The Lindisfarne Gospels

“Prayer Carpet” Pages preceding each Gospel, featuring cross pattern

 “Prayer Carpet” pages with opening page of Gospel including illuminated initial letters

Gospel Evangelist pages (Luke, Mark, John shown) with Gospel text in Latin

Details from Lindisfarne Gospel illuminations

Many of the images of the Lindisfarne Gospels above are from the online gallery at the British Library. See Note: Featured image on this blog post is photo taken at sunset of St. Cuthbert’s Island where Lindisfarne Gospels were created (taken from Lindisfarne, August, 2015 by David Robinson).

Quotations from Michelle P. Brown, The Lindisfarne Gospels and the Early Medieval World

“The Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Lindisfarne is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful and inspiring handwritten and illuminated books in the world, a landmark of human creative achievement and a testament of commitment and faith” (Brown, 35).

“It was probably made around AD 715-720 in the monastery of Lindisfarne on Holy Island, an outstandingly beautiful tidal island off the north-east coast of England in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria” (Brown, 35).

“One of the most remarkable things about this book is that it is essentially the work of a single inspired individual. At a time when even undecorated books destined for a monastic library were the work of several scribes, each undertaking their stint in the communal scriptorium, this – one of the most elaborate projects of its kind ­– was undertaken by a single artist-scribe. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that this was the community’s bishop himself, a very busy person. This immediately alerts us to the fact that it was unusual work, underpinned by personal spirituality and a special vocation” (Brown, 36).

“When we compare the major openings of the Lindisfarne Gospels to those of earlier books, it is immediately apparent that a deep transformation is underway. The opening words of each Gospel explode across the page, becoming icons in their own right ­– literally the Word made word” (Brown, 36).

“The repertoire of decorative motifs, images and styles fuses diverse elements and influences. Some reflect the many peoples then living in the country, others are exotic echoes of far-off lands – from Celtic, Germanic, Mediterranean and Near Eastern art and culture. The microcosm that is the book reflects the macrocosm of the known world and a wider Creation” (Brown, 36).

“Those who have encountered the Lindisfarne Gospels often feel their lives touched by the experience and by the journey of which it forms part. . . . It is in itself a place of assembly and encounter, a sacred space and the focus of a community of reading that, like the communion of saints, stretches across time and space” (Brown, 37).

“The Lindisfarne Gospels display their vision of the Christian present in a manner that was designed to be welcoming to all, emphasizing that this new culture stretched from Britain and Ireland to the farthest shores of the Mediterranean and was related to other faith traditions” (Brown, 39).

“His inspiration came from Mediterranean hunting scenes and vine-scrolls (plant tendrils with grapes) inhabited by birds and beasts. The vine-scrolls symbolize Creation sustained by the wine used in services to represent the blood of Christ’s sacrifice at the Crucifixion” (Michelle Brown, 107).

“Pages of ornament stand opposite the beginnings of the Gospels. These are known as carpet-pages because they resemble oriental rugs. This may have been intentional, for Bede reveals that the prayer mat (oratorio) was known in Northumbria, as well as in Eastern Christianity and Islam. Also found in early Coptic manuscripts from Egypt, they prepare the entry onto holy ground (the Gospel message) and to prayer. They contain crosses, each of different form, stressing the different church traditions and their ecumenical relationship” (Brown, 109).

“The Lindisfarne Gospels required a lot of planning and resources. Around 150 of the best cattle skins were used. . . . These costly skins probably came not only from the community’s own herds, but as gifts from religious communities, kings and nobles wishing to participate in this offering to God” (Brown, 135).

“Most remarkable was the commitment required of the maker. Before 1200 and the rise of urban production, most books were made by teams of monks or nuns working in the monastic scriptorium (or writing office), but we have seen that this masterpiece was made by a single artist-scribe. This was probably a senior member of the community who would have conceived the project and acquired the materials and models. He was a great artist, calligrapher and technical innovator. His solitary work, like St. Cuthbert’s role as a hermit, was undertaken as an act of prayer and worship on behalf of all Creation.” (Brown, 135)

All quotations above are from Michelle P. Brown, The Lindisfarne Gospels and the Early Medieval World (London: The British Library, 2011).

David Robinson’s reflections on the Lindisfarne Gospels

Having spent a week on retreat on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in August 2015 (August 24-31), after walking 50 miles in five days along the pilgrim path called The Way of St Oswald, I look now at the Lindisfarne Gospels with new eyes, eyes of one on sacred pilgrimage to the Holy Island, with heart open to the presence of Christ in this place long ago devoted to prayer, worship and mission.

This awe inspiring illuminated Gospel manuscript has always caught my eye and heart and soul. As a pastor of Community Church in a coastal village, I relate to Eadfrith, the scribe/artist, who also served as pastor (bishop) of a Christian Community in a coastal village. Bishop Eadfrith served from 698 until he died in 721 as pastor/bishop of a missional monastery on the tidal island of Lindisfarne, an intentional life-together community of Christians devoted to Christ through worship, prayer, reading/study/memorization of Scripture, caring for the poor, and leading others to Christ.

A decade into his ministry as spiritual leader of his Christian faith community, Eadfrith began to sense a calling to create a beautiful work of sacred art and sacred text of Scripture, to honor Christ Jesus, and the memory of his predecessor, St. Cuthbert (634-687), who also served as pastor/bishop of Lindisfarne. No one knows how Eadfrith developed his skill as a master illuminator (artist), employing designs found across Europe and into the Near East. From the beginning of the Lindisfarne monastery in 635 under St. Aidan, monks worked daily in the scriptorium, a place where they faithfully wrote out by hand, using quill pens made from feathers, writing in ink passages of God’s Word in beautiful calligraphy script known as insular half-uncial. So Eadfrith undoubtedly spent many hours in his earlier years as a monk of Lindisfarne in the scriptorium, developing his skill as a calligrapher of sacred texts of Scripture.

In 715, just six years before he died, Eadfrith began work on the Lindifarne Gospels, a book requiring use of 150 high quality, blemish free cow hides, as well as pigment colors of paints gathered from all over Europe, and the needed time to accomplish this monumental work. Much of this work, scholars believe, was done from a little island to the south of the island of Lindisfarne, known as St. Cuthbert’s island, only accessible at low tide. From this island, Eadfrith would have long hours of uninterrupted time to focus upon each dot and interwoven line in creating his visual artistic praises to Christ his Lord.

Eadfrith died in 721, leaving the Lindisfarne Gospels nearly finished, with places of illumination still requiring completion, but with the entire text of the Latin “vulgate”, the standard translation of the Bible across Christendom at the time, completed of all four Gospels. Nearly two hundred years later, around the year 970, a scribe by the name of Aldred added an “interlinear” English translation of the Latin text, writing above each Latin word the English word equivalent. This is now known as the first English Bible translation, though in “Old English” and not readable by today’s English readers. Aldred also added a “colophon” at the end of the Lindisfarne Gospel, listing who created the Lindisfarne Gospels, including scribe/artist (Eadfrith), binder (Ethiluald), and also the man who made the metal-work-jeweled cover (Billfrith). Today, the Lindisfarne Gospel is housed in the British Library in London, though the original ornamental cover is long since lost.

There are other well-known illuminated Bibles, including the Book of Kells (dating from around 800, after the Lindisfarne Gospels), but none as well-known as the Lindisfarne Gospels. If you go to the British Library in London, as we did a decade ago, you’ll find the Lindisfarne Gospels encased in glass, opened to the Gospel of St. John, chapter one, with the text in Latin, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

What sets the Lindisfarne Gospels apart as one of the greatest sacred works of art of all time is in the stunning artistry, including the beauty, majesty, complexity, playfulness, interwoven patterns of scrolling, and technical innovation of this masterful work. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all reveal the good news of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I love the way the Lindisfarne Gospels invite us into the holy Gospels through the Cross, through prayer, and through creation. The opening “carpet” pages, call us to kneel down, to humbly open our hearts to God in prayer, giving thanks to God for the gift of the Cross, opening up the new and living way back to God. The illuminated opening letters in each Gospel reveal the wonder and glory in the smallest details of life which the Gospels make possible, seeing all of life, including the smallest details, as sacred because of Christ’s completed work in all of Creation, reconciling all things to himself.

Our lives, in the most ordinary places, in all the smallest details, also may be transformed into God’s glorious artistry by Christ’s redeeming work. The more we soak our lives in the Gospels, the more we prayerfully study the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the more we memorize the words of the Gospels, and the more we daily seek to live out this Good News in our daily way of life, the more our lives will become like Jesus, full of beauty, creativity, wonder, and love.

1 thought on “The Lindisfarne Gospels”

  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to include us in your pilgramage. Cat and I look forward to each post and feel like we are joining you each step of the way. However, our feet don’t feel your pain. Blessings!

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