one of the great landmarks of human cultural achievement 1
The Lindisfarne Gospels 2 represent one of the outstanding examples of medieval illuminated texts and is regarded as one of Britain’s greatest literary and religious treasures. It was created in the early eighth century and was a product of what is sometimes called the 'Golden Age of Northumbria'; that burst of artistic and intellectual creativity that also inspired the Venerable Bede to write his 'Ecclesiastical History'.
Named after the monastery of Lindisfarne where the manuscript text was conceived and created, despite being over 1,300 years old the Lindisfarne Gospels have survived to the present day in a remarkable condition, and is currently in the safekeeping of the British Library.
The Historical Background
The island of Lindisfarne lies just off the north-east coast of England close to the fortress of Bamburgh, which was the capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.
Aethelfrith was the first, and pagan king of a unified Northumbria who died in battle in the year 617 and his children fled north into exile, and in particular two of his sons, Oswald and Oswiu took refuge in Dal Raida. The Goidelic kingdom of Dal Riada lay in what is today north-west Scotland and had been evangelised by Irish monks who had established a monastery at Iona, which came in time to serve as the central religious authority for north Britain. The sons of Aethelfrith were therefore raised as Christians under the influence of Iona.
When Oswald, as a consequence of his victory at the Battle of Heavenfield, became king of Northumbria, he naturally invited the monks of Iona to send representatives south to assist in the work of converting the still largely pagan Northumbrians to the Christian faith. The island of Lindisfarne was granted to these monks, and Lindisfarne became both a monastery and the centre for the diocese of Northumbria with Aidan its first abbot and bishop.
After the Synod of Whitby in 664 the Northumbrian church decided to fall into line with the standard Roman practices of the remainder of the English church, and accepted the authority of Canterbury rather than Iona. However despite this administrative change, the Irish monastic influence remained strong within Northumbria as exemplified in many ways by the life of Cuthbert.
It was this Cuthbert that became bishop of Lindisfarne in 685 and despite his short tenure as bishop (he died in 687) a cult very rapidly grew up around his name, particularly as he was canonised a saint very shortly after his death. A major cult required a suitable Gospel Book as its centrepiece and Cuthbert's successors were therefore inspired to commission a suitable work to serve as an icon for the cult of Saint Cuthbert. 3
The Origin of the Lindisfarne Gospels
Most of what is known about the origins of the Lindisfarne Gospels comes from the 'colophon', an inscription added on the final page of the manuscript by the tenth century Aldred. This inscription, translated into modern English, reads as follows;
'Eadfrith, Bishop of the church of Lindisfarne, originally wrote this book in honour of God and Saint Cuthbert and the whole company of saints whose relics are on the island. And Aethelwald, Bishop of the Lindisfarne islanders, bound it on the outside and covered it, as he knew well how to do. And Billfrith, the anchorite, wrought the ornaments on the outside and adorned it with gold and with gems and gilded silver, unalloyed metal. And Aldred, unworthy and most miserable priest, glossed it in English with the help of God and Saint Cuthbert.'
Eadfrith was the Bishop of Lindisfarne between the years 698 and 721 and Aethelwald was his successor in the years 721 to 740; from which information it is possible to date the creation of the Gospels. Indeed it was at the beginning of Eadfrith's tenure as bishop that Cuthbert's relics were raised to the altar of the monastery church and discovered to be uncorrupted by the monks.
It was this miracle that prompted the movement to canonise Cuthbert and Eadfrith was consequently to play a major role in establishing Cuthbert's cult.
As one can see Eadfrith was credited with the creation of the Gospels themselves and although traditionally speaking this has been dated to around the year 700, during the reign of king Aldfrith, more modern scholarship believes the true date to be around twenty years later, towards the end of Eadfrith's tenure as bishop and during the reign of Aldfrith's likely son Osric.
Technically known as British Library, London, Cotton MS Nero D. iv the physical manuscript consists of 259 pages of thick vellum, 13 1/2 by 9 7/8 inches, containing the Four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in Latin, following the Vulgate version of Saint Jerome together with; Saint Jerome's Epistle to Pope Damasus, his Prefaces, the Eusebian Canons, the arguments of each Gospel, and 'Capitula', or headings of the lessons.
The vast majority of the pages are devoted to the actual text of the Gospels and other works as mentioned and contain little in the way of ornamentation. There are however fifteen particular pages that have been lavishly decorated - twelve of these are accounted for by the sequence of three decorated pages that precedes each of the four gospels, comprising;
- the title page showing the evangelist adorned with various traditional symbols,
- followed by a 'carpet page', comprising an intricate decorative design,
- and finally the 'initial page' of the gospel itself, where the initial capital for the evangelist's name is decorated as are the opening words of the gospel.
The additional three decorated pages are accounted for by an extra page to mark the beginning of the Christmas Gospel for Matthew and an additional carpet page and initial page to introduce the Saint Jerome's Epistle to Pope Damasus.
In addition to this original eighth century creation, sometime between the years 950 and 970 a priest by the name of Aldred inserted an Old English gloss between the lines of the original Latin text. This gloss, a literal translation of the Latin text, is the oldest surviving translation of the Gospels into Old English.
The gospels hold a timeless universal appeal. It was made in an era of immense multiculturalism in England and the imagery is a mix of Roman British, Irish, Germanic, Mediterranean and even Middle Eastern influences. 1
Although the text of the Lindisfarne Gospels was largely copied from the existing Naples Gospels 4, the decorative pages were an entirely new and original conception and it is the decorative aspects of the work that excite most interest today.
The decorations employed were of a particularly high quality; for example modern analysis of the Lindisfarne Gospels reveals that no less than 108 separate and distinct shades were used in the paintings (The majority of contemporary illuminated texts used only three or four colours) and the 'carpet pages' are of a particular complex and elaborate design.
The decorations illustrated a diverse range of cultural influences, predominant amongst these were 'indigenous' Celtic motifs derived from the Irish monastic tradition within Northumbria but also included elements derived from Germanic and Roman sources. The portraits of the four evangelists were clearly borrowed from preceding Italian and Byzantine models, whilst the intricately painted 'carpet-pages' were inspired by similar conceptions in Coptic and other eastern manuscripts.
Whilst it has been argued that this multiplicity of cultural inputs represented "a deliberate attempt to include all aspects of society and faith" 5 it is more likely simply a reflection of the eclectic nature of the early medieval Christian Church. But which ever way you look at it the Lindisfarne Gospels remain a breathtaking piece of art which retain the ability to delight and astonish despite the passage of time.
How the decoration was completed
For many years people have been puzzled by exactly how the monks of Lindisfarne produced the rather complex decorated pages contained in the Gospels as the manuscript shows no signs of any preparation markings. Dr Michelle Brown, the current Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts for the British Library believes that she has established the method by which the decorated pages were created.
The process began with the designs first set out on one piece of vellum, then another piece of vellum was placed on top and the two pieces carefully rubbed together, thereby transferring the markings from one sheet to another. The design would, of course, now appear on the second piece of vellum in reverse, so that by turning the sheet over, and placing it over a strong light source (something akin to a candle-powered medieval lightbox is suggested), the artist could then apply the necessary layers of paint to the sheet of vellum without interfering with or obscuring the layout that appeared on the reverse side. 6
Interestingly enough the artist is believed to have drawn the original outlines using a writing instrument with a metal point and a graphite element or basically something very like a pencil, some four centuries before anyone else is believed to have used anything like the modern pencil.
The history of the Lindisfarne Gospels
The Gospels were retained at Lindisfarne until 875, when the monks finally decided to abandon the monastery due to the threat of continued Danish Viking raids, and removed the book together with the relics of Saint Cuthbert. The Lindisfarne community initially fled to Ireland and it is said that the Gospels were lost overboard in the Irish Sea during the voyage. However a vision of Saint Cuthbert himself appeared, pointing to the location of the book, from which it was duly recovered intact and undamaged, none the worse for its four day immersion in the sea. 7
Between the years 883 and 995 it went with the Lindisfarne monks to their new base at Chester-le-Street and remained there, until the monks relocated themselves to Durham in the year 995 where they built a new shrine to Saint Cuthbert. The Lindisfarne Gospels remained at Durham until the shrine was looted during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 when (most likely) the original jewelled binding was removed and then disappeared for almost a century, finally resurfacing in 1623 in the possession of one Robert Bowyer, the clerk to the House of Commons who sold it to the noted book and manuscript collector Robert Cotton.
The Gospels, having somehow survived the fire that burnt down the Cotton household, and formed part of the Cottonian bequest that Robert Cotton's heirs later donated to the British Museum. The British Museum in their wisdom allowed the work to be rebound in a new jewelled cover donated by one Bishop Maltby and in this guise it was later to form part of the initial endowment of the British Library, in whose possession it remains today.
Although the British Library has been criticised in the past for rather underplaying the importance of the Gospels and failing to display it properly, it currently forms the centrepiece of a temporary exhibition entitled, Painted Labyrinth - the World of the Lindisfarne Gospels, which is running in the Pearson Gallery between the 16th May and the 28 September 2003.
1 According to Michelle Brown, the Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts for the British Library see BBC News Source
2 Although now universally known as the Lindisfarne Gospels the text was also previously known as the 'Cuthbert Gospels' or the 'Book of Cuthbert', by reference to the saint that inspired its creation.
3 The cult of Saint Cuthbert was eventually to grow into the most significant religious cult in the north of England.
4 According to the Catholic Encyclopedia - "A table of festivals with special lessons seems to indicate that this manuscript was copied from one used at a church in Naples."
5 An argument advanced by Michelle Brown probably allowing her enthusiasm for the subject to run away with her.
6 This I understand to be a similar technique to that adopted in the creation of animated cartoons, where paint is applied to the reverse side of the animation cell
7 A tale that might well contain a germ of truth as afterwards the Gospels were recorded in the inventories of Durham and Lindisfarne as the Liber S. Cuthberti qui demersus est in mare, that is 'the book of Saint Cuthbert that fell into the sea'.
The British Library at
and also the online version of the Painted Labyrinth exhibition at
BBC News Online - Gospels' truth uncovered (Wednesday, 14 May, 2003) at
The Catholic Encyclopedia entries on the Ancient Diocese and Monastery of Lindisfarne and Saint Cuthbert see ttp://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09269a.htm and http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04578a.htm
The Durham Diocese website at