The Lindisfarne Gospels has long been acclaimed as the most spectacular manuscript to survive from Anglo-Saxon England. It is a copy of the four Gospels, the biblical books recounting the life of Christ, along with the associated texts that typically form part of Gospel-books, such as chapter lists and letters written by St Jerome (d. 420).
The copying and decoration of the Lindisfarne Gospels represent a remarkable artistic achievement. The book includes five highly elaborate full-page carpet pages, so-called because of their resemblance to carpets from the eastern Mediterranean. Four of the carpet pages appear alongside ‘incipit’ pages that mark the beginning of each Gospel; the fifth precedes the book’s prefatory material. There are also full-page images of the four Evangelists and an illuminated Chi-Rho page, where the first letters of Christ’s name are abbreviated and written in Greek as XPI.
In the late-10th century, additions were made to the manuscript by a priest named Aldred (active c. 970), provost of the community at Chester-le-Street, about six miles north of Durham. He added an Old English gloss to the manuscript, the earliest rendering of the Gospels in the English language. He also added a colophon, or inscription, that provides valuable evidence of the manuscript’s production. In the blank column at the end of the book (f. 259r, digitised image 17), Aldred wrote:
Eadfrith bishop of the Church of Lindisfarne
He, in the beginning, wrote this book for God and
St Cuthbert and generally for all the holy folk
who are on the island.
And Æthilwald bishop of the Lindisfarne-islanders,
bound and covered it without, as he well knew how to do.
And Billfrith the anchorite, he forged the
ornaments which are on the outside and
bedecked it with gold and with gems and
also with gilded silver-pure wealth. (Gameson, 2013, p. 93)
Eadfrith was a monk at Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, who became bishop in c. 698 and remained incumbent until his death in c. 722. Most scholars accept the evidence of the colophon and conclude that Eadfrith was the artist of the book’s intricate illumination as well as its scribe. Others involved in the production of the book are mentioned by name (Æthilwald the binder and Billfrith, the creator of what was originally a ‘treasure’ case or binding of jewels and precious metals).
Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, ed. by Claire Breay and Joanna Story (The British Library, 2018)
Michelle Brown, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality and the Scribe (London, 2003)
Richard Gameson, From Holy Island to Durham: The Contents and Meanings of The Lindisfarne Gospels (London, 2013)