ethelwald did not produce the manuscript but commissioned someone else to do so. However, Janet Backhouse argues for the validity of the statement by pointing out that, "there is no reason to doubt [Aldred’s] statement" because he was "recording a well established tradition". Eadfrith and Ethelwald were both bishops at the monastery of Lindisfarne where the manuscript was produced. As Alan Thacker notes, the Lindisfarne Gospels are "undoubtedly the work of a single hand," and Eadfrith remains regarded as "the scribe and painter of the Lindisfarne Gospels".
According to Aldred’s colophon, the Lindisfarne Gospels were made in honour of God and Saint Cuthbert, a Bishop of the Lindisfarne monastery who was becoming “Northern England’s most popular Saint”. Scholars think that the manuscript was written sometime between Cuthbert’s death in 687 and Eadfrith’s death in 721 (BBC Tyne 2012). There is a significant amount of information known about Cuthbert thanks to two accounts of Cuthbert’s life that were written shortly after his death, the first by an anonymous monk from Lindisfarne, and the second by Bede, a famous monk, historian, and theologian.
Cuthbert entered into the monastery of Melrose, now in lowland Scotland but then in Northumbria, in the late 7th century, and after being ordained priest he began to travel throughout Northumbria, “rapidly acquiring a reputation for holiness and for the possession of miraculous powers”. Due to increasingly slack religious practice in Lindisfarne, Cuthbert was sent to Lindisfarne as a way to reform the religious community. In Lindisfarne Cuthbert began to take on a solitary lifestyle, eventually moving to Inner Farne Island where he built a hermitage. Cuthbert agreed to become bishop at the request of King Ecgfrith in 684, but within a couple years returned to his hermitage in Farne as he felt death approaching. Cuthbert died on 20 March 687, and was buried in Lindisfarne. As a venerated saint his tomb attracted many pilgrims to Lindisfarne.
The Lindisfarne Gospels is a Christian manuscript, containing the gospels of Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John and the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. The manuscript was used for ceremonial purposes to promote and celebrate the Christian religion and the word of God (BBC Tyne 2012). Because the body of Cuthbert was buried in Lindisfarne, Lindisfarne became an important pilgrimage destination in the 7th and 8th centuries and the Lindisfarne Gospels would have contributed to the cult of Saint Cuthbert (BBC Tyne 2012).
The Lindisfarne Gospels manuscript was produced in a scriptorium in the monastery of Lindisfarne. The pages of the Lindisfarne gospels are vellum, made from the skins of sheep or calves and evidence from the manuscript reveals that the vellum used for the Gospels was made from calfskin. The text of the manuscript is written “in a dense, dark brown ink, often almost black, which contains particles of carbon from soot or lamp black”. The pens used for the manuscript could have been cut from either quills or reeds, and there is also evidence to suggest that the trace marks (seen under oblique light) were used by a modern equivalent of a pencil. Lavish jewellery was added to the binding of the manuscript, now lost, later in the eighth century.
There is a huge range of individual pigment used in the manuscript. The colours are derived from animal, vegetable and mineral sources. While some colours were obtained from local sources, others were imported from the Mediterranean, and rare instances such as lapis lazuli would have been imported from the Himalayas. Gold is only used in a couple of small details. The medium used to bind the colours was egg white, but it could have also been fish glue in certain places. Backhouse emphasizes that, “all Eadfrith’s colours are applied with great skill and accuracy, but...we have no means of knowing exactly what implements he used”.
The manuscript’s pages were arranged into gatherings of eight, and once the sheets had been folded together to make a group of pages, the highest page was carefully marked out by pricking, which was done by a stylus or a small knife. The holes were pricked through the gathering of eight leaves, and then each individual page was separately ruled for writing with a sharp, dry, and discreet point.
The Lindisfarne Gospels are impeccably designed, and as Backhouse points out vellum would have been too expensive for ‘practice runs’ for the pages, and so “preliminary designs” may have been done on a wax tablet (a device that is hollowed out wood or bone with a layer of wax). Wax tablets were an inexpensive technique to create a first draft because once the sketch was presumably transferred to the manuscript the wax could be warmed and flattened for a new design or outline.
Due to Viking raids the monastic community left Lindisfarne around 875, bringing with them Cuthbert’s body, relics, and books including the Lindisfarne Gospels (BBC Tyne 2012) and the St Cuthbert Gospel. It is estimated that after around seven years the Lindisfarne community settled in the Priory at Chester-le-Street in Durham where they stayed until 995 (where Aldred would have done his interlinear translation of the text) (Backhouse 2004). After Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, the manuscript was separated from the priory (Backhouse 2004). In the early 17th century the Gospels were owned by Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) and in 1753 became part of the founding collections of the British Museum (Chilvers 2004).
The Lindisfarne Gospels are in remarkable condition and the text is complete and undamaged (Backhouse 1981, 66). However, the original binding of the manuscript was destroyed. In March 1852 a new binding was commissioned for the Lindisfarne Gospels by bishop Edward Maltby (Backhouse 1981, 90). Smith, Nicholson and Co. (silversmiths) made the binding with the intention of recreating motifs in Eadfrith’s work (Backhouse 1981, 90).
Formal and stylistic elements of the manuscript
In The Illuminated Manuscript Backhouse states that, “The Lindisfarne Gospels is one of the first and greatest masterpieces of medieval European book painting” (Backhouse 1979, 10). The Lindisfarne Gospels is called Insular or Hiberno-Saxon art, a general term that refers to manuscripts produced in the British Isles between 500–900 AD (Backhouse 2004). As a part of Anglo-Saxon art the manuscript reveals a love of riddles and surprise, shown through the pattern and interlace in the meticulously designed pages. Many of the patterns used for the Lindisfarne Gospels date back beyond the Christian period (Backhouse 1981, 47). In the Gospels there is a strong presence of Celtic, Germanic, and Irish art styles. The spiral style and “knot work” evident in the formation of the designed pages are influenced by Celtic art (Backhouse 1981, 47). One of the most fascinating and characteristic styles in the manuscript is the zoomorphic style (adopted from Germanic art) and is revealed through the extensive use of interlaced animal and bird patterns throughout the book (Backhouse 1981, 47). The birds that appear in the manuscript may also have been from Eadfrith’s own observations of wildlife in Lindisfarne (Backhouse 2004). The geometric design motifs are also Germanic influence, and appear throughout the manuscript. The carpet pages (pages of pure decoration) exemplify Eadfrith’s use of geometrical ornamentation. Another notable aspect of the Gospels are tiny drops of red lead, which create backgrounds, outlines, and patterns, but never appear on the carpet pages (Backhouse 1981, 51). The red dots appear in early Irish manuscripts, revealing their influence in the design of the Lindisfarne Gospels (Backhouse 1981, 51). Thacker points out that Eadfrith had a great amount of knowledge and influence from other artistic styles, suggesting Eadfrith had “eclectic taste” (Thacker 2004). While there are many non-Christian artistic influences in the manuscript, the patterns were used to produce religious motifs and ideas.
Eadfrith was a highly trained calligrapher and he used insular majuscule script in the manuscript (Thacker 2004).
Other insular works of art
The Lindisfarne Gospels are not an example of “isolated genius... in an otherwise dark age” (Backhouse 1981, 62). There were other Gospel books produced in the same time period and geographic area that have similar qualities to the Lindisfarne Gospels. The Gospels of Saint Chad (Lichfield Cathedral, Chapter Library) employ a very similar style to the Lindisfarne Gospels, and it is even speculated that the artist was attempting to emulate Eadfrith’s work (Backhouse 1981, 66). Surviving pages from the Gospels of Saint Chad also have a cross-carpet page and animal and bird interlace, but the designs do not achieve the same perfection and seen as looser and heavier than Eadfrith’s (Backhouse 1981, 66). The design of the Lindisfarne Gospels has also been related to the Tara Brooch (National Museum of Ireland, Dublin), displaying animal interlace, curvilinear patterns, and borders of bird interlace, but unfortunately the origin and place of the brooch is unknown (Backhouse 1981, 66). The Durham Gospels (Durham Cathedral Library) are suspected as being created slightly earlier than the Lindisfarne Gospels, and while they have the bird interlace, the birds lack the naturalness and realness of Eadfrith’s birds in the Lindisfarne Gospels (Backhouse 1981, 67). The Book of Durrow (Trinity College, Dublin) is also thought of as an earlier insular manuscript, as the style of the manuscript is simpler and less developed than that of the Lindisfarne Gospels (Backhouse 1981, 75). The Book of Kells (Trinity College, Dublin, MS A. I.6 (58)) employs decorative patterns that are similar to other insular art pieces of the period, but is thought to be produced much later than the Lindisfarne Gospels (Backhouse 1981, 41).
The Lindisfarne Gospels is a manuscript that contains the Gospels of the four Evangelists Mark, John, Luke, and Matthew. The Lindisfarne Gospels begins with a carpet page in the form of a cross and a major initial page, introducing the letter of St. Jerome and Pope Damasus I (Backhouse 2004). There are sixteen pages of arcaded canon tables, where parallel passages of the four Evangelists are laid out (Backhouse 1981, 41; Backhouse 2004). A portrait of the appropriate Evangelist, a carpet page and a decorated initial page precedes each Gospel. There is an additional major initial of the Christmas narrative of Matthew (Backhouse 2004).
Bede explains how each of the four Evangelists was represented by their own symbol: Matthew was the man, representing the human Christ, Mark was the lion, symbolizing the triumphant Christ of the Resurrection, Luke was the calf, symbolizing the sacrificial victim of the Crucifixion, and John was the eagle, symbolizing Christ’s second coming (The British Library Board). A general term for the name of the symbols of the four Evangelists is the Tetramorphs. Each of the four Evangelists is accompanied by their respective symbol in their miniature portraits in the manuscript. In the miniature portraits of Matthew, Mark, and Luke they are shown writing, while John looks straight ahead at the reader holding his scroll (The British Library Board). The Evangelists also represent the dual nature of Christ. Mark and John are shown as young men, symbolizing the divine nature of Christ, and Matthew and Luke appear older and bearded, representing Christ’s mortal nature (The British Library Board).
The decoration of the manuscript
A manuscript so richly decorated reveals that the Lindisfarne Gospels not only had a practical ceremonial use, but also attempted to symbolize the Word of God in missionary expeditions (Backhouse 1981, 33). Backhouse points out that the clergy was not unaware of the profound impression a book such as the Lindisfarne Gospels made on other congregations (Backhouse 1981, 33). The opening words of the Gospel (the incipits) are highly decorated, revealing Roman capitals, Greek and Germanic letters, filled with interlaced birds and beasts, representing the splendour of God’s creation (The British Library Board).
The carpet pages
The carpet pages are influenced by early Coptic (Christian Egyptian) manuscripts in their resemblance to Islamic prayer rugs, which were probably known during this time in Northumbria (The British Library Board). Similarly to the way that the mats helped worshippers prepare for prayer, the carpet pages can represent the preparation of the reader before the Gospel message (The British Library Board). Each carpet page contains a different image of a cross (called a cross-carpet page), emphasizing the importance the Christian religion and ecumenical relationship between churches (The British Library Board). The pages of ornamentation have motifs familiar from metalwork and jewellery that pair alongside bird and animal decoration (Backhouse 2004).
Campaign to relocate
A campaign exists to have the gospels housed in the North East of England, a move vigorously opposed by the British Library and condemned by international scholars. Several possible locations have been mooted, including Durham Cathedral, Lindisfarne itself or one of the museums in Newcastle upon Tyne or Sunderland. A modern facsimile copy of the Gospels is now housed in the Durham Cathedral Treasury, where it can be seen by visitors.
From July 2013 the Lindisfarne Gospels will be displayed for three months in Palace Green Library, Durham, alongside the closely related St Cuthbert Gospel, which was bought by the British Library in 2012.
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