If we look at one of the major display openings of Lindisfarne,
we can begin to see how some of the ingredients come together
and their bigger meaning. I have in front of me the opening
of the Gospel of St Luke. On the left hand side there is what
is known as a carpet page, a page of apparently pure ornament,
looking rather like an oriental carpet. Such pages were used
in Coptic Christian art to divide up key components of a text.
Whether there was an Eastern model behind this or not is hotly
debated. I think ultimately there probably was, although perhaps
not for this particular example.
Facing it is the Incipit page, the first words of the opening
of the Gospel of St Luke, with a massive initial Q for the
opening Quoniam quidem multi conati sunt, and the Q occupies
about a third of the page in total. The rest of that page
is devoted to very intricate lines of display lettering, all
treated very differently and quite hard to read unless you
actually know what they say. What is important here is that
the word has exploded across the page. It has become also
almost an icon in its own right, an icon in the terms of the
Byzantine use of the word, being a portal of prayer, an intercessory
Images and idolatry
If we see how this relates to the carpet page opposite, we
see that that is not by any means a page of abstract ornament.
Embedded within it is the sign of the cross, with many other
crosses hidden again in different parts of these carpet pages.
What we have here, with the two working together, is the most
complex, sophisticated manifestation of the Godhead within
early medieval art. The fact that it is not a physical body
suspended on a crucifix does not mean that it is less sophisticated.
It can actually mean that spiritually it is even more sophisticated
because it is imbued with all of that inherent symbolism.
In the early centuries of Christianity the fear of idolatry
was a very great one. It led Islam to take the route of sacred
calligraphy, which is very relevant to what we are seeing
here. In Byzantium it was to lead to knocking the heads off
images and iconoclasm. And in the west Gregory the Great had
prepared the way for a rather more complex approach in around
600 by saying, "in images the illiterate read." So it was
possible to have figural ornament within the West, but debate
continued about it. Charlemagne and Alcuin around 800 and
their circle are still hotly debating whether it is proper
to have images or not.
Lindisfarne does contain images. It has the evangelist miniatures
looking like the frescoes of Santa Maria Antica in Rome, but
again they are very symbolic and they are almost like icons
in their own right. But here with the carpet page and the
word elevated in that way, you have totally overcome any of
the dangers of that debate. You are literally seeing the word
made flesh, the Word made word. It is a very, very sophisticated
Looking into the ornament
If we then look into the ornament we can begin to see the
ways in which all of these different cultures in the insular
world would see themselves represented. If we look at the
carpet page we see a very geometric form of cross set against
almost a diaper work of diamond patterns in red, blues and
yellows with Greek key motif etched on top of them. This looks
like some of the cloisonné enamelwork in the Sutton Hoo ship
burial treasure of the early seventh century. So it looks
very Germanic, very Anglo-Saxon, very Frankish, but within
a page which overall has these wonderful Eastern and Southern
Mediterranean exotic connotations to it.
If we look at the details of the animal interlace, again
a form of motif that goes right back to the military accoutrements
that the barbarians within the Roman army would have loved
to adorn their metalwork with. Here it is carried to new heights
of sophistication and not just with generic monster-type beasts,
but with recognisable bird and dog forms beginning to be introduced.
This is not direct observation perhaps from the natural world,
we are not quite at that yet, but this is totally at one with
creation and building upon that in the way that we know that
certainly the Celtic tradition was very inclined to do.
If we look at the initial Q and peer right into the heart
of the bow of the letter with its little tiny three-pointed
gold centre, perhaps representing the Trinity, you can see
a whole plethora of Celtic, what we call ultimate la tène
style, work that goes right back to the Celtic Iron Age, with
all of the trumpet spirals and triskele motifs there contained
within an exuberant interlaced and animal framework of the
lettering itself. This is applied very carefully within little
yellow boxes, looking for all the world like golden metalwork
The cat and the cormorants
Then you look in the corner to the left underneath the letter
Q and we see again a beautiful harmony of very delicate purple
and blue interlaced double bird motifs, which looks like a
sumptuous Byzantine silk. And again we know that such were
buried with St Cuthbert in his tomb. If we look over at the
border that runs around the lettering on the right, we can
see if we look very carefully a cat's head which is very naturalistic
to our minds--it could be curled up on the mat beside a fireplace.
You can see that his body is formed of the bar border and
he has had a dinner of about ten cormorants, which now interlace
up the body.
Is that just there as a drollery? We have, for example, ninth-century
Irish poems that refer to the scribe and his cat, and whilst
the scribe chases knowledge around the page the cat chases
mice around the floor, and so they are both gainfully employed.
It might have that resonance. Conversely, I think everything
in Lindisfarne is there for a reason, and the whole imagery
of cats could suggest, as in exegesis, the forces of chaos
which are ever-ready and waiting to pounce and to consume
you. There are different ways of reading this. But its intertextuality
is important; you have to know from reading other sources
what something like this is going to be saying to you.
If you then look in the lettering itself you can find at
the very top left written in letters of gold, a chi-rho, the
symbol of Christ, the first two letters of Christ in Greek,
and then the words lucas and vitulus, and then the calf, from
the initial page of St Luke's Gospel; folio 139, symbolising
the fact that the evangelist and his gospel are representatives
of Christ and actually symbolise part of Christ's ministry.
In this case, the calf, the sacrificial victim of the crucifixion.
So each of the characters of the four gospels are picked out
and reaffirmed not only by their evangelist portraits with
their identifying symbols of the man for Matthew, the lion
for Mark, the calf for Luke and the eagle for John, because
he flies directly to the throne of God for inspiration - but
also in these beautiful golden letters at the beginning of
If we then look down into the display lettering, all of these
wonderful Celtic and Anglo-Saxon features scattered throughout
the lettering, the black capitals with their runic square-carved
features grafted onto them, and the whole set against a wonderful
fine stippled background of a myriad of about 3,000 dots in
red lead, looking again like chased Pictish metalwork.
Take the whole together and you have got just the most overwhelming
visual symbol of this beautifully interwoven harmony of the
Gospels, of the cultures, and of the direct presence of Christ
through the cross and through the Word made word.
Click below to explore further.
Session 1 The Lindisfarne
Gospels and the Early Christian World
Session 2 Eadfrith and
the Making of the Lindisfarne Gospels
Session 3 The Lindisfarne
Gospels in Use
Session 4 A Display Opening
of the Lindisfarne Gospels