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24 September 2014
Tyne - Lindisfarne Gospels

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Tense Past
The history of The Gospels

Holy Island
Lindisfarne Castle is on Holy Island in Northumberland
The Lindisfarne Gospels have a uniquely important place in the art and culture of the North East, and the Christian heritage of the area. The exhibition is part of the celebrations of the Millennium year, marking 2000 years since the birth of Christ.

This exceptionally beautiful book represents the pinnacle of achievement of Anglo-Saxon Northumbrian art at the end of the 7th century and the beginning of the 8th century. Within its pages it draws together all the varied influences which shaped Christian art of the time, blending styles of writing and decoration from Italian, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon art.

An old English Inscription
Old English inscription added by the monk Aldred
The Lindisfarne Gospels are masterpieces of early medieval European book painting. The book represents the golden age of design and craftsmanship in Northumbria, and has survived wars and the ravages of time for over one thousand years in almost perfect condition. The freshness, intricacy and beauty of its decoration are outstanding.

Almost everything that is known concerning the origin of the manuscript is derived from a note written in Anglo-Saxon, believed to be dated between 950 and 970, by a priest named Aldred. He also inserted an addition of a very early Old English translation written between the lines of the original Latin. Aldred also recorded when and where he believed the book was made, and by whom.

Why were the Lindisfarne Gospels made?

According to the 10th century inscription by Aldred, the Lindisfarne Gospels were made at the island monastery to
Illustration of a monk at work on the gospels
An illustration of a monk at work on the Gospels
honour Lindisfarne’s saintly bishop, Cuthbert. The book was probably written some time between St Cuthbert's death in 687, and the death in 721 of Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, whom Aldred identified as the artist and scribe of the book. A recent study has suggested a date of around 710-720.

The Lindisfarne Gospels contain the gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, concerning the life of Jesus. The book was produced for ceremonial use, as a representation of the splendour of God's word and the Christian religion. It would also have been an important contribution to the cult of St Cuthbert, which turned Lindisfarne into a place of pilgrimage in the late 7th and 8th centuries.

The makers of the Lindisfarne Gospels

Eadfrith, Bishop of the Lindisfarne Church, originally wrote and illustrated this book, for God and for Saint Cuthbert and - jointly - for all the saints whose relics are in the Island. Talented scribes, who
wrote "the Lord’s word", were highly regarded.

The open Gospels
The Gospels are intricately decorated

Ethelwald, Bishop of the Lindisfarne islanders, impressed it on the outside and covered it - as he well knew how to do. Billfrith, the hermit, forged the ornaments which are on it on the outside and adorned it with gold and jewels and also with gilded-over silver - pure metal.

Aldred, unworthy and most miserable priest, translated it in English between the lines with the help of God and Saint Cuthbert.

The search for a safer home for the Lindisfarne Gospels

The first Viking raid on Britain struck Lindisfarne in 793. After nearly a hundred years of continuing raids the monastic community abandoned Lindisfarne in 875, taking with them the body of Saint Cuthbert and their other relics and books, including the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The Lindisfarne community was believed to have travelled around for seven years but eventually settled at the Priory at Chester-le-Street where they stayed until 995. They then moved to Durham Priory with the relics of St Cuthbert after the dead saint revealed to one of the monks where he wanted his new resting place to be.

In 1069, the Lindisfarne Gospels spent a short time back at Lindisfarne to escape the devastating raid on the North mounted by the new Norman king, William the Conqueror. The book was then returned to Durham. In 1104, St Cuthbert's body and other monastic treasures from Lindisfarne were moved to the splendid new Romanesque cathedral at Durham.

However, in 1536 the Dissolution of the Monasteries was ordered by Henry VIII. The priories of Lindisfarne and Durham were broken up, and the Gospels were believed to have been seized by the king's commissioners and sent to
London for the jewelled casing to be removed. In the late 16th century the book was at the Tower of London.

In the early 17th century the Lindisfarne Gospels were owned by Sir Robert Cotton, who gathered an important

Portrait of St John
Portrait of St John preceding
St John's Gospel
collection of ancient books. Cotton's heirs presented the book to the nation and it became part of founding collections of the British Museum in 1753.

In 1852 a new binding was commissioned for the Lindisfarne Gospels, based on decoration in Eadfrith's pages. In 1973 the Lindisfarne Gospels became part of the British Library.

Monks at Work
Skill and perseverence...the manuscript in the making
Future Perfect
Warning! Display only in closely monitored conditions
On Show
Gospels make a guest appearance at the Laing on their visit to the North East
Look don't Touch
How visitors can see the Gospels without leaving their fingerprints!
The British Library
The Laing Art Gallery
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