Lindisfarne Gospels: Why is this book so special?
For the first time in 12 years, an extraordinary book is heading back to its home in north-east England. The Lindisfarne Gospels, a 1,300-year old manuscript, will be the centrepiece of a much awaited exhibition in Durham starting in July.
But why is this book so special?
A small, bleakly beautiful island just off the Northumberland coast was the theatre of an epic feat. This island is Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island.
The hero of this story was a man named Eadfrith.
In this quiet place, cut off by the tide from the rest of the world for a few hours a day, every day, he undertook a gruelling battle; his weapon was not the sword but the pen. Eadfrith is the person credited as the mastermind behind the Lindisfarne Gospels.
The manuscript is commonly regarded as one of the greatest achievements of British medieval art.
Just a cursory glance at its pages reveals curvy, embellished letters; strange creatures and enchanting, spiralling symbols of exquisite precision and beauty.
A copy of the four Gospels of the New Testament, it was produced around AD715 in honour of St Cuthbert, one of the most revered medieval saints.
The making of the book - which contains the oldest surviving English version of the Gospels and escaped Viking raids and turmoil - required time, dedication, and the invention of new tools and materials.
The sack of Lindisfarne
- Lindisfarne was raided for the first time by the Vikings in AD793
- At that point, it was the centre of spiritual power for northern England and southern Scotland
- It was the first recorded Viking raid on Britain
- Letters by the scholar Alcuin of York to the king of Northumbria and the Bishop of Lindisfarne give great insight on how the Christian world reacted to the raids
- Lindisfarne was sacked again in AD875. The monk community moved to Chester-le-Street with their most treasured possessions, including St Cuthbert's shrine and the Lindisfarne Gospels.
In a note (or 'colophon') added to the manuscript around AD960, Eadfrith is said to have copied and decorated the Gospels on his own. This is extraordinary, not only because books were normally made by groups of several people, but also because Eadfrith undertook this giant task on top of his responsibilities as the Bishop of Lindisfarne.
Experts estimate that it would have taken him between five and ten years to complete his devotional act of meditation, defeating the dark and cold North Sea winters and, probably, his own old age.Experimental chemist
With no modern technology at his disposal, he is credited with inventing some of his own gadgets to help.
"He was a technical innovator who invented the pencil and the light box in order to achieve his complex artistic and social vision," explains Professor Michelle Brown, an expert in medieval manuscript studies at the University of London's School of Advanced Study.
An experimental chemist, Eadfrith was able to manufacture a palette of around 90 colours using only six local minerals and vegetable extracts: "He knew about lapis lazuli [a semi-precious stone with a blue tint] from the Himalayas but could not get hold of it, so made his own," adds Prof Brown.
The result of Eadfrith's eclectic approach is one of the most colourful gifts that we have received from the Dark Ages.
The manuscript is a melting pot of styles, inspired by "all the different peoples who lived in these islands at the time - Britons, Picts, Celts, Anglo-Saxons - along with those of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures," says Prof Brown.
Prof Brown also sees in the art of the Gospels a statement about Britain's multiculturalism in that age: "At a time when people signified their status, genealogy and belief by the symbols and decorative motifs they wore, such an 'esperanto' of art signified that everyone had a place in this colourful vision of an eternal harmony to come."
Today a book is, for most, something to be enjoyed in solitude, but in the 8th Century, explains Prof Brown, the Lindisfarne manuscript was one of the most seen and visited books of its day; pilgrims flocked to St Cuthbert's shrine, where it stayed.Medieval multi-media
End Quote Richard Gameson Durham University
The beauty of the book conveys the value of the content”
The Lindisfarne Gospels' intricate and symbolic artwork helped convey its message to those who could not read.
Professor Richard Gameson, an expert on the history of the book at the University of Durham, even sees it as a precursor to modern multi-media, as it was designed to be a visual, sensual and artistic experience for its audience.
"The full-page decoration, the elaborate verse-like arrangement of the text, written in calligraphic letters, the integration of colourful initials of different sizes throughout enrich and enhance the reader's interaction with the volume," says Prof Gameson.
"The beauty of the book conveys the value of the content, simultaneously enriching the reader's experience of it." The Gospels originally had a precious metal binding, which made the visual impact even greater.
Aldred, the colophon's author, also added a word by word translation of the entire text, so that above every Latin word on the manuscript there is one or more Old English equivalents, a process known as 'gloss'.
This is the oldest English version of the Gospels that has come to us. Prof Gameson compares the gloss to current technology, in which we are only a click away from a dictionary.
Prof Brown adds that, because of its evocative art and the power given by the still relatively new medium of writing, the book's impact was similar to those of films and electronic media today.
And just like modern media, the Gospels helped transform society: "Books such as the Lindisfarne Gospels became books of the high altar, before which legal transactions - such as the freeing of slaves - would be enacted.
"Such books formed focal points in a process of social transformation that could lead warriors to embrace pacifism, and kings to free slaves and forgive enemies, at risk of assassination for overturning the social order," she says.Built to last
What books meant to the Anglo-Saxons
A riddle contained in the Exeter Book of Old English Poetry (c. 960-70) describes the benefits of consulting a book - probably a gospel book.
It almost resembles an advert for the latest fashionable gadget:
"If the children of men are willing to make use of me, they shall be the more healthy and the more victorious [...] They will have more friends, dear ones and kindred, true and virtuous, good and trusty, who will bounteously increase their fame and fortune, and kindly surround them with benefits, and will hold them fast in a loving embrace." (Translation: Richard Gameson)
Another extraordinary aspect of the Lindisfarne Gospels is that, unlike most early medieval books, it has come to us in almost perfect condition.
It certainly did not have a quiet life: it survived Viking raids and was carried by the wandering Lindisfarne monk community to Chester-le-Street and, from there, to Durham. Much later on, after the dissolution of the monasteries, it ended up in the hands of private collectors in London.
The fact that it endured all this might ultimately be down to luck, but it also tells us that it was treasured and, indeed, built to last. Prof Gameson says that, in medieval times, a book was an investment for eternity.
"The emphasis was to reach as many people as possible for ever," he explains. "And you did something to last [for example by] choosing animal skin and other durable materials, because 100 years from now, 1,000 years from now it was going to be as valued."
It is hard to say whether Eadfrith expected that, 1,300 years later, thousands of people would still queue to see his masterpiece.
But the Lindisfarne Gospels, with its beauty and history, continues to inspire awe in those who see it as it did in the Middle Ages.