The Lindisfarne Gospels

There are many seeds that an author can point to that lead to an idea for a book. Looking back I can identify quite a few that led to my fantasy trilogy, The Traveller’s Path. Without a doubt one of those was planted on a summer’s day in 1987 when I saw the Lindisfarne Gospels in person for the first time.

My husband and I were spending a glorious summer travelling through Europe. We began our travels in Britain – I have relatives there that I had not seen for over a decade, who live in Wales. But before we got there we spent three or four days in London (which is truly one of my most favourite cities in the world). One of our first stops was the British Museum – we are both history buffs and we couldn’t wait to see the treasures there. And indeed we found treasures galore, too many to mention here, but I could write tomes about them all. A happy, happy place for us!

Towards the end of the day, after we had wandered through the Egyptian exhibits (mummies! Book of the Dead!) and the Ancient Cultures (Nebuchanezzer! Treasures from Ur!!) and the Greek rooms (Pantheon Friezes!) we saw that there was a section of the museum called the British Library (this is housed in its own building now, separate from the Museum, but at that time it was part of the Museum itself). Being book lovers as well as history buffs we figured we should go have a quick look around.

Walking into the exhibit rooms the first thing we saw displayed was a large glass cabinet, with a big book open inside: the Lindisfarne Gospels.

I had never heard of this book before, but I was immediately captured by the sheer beauty of the thing. It was the first illuminated manuscript I had seen in person, and the details and exquisite craftsmanship absolutely stunned me.

The first page of the Gospel of Matthew, consisting of the first sentence (in Latin):

The first page of the Gospel of Matthew, consisting of the first sentence (in Latin): “Liber generationis Iesu Christi filii David filii Abraham” (The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.) The letters on the side are the Old English translation, added 250 years after the Gospels were finished.

Just spend a moment pondering that page. I can assure you that the impact is magnified ten-fold when you see it in person; the colours are much more vibrant, and you can really get close and see the details. Here’s a close up of part of an other page:

A detail from the second initial page from St. Matthew's Gospel.

A detail from the second initial page from St. Matthew’s Gospel.

Not every page were illuminated like this, of course. The main body of the book was written in the beautiful “uncial” style of writing, developed in Britain at this time. Here’s an example:

A page from This is one of the very few pages on which Eadfrith's original 7th century script can be admired almost entirely free of the gloss added by Aldred in the 10th century. Clear and black, very assured and regular in form, this script, designed for formal use, is known technically as insular majuscule. The page gives details of particular passages in St John which are to be read on specific feast days.

You can see Aldred’s gloss of Old English up at the top, the rest of the page is one of the few places in the Gospels where you can see Eadfrith’s script free of the gloss and admire the beauty of his lettering. The page consists of instructions on which passages of the Gospel of St. John should be read on specific feast days.

There are reams and reams of scholarship available on the Gospels, I can’t begin to go into the depths of detail about this wonderful book that it really deserves, but let me give you just a few quick details:

  • Best guess for when the book was finished is 698 AD, as part of the celebrations at Lindisfarne of the translation of St. Cuthbert’s relics to the high altar of Lindisfarne. Cuthbert was one of Lindisfarne’s most famous abbots. Other scholars place the date of completion around 710-720 AD.
  • it is a compilation of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), in Latin, from the Latin Vulgate. It was written on vellum, the very finest calfskin available, and it would have taken 300 cattle to make the book. The pigments used were from local sources (ores, lead, etc) but possibly also some lapis lazuli from the foothills of the Himalayas.
  • The translation of the Latin into Old English (Anglo-Saxon) was done by Aldred, a priest, 250 years after its creation. Aldred also added a colophon in which he gives some of the history of the book’s creation.
  • The artist/scribe used lead point (the forerunner of the pencil) to do preliminary drawings on the back of the page, using compasses and dividers as well, and then backlit the pages in some way, perhaps using a transparent horn desk found in the Islamic territories. He then traced the design on the front and painted it.  In some cases he deviated from the design he originally drew, obviously struck by inspiration as he worked.
  • It was bound together and given a jewelled cover; the original was lost, unfortunately, but it was given a new cover in 1852.
  • It was taken by the monks from Lindisfarne during the era of the Viking attacks, and preserved by them until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1500s. It’s history is murky after that, but somehow it ends up in the collections of Sir Robert Cotton in the 1800s, who collected many early Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and whose collection formed the basis of the British Library.
  • It is the work of one man, likely Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne at the time.

Go back and look at the second image for a moment, and think of Eadfirith, in the scriptorium at Lindisfarne, likely cold and drafty with its open windows to let in the light. He is the Bishop, busy with the administration of this monastery, and aside from his duties as Bishop, like all the monks he participates in the rhythm of monastery life: eight times during the day and night to drop everything to attend the services of the Divine Office, plus doing the work of the monastery such as tending the livestock, brewing ale, etc, plus time for study and contemplation. Think of the concentration necessary to do such fine, detailed work, and the planning that was needed to develop the designs. Other Gospel books, such as the Book of Kells, were the work of a team of scribes. Eadfrith was the lone creator of this one, a fact attested to by Aldred’s colophon as well as careful analysis of the writing and art contained within it.

It is estimated that someone today, working two years full time with electric light and heating, could make something similar, but not up to the standard displayed here. It likely took Eadfrith approximately ten years to complete the Gospels.

It’s an incredible, unbelievable achievement. Eadfrith would have begun each session dedicating his work to God, for this was truly an Opus Dei, a work of God. He would have seen every stroke as part of a prayer he was offering on his behalf and on the behalf of the community at large, each word a “wound on Satan’s body”, according to the Roman monastic founder Cassiodorius, whose works would have been very familiar to the monks at Lindisfarne.

Looking at the Gospels I was struck by the devotion and dedication of this man, and I began to wonder what it was like to create this, what spurred him on to do it, how he accomplished it. Those questions lay buried in my mind for twenty years until a few other seeds came together and began to take root and grow into Wilding, Book One of The Traveller’s Path.

I knew that I had to include Lindisfarne, and those monks, in my book. As it turned out Eadfrith himself isn’t in the book, as Wilding takes place (mainly) in 642 AD, but his incredible workmanship displayed in the Lindisfarne Gospels was a huge creative inspiration to me as well as a spiritual one.

Eadfrith died in 721 AD. If you accept the later date of the Gospel’s completion, it would mean he died shortly before it was finished. And indeed, there are places in the book where the drawings are unfinished, where paint was obviously meant to be added but was left undone. I can’t imagine Eadfrith not finishing it if he was at all able to do so, so I can see that the reason why it was left undone was that he died before he could complete it.

It was his life’s work, the Word made word, done to the glory of God. It’s a challenge to us to make our lives count for more than ourselves, and a reminder that dedication and single-mindedness can help you achieve something glorious. And that every brush stoke of our lives can be dedicated to God as a prayer, trusting in faith that something of it will survive for His glory.

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5 thoughts on “The Lindisfarne Gospels

  1. sdorman2014 says:

    courageous, encouraging, glorious. seems somehow right that it was unfinished in this life. it went so very far.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bookheathen says:

    There were so many beautiful books/illustrations produced before the time of Gutenberg. Some of my favourites are the miniatures in books by Persian scholars. I’m always amazed by the patience and skill required to create them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. L.A. Smith says:

    It is absolutely amazing to see these works in person. I’ve had the privilege to go back to the British Library and soak in the treasures there, the miniatures are truly awe-inspiring.

    Like

  4. […] Lindisfarne Gospels, from approx. 760 AD. A detail from the second initial page from St. Matthew’s […]

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