More than a Treasure and Work of Art:

a metaphor of God and foundation for reformation 

      As one would expect, the Lindisfarne Gospels consist of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John that depict the divine and human natures of Christ.  The Lindisfarne Gospels codex, c.698 A.D., is among the most majestically illuminated calligraphy ever written by hand on calfskin vellum.  Its serene setting on the island of Lindisfarne is in the Kingdom of Northumbria and is as colorful a place as the story surrounding this Anglo-Saxon manuscript.  It was written after the western Roman Empire had fallen, and the Catholic Church filled the leadership void.  Yet to occur in England was the disillusion of monasteries ordered by King Henry VIII, the Church of England separation from the Catholic Church, and later reformation.  Meanwhile, Central Europe was also yet to undergo the Carolingian Renaissance, Investiture Controversy, and Great Schism.   Not only were the words of Christ essential to the Christian but even those words concerning His life and crucifixion, and it is in the book of John that impresses this metaphor.

Displayed in this exhibit is a facsimile reproduction of the Lindisfarne Gospels published by Broughton Publishing and printed by Apmanuscripts.com. ISBN: 978-0-997-1231-2-8

      The Lindisfarne monastery was founded by St. Aidan, an Irish monk of the Celtic tradition, to who King Oswald invited.  Lindisfarne, also known among English as “Holy Island,” looks out to the north-sea.  The Benedictine, St. Bede, a contemporary and local, writes that after the death of Aidan, Lindisfarne became popularized by St. Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne. The latter’s life and end paint a vibrant story to the Priory.

    Aldred the Scribe, Priest, and Provost of Chester-le-Street (area of Durham Cathedral) about 995 A.D. documented the origin of the Lindisfarne Gospels referred to as a colophon and added the interlinear Old English within or “glossed it in English between the lines.”  The colophon provides details of the making of the book as follows:

 

  • The Lindisfarne Gospels were written by Bishop Eadfrith (between 698-721 A.D.)
  • Bishop Ethelwald “impressed it on the outside and covered it”
  • Billfrith the anchorite “forged the ornaments on it on the outside and adorned it with gold and with gems also with gilded-over silver – pure metal.”

 

      Beginning in 793 A.D., Lindisfarne had been raided by the Vikings; this event marked the beginning of the Viking age that swept across Europe (see Simeon of Durham, Historia Regum https://youtu.be/-KGdUoJS0V4).  Later, the book made its way to the Durham Cathedral. 

Subsequently, it was acquired by the British Library in 1631 as part of the Sir Robert Cotton collection, who obtained it from Robert Bowyer, Clerk of the Parliaments. The jeweled cover was lost, possibly at the hands of Vikings for a time or during a raid but was replaced in 1852. The new cover was commissioned by Bishop Edward Maltby and carried out by Smith, Nicholson, and Co.

 

      Its linguistic importance lies in the parallel translation of insular majuscule style, a copy of St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate text, with Old-English transcribed between the lines, making it the oldest English writing of the Gospels.  This majuscule calligraphy emphasizes text with capitalization and boldness.  Its chemistry of pigments is equally diverse, developed from animals, plants, minerals, and metallic sources that achieved an array and spectrum of colors.  Roman capitals, Greek and Germanic letters are used in alternation.  The book opens with an introduction to the letter of St. Jerome and Pope Damasus I (c.366-382 A.D.), depicts canon tables and highlights the Christmas narrative of Matthew.

 

      Each Gospel is preceded with an abstract design referred to as a carpet page, coupled with a title page and corresponding apostle painting.  The abstract styles of decorative images are referred to as Hiberno-Saxon, reflecting Irish-Gaelic-Picti-Celtic Christian traditions of Iona Abbey, located on an Island off the western coast of now Scotland.  The carpet patterns produce cross motifs, while dots and the semi-circular crossover curves (knots) and spirals reflect Celtic artwork.  The Roman Empire controlled Britain from 43 A.D to 410 A.D., and as a result, influenced some of the artistic styles as well.  For example, Western Roman Catholic and Byzantine influences are seen in the paintings of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John that resonate with the Byzantium iconistic and natural classical styles.  In contrast, the linear and zoomorphic designs echo Germanic art.

 

      Before Christianity reached the British islands, there were many mystic beliefs that the people could relate to with the Gospel’s message.  The Lindisfarne Gospels, among the oldest bound books written in England, is often compared with its sister codices, the Book of Kells and the St. Cuthbert Gospel of St. John (found in Cuthbert's coffin).  These Biblical texts have one thing in common, the primary importance of the synoptic Gospel Message to the Celtic-British.  There appears to be a deliberate intent at emphasizing the four cononical gospels.  Notice that the producers spared no expense on page spread by leaving precious costly vellum white space between the lines.  They also devoted numerous full pages to carpet and Apostle paintings, and added calligraphic designs that took up large portions of pages.  This biblical exclusivity of the four conanical Gospels emphasized the message of Jesus Christ as the Word of God and Him crucified while being inclusively regarded as holy writ among all flavors of Christianity.  It would not be unreasonable to preclude and potentially conjecture that the Church institution and or King funded or partially funded this work.  If there were to be any part of utmost importance in the New Testament Scriptures for a Christian, it would be the four gospels.  This emphasis and focus on Christ theologically, perhaps are the first signs of reformation centuries ahead reflecting sola scriptora, and what laid this foundation was the metaphor.  This focus on the four Gospels placed thought on the “Word of God” concerning Christ’s Gospel, in contrast to Church authority that was long supreme.  This preeminence of this metaphor is evident in the text of John 1:1 and 1:14 “the word was God” and “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” and is what Cuthbert took to his grave (https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/1611_John-Chapter-1/).

This narrative is only touching on this saga and intrigue surrounding the epic story of St. Cuthbert, yet this is a part of what makes the Lindisfarne Gospels so colorful.  For more on Cuthbert, see a video produced by Dr. Emma Wells’ titled St. Cuthbert’s Way at https://youtu.be/V1ZAWlN6j_Q.

 

Additional video sources telling of Cuthbert’s saintly life can be found at: