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.
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.