Originally published May 2013.

Lindisfarne Gospel

Although not as famous as the Book of Kells, The Lindisfarne Gospel is one of the great treasures of the British Library. It is believed to have been made on the “The Holy Isle of Lindisfarne” about 700 AD. Unlike the Book of Kells which had as many as eight people work on it, the text and artwork designs are thought to be the work of a single artist. It is described as a melting pot of artistic styles of the time ranging from the La Tene-style Celts, Britons, Picts, Anglo Saxons, and even some Mediterranean influences. It shows evidence of artistic techniques previously undocumented for such a early period. Moreover, it includes the earliest surviving English translation of the Gospels which was added between the lines around 950/960 in Old English.

An open book, inspired by the Lindisfarne Gospel, featuring an ornate design.
Folio 27r from the Lindisfarne Gospels with the incipit from the Gospel of Matthew.

At the end of the manuscript there is a later which states that the artist was a monk named Eadfith who was the Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721. The inscription goes on the say that Eadfrith created it “for God and St Cuthbert and – jointly for a the saints whose relics are in the island.” It also describes a binding decorated with gold, silver and gems that was added to it by Billfrith the anchorite. (An anchorite is a person who has retired to seclusion for religious reasons, but may or may not be a monk, nun or cleric.)

Besides the beauty and complexity of the designs, the Lindisfarne Gospel is striking for its palette of 90 different colors. Although other Medieval manuscripts were made with exotic, imported material like lapis lazuli for blue, the Lindisfarne artist used primarily local minerals and plant extracts. Purples, reds and blues were made from woad, lichens and folium, red/orange from toasted lead, green from copper verdigris.

The artist also seems to have used a couple of previously undocumented innovations for the time, The layout markings for the art and text were made with lead point, the forerunner of the pencil -300 years before the lead point was supposed to have been known in that part of Europe. Other manuscripts were normally marked with a hard point stylus. It has also been suggested that the artist may have used a simple form of “light box” made of a frame holding glass or a thin sheet of horn with a light source behind it. This is because many of the the layout markings were made on the blank, reverse side of the pages and would not otherwise be visible. A similar technique is not described in period writings until the 15th century.

(Left a “carpet page” from the Lindisfarne Gospel. There is some speculation that carpet pages like this may be inspired by prayer mats first used in the Christian Orient and later used in in Europe as well.

In it’s time, the Lindisfarne Gospel has survived Viking raids of the Island of Lindisfarne and wandered with the monks to Chester-le-Street in County Durham to Durham. After the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1500’s it ended up in private collections and finally in the British Library.

There continues to be pressure from some people to bring it back to the Isle of Lindisfarne, or at least to North East England, perhaps to Durham Cathedral. But the British Library and international scholars have argued against this move. However, starting in June 2013 it temporarily revisited Durham for an exhibition along with the St. Cuthbert Gospel. As part of the cultural festivities that accompanied the exhibition a play was commissioned for the events. “A Funny thing Happened on the Way to Durham” is described as an irreverent romp through the history of North East England including 390 monks, a whole lot of cows and 1400 years of history in 2 hours.

To learn more about the Lindisfarne Gospel see the book:​ The Lindisfarne Gospel and the Early Medieval World written by the former curator of illuminated manuscripts at the British Library.

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