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Seminar 4: A Display Opening of the Lindisfarne Gospels

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 vehicle.

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 thing.

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 surrounds.

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 each gospel.

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.

More Sessions
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



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