Lindisfarne Gospels

This fascinating book was created by an artist monk living in Northumbria in the early 700s.  It is an amazing example of the strength of Christian belief during one of the most turbulent periods of British History. Costly in time and materials, superb in design, the manuscript is among our greatest artistic and religious treasures. It was made and used at Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island, a major religious community that housed the shrine of St Cuthbert, who died in 687.

Do we know who made this manuscript?

Medieval manuscripts were usually produced by a team of scribes and illustrators. However, the entire Lindisfarne Gospels was created by one man, believed to be an artist monk called Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne between 698 and 721.

Eadfrith's amazing skill can be seen in the opening pages of each gospel. In each, a painting of the gospel's Evangelist is followed by an intricately woven 'carpet' page - so called because of its resemblance to a beautifully woven carpet. Next is the 'incipit' page - an opening page in which the first letters of the gospels are illustrated with interlacing and spiral patterns strongly influenced by Anglo-Saxon jewellery and enamel work.

Eadfrith used an exceptionally wide range of colours, using animal, vegetable and mineral pigments. In some places, the manuscript remains partly unfinished, suggesting Eadfrith's cherished work was ended prematurely by his death in 721.

Why is it important?

The manuscript is astonishingly beautiful work of art, displaying a unique combination of artistic styles reflecting a crucial period in England's history.

Christianity first came to Britain under the Romans, but subsequent waves of invasion by non-Christian Saxons, Angles and, Vikings drove the faith to the fringes of the British Isles. The country was gradually re-converted from 597, after St Augustine arrived from Rome to convert the pagan 'Angles into angels'. Religious differences between the indigenous 'Celtic' Church and the new 'Roman' Church were settled at the Synod of Whitby in 664. In the manuscript, native Celtic and Anglo-Saxon elements blend with Roman, Coptic and Eastern traditions to create an artistic vision of the cultural melting pot of Northumbria in the seventh and eighth centuries.

The Lindisfarne Gospels, and others like it, helped define the growing sense of 'Englishness' - a spirit of consolidated by the Venerable Bede, the historian monk, in his 'History of the English Church and People', completed in 731.

What is the black lettering between the lines?

Because the Christian faith was spread by the Roman Empire, its sacred texts and rituals were written and performed in Latin, a language understood by educated people across Europe. Catholic services were still held in Latin until the middle of the twentieth century.

Like most medieval Christian manuscripts, the Lindisfarne Gospels were written in Latin, However, around 970, when it was owned by the Minister of Chester-le-Street, Aldred, the Provost, added an Anglo-Saxon translation in red ink beneath the original Latin. This is the oldest surviving version of the gospels in any form of English - another indication of the manuscript's importance in the growth of England's national identity.

What is a gospel?

The gospels recount the life of Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings. Several gospels had been written by disciples of Jesus during the centuries following his death, but only four were authorised by the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 for inclusion in the Christian Bible. These four were attributed to St Matthew, St Mark, St Luke and St John, known as the four Evangelists.

 

Taken from: The Lindisfarne Gospels: Gospel of St Luke the Evangelist
Author / Creator: Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne
Date: late 7th or early 8th century
Copyright: By permission of the British Library
Shelfmark: Cotton Nero D. IV