Written and illustrated probably by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721, the Lindisfarne Gospels is amongst our greatest artistic, linguistic and religious treasures.
The book is a copy of the four Gospels included in the New Testament, together with other text traditionally included in medieval copies, such as letters of St Jerome appended as prefatory material. For full details of the text, see the catalogue description accompanying the digital images of the manuscripts.
The date and place of origin of the Gospels have been much debated, as both are based on the interpretation of a colophon, or inscription, added at the same time as the English gloss near the end of the tenth century, and on the style of decoration of the text. The identifying inscription was made by Aldred (fl. c. 970), Provost of the community at Chester-le-Street, about six miles north of Durham.
Eadfrith’s superb skill is evident in the opening pages of each Gospel. A painting of the Gospel's author is followed by an intricately patterned ‘carpet’ page. Each carpet page has a cross pattern embedded in its design. It seems likely that these pages were designed to serve as a sort of interior treasure binding to ornament each Gospel as a mirror of the ornate exterior one that once was ‘bedecked with gold and gems’, according to the colophon.
Next in each Gospel is the ‘incipit’ page, that is, the page on which the text begins, in which the initial letters of the text are elaborated with interlacing and spiral patterns reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon jewellery and enamel work. Others involved in the production of the book are mentioned by name (Aethilwald the binder and Billfrith, the creator of what was originally a treasure case or binding of jewels and precious metals).
Like most medieval Christian manuscripts, the Lindisfarne Gospels was written in Latin. However, around 970, when it was owned by the Minster of Chester-le-Street, Aldred, the Provost, added an Old English translation beneath the original Latin. This is the oldest surviving version of the Gospels in any form of English.
How did the manuscript come to the British Library?
The Lindisfarne Gospels formed part of the famous collection of manuscripts formed by the antiquary Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (b. 1571, d. 1631). The Cotton library was inherited and augmented by Sir Robert’s son, Sir Thomas Cotton (d. 1662), and grandson, Sir John Cotton (d. 1702). Sir John negotiated the transfer of the collection to the nation at his death, as confirmed in 1701 by Act of Parliament (12 & 13 William III, c. 7). This Act states that the library was to ‘be kept and preserved ... for Publick Use and Advantage’, and that it should ‘not be sold, or otherwise disposed of’. This was the first time that the British nation became responsible for a collection of books or manuscripts, an important stage towards the creation of a national, public library.
In 1753, the Cotton library formed one of the foundation collections of the newly-established British Museum. Sir John Cotton is therefore regarded as the first benefactor of the British Museum (and hence of the British Library).
How can I see more of this book?
The entire manuscript is available digitally on Digitised Manuscripts.
We have also created a digital version of the Lindisfarne Gospels using our award-winning Turning the Pages™.
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