The Lindisfarne Gospels – continued

confluence of influences for a mystical and artistic work

We have seen in the previous part of the article on the Lindisfarne Gospels facts, dates, materials… However, if the Gospels are remarkable, it is because they are much more than a simple work of Christian monastic narrative. It is also a work of art and of the mind, fruit of the imagination.

Except revelation of a late discovery, the Lindisfarne Gospels is the realization of a single man: Eadfrith, who alone, through this personal realization, has a syncretic look at different artistic currents. Let’s put it in context. AT a period often referred to as the “ Dark Ages”, although the concept, modern, is to be put into perspective, the English territory is an aggregate of tribes in struggle and welcoming from time to time waves of invaders: from Belgians to Romans, from Welsh to Caledonians, from Celts to Anglo- saxons. Each new wave of population brings with it new beliefs, new codes, new know-how.

E ach material used to compose a work like the Lindisfarne Gospels is difficult to find, the light in everyday life is different, the way of life is very harsh. Life expectancy is low: wars, disease and political instability are omnipresent. The world of gods, spirits, magic… appears as a refuge, a support. Lhe concept of a single god, savior, is a source of mystical hope. Contemplative life in a monastic place offers calm and relative protection in a troubled environment. As a result, religious books carry meaning… but also mysteries; they are symbols of wealth and revered as treasures.

Eadfrith probably devoted between five and ten years of his life to the United States .gospels, with an idea of elevation difficult to conceive nowadays. It is an Opus Dei – the work of God – to which he got down to it by putting all his inventiveness and his faith into it to tend towards the Sacred. He drew the resources of his composition from everything that surrounded him: materials and know-how but also artistic, artisanal, Christian and pagan influences. Made long before the monumental and inescapable Book of Kells, the elegant simplicity of the Lindisfarne Gospels has a “je-ne-sais-quoi ” absolute, unique and magical that deserves to be honored today.

Initial page of St Luke. Lindisfarne Gospels. Spiral. Retail. ancient civilizations
Staffordshire Moorlands Pan. Ancient Civilizations

Fig. 1. Similarity between the initial page of St Luke from the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Staffordshire Moorlands Pan -Ilam Pan- (enamelled bronze. 2nd century AD)

deep Latenian roots

Some of the Celts of Ireland, Scotland and England were converted very early in the history of Christianity. Long before the arrival of the pagan Saxons, Angles, etc., they developed a form of art mixing the very ancient Tène -or Latienne- culture with Christian, Celtic and Pictish symbols -closer to Gaelic culture- and which has uniquely evolved.

From the 6th century, coming from Ireland for the purpose of evangelization of England, Irish monks spread in the north, mingled with native English people of Gael heritage, drawing inspiration from their art. , intertwining cultures. Saint Columban laid the foundations for the spread of Irish monasticism in England. Founding Iona, its monks spread over the English island following the itinerary of the kingdom of Dál Riata: towards Scotland, the far north, Pictland -or Pictavia- further east, then towards Deira and the Northumbria. Aidan, at the request of King Oswald, founded Lindisfarne in 635, then the movement continued further south, turning towards Mercia. The circulation of men and artistic influences is indisputable.

In the northern part of England, a “Celto-Pictish” art developed which is mainly known to us through the work of stone (standing stones) and metal (treasure of Saint Ninian -Shetland- cf. Fig. 3) that you discover in the illustrations. Pictish art is classified into three groups: class 1, 2 and 3, active from the 6th to the 9th century. The patterns are to be compared to Celtic patterns and will gradually assimilate Christian patterns (class 3: the Celtic or “haloed” cross).

Burghead Bull. British Museum. Ancient Civilizations
calf durrow. ancient civilizations

Fig. 2. Pictish stone work. Reconciliation between the Pictish engraved stone: Burghead Bull and the calf of the Durrow Gospels

Pictish goldsmith art. Mount of money. Silver hoard of St Ninian's Isle. Ancient Civilizations

Fig. 3. Pictish goldsmith art. Mount of money. Silver treasure of St Ninian’s Isle -Shetland-. This. 800 AD

The standing stones, the Pictish cult and artistic objects of class 1 and 2 have the characteristic of zoomorphic motifs, line games, symbols (triskels, “key pattern”). The aesthetics of these objects belong to the collective imagination of the early English Middle Ages. Artisans, creators of liturgical objects, including scribes, use this decorative vocabulary for their production.

Pictish zoomorphic and animal elements (such as the ox found on the Burghead Bull), whether naturalistic or fabulous, are part of an ornamental vocabulary similar to that of the Lindisfarne Gospels. As such, a parallel between the Burghead Bull and the peaceful ruminant in Durrow’s book does not seem meaningless (Fig. 2). Similarly, a connection between the Celtic carnyx and motifs such as a slender initial initial, representing a dragon (cf. Fig. 4) seems obvious.

In addition, the clean lines of cutting, the geometric biases already present in the Pictish objects are also those used as decorative elements of the Lindisfarne Gospels: spirals, concentric circles rolled up, crossed, and triskels and the games of broken lines, parallel , interlacing… I invite you to observe the Staffordshire Moorlands Pan (cf. Fig. 1), which is a trulla (a sort of bowl) whose English Celtic concentric pattern and color scheme, although dating from the 1st century, inevitably evokes the patterns ornaments of the Gospels.

Reconstruction of the Deskford carnyx created by John Creed. National Museum of Scotland. ancient civilizations

Fig. 4. Comparison between a Celtic carnyx -reconstruction of the Deskford carnyx- and a detail from the Novum Opus Folio 5v of the Lindisfarne Gospels

Underlying Tène heritage meets Saxon craftsmanship

If the Latène heritage lost its strength in the south of English territory with the arrival of the Romans and the first war of Roman conquest (43-83 AD), its marked presence did not disappear. This is significant in the goldsmith’s works of a good number of archaeological objects found, as we have seen. It provides a basis for the development of a whole island iconography.

Like the famous so-called penannular brooches – a sort of ring-shaped fibula – such as the “Tara brooch” or the “Hunterston brooch” (which you can see in the main illustration of the article) or also the Battersea Shield ( Fig. 5) which underline the relevance of a rapprochement between Pictish, Celtic and insular art. This know-how of insular goldsmithing will soon find an echo in the techniques brought by new occupants of English territory.

Battersea - Celtic shield. ancient civilizations

Fig. 5. Battersea Shield – Celtic art from the Isle of Britain. 1st century BC. or at the latest ap. JC

Indeed, the Roman influence struggled to impose itself on English territory. Limiting themselves to the margins of Hadrian’s Wall, they never crossed the northern borders with lasting success, leaving all the “island Bretons” to evolve freely. However, the coming ofGermanic pagan Anglo-Saxon invaders: Saxons, Angles, Jutes – they too steeped in the ancient and deep Tène culture found a better echo.

The Anglo-Saxons brought with them the know-how of metalworking and goldsmithing (Cf. Fig 6). But also the use of polychromy and cloisonné, very close to the art and craftsmanship of the Breton islanders. All of these motifs can be compared to the motifs of interlacing, interplay of lines and filling present in the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Anglo-Saxon gold pommel cap with nielloed animal interlacing decoration (black enamel). Ancient Civilizations

Fig. 6. Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire hoard hoard. Gold pommel cap with fabulous niello (black enamel) animal interlacing decor.

The fabulous treasure of Sutton Hoo (Fig. 7 & 10) gives us an illustration of this. Turned towards the decorative and ornamental motifs, this art is not concerned with narration. On the contrary, he favors purely geometric elements of cloisonné but also natural, vegetal, punctuated by repetitive patterns, foliage drawing lines and inviting us to enter the world of spirits. The ornamental motifs of the Gospels offer an assembly of elements that can be described as “Anglo-Celto-Pict” of Tène, Gaël, singular origin, which will also meet in turn the continental influence coming from the “ South”.

Carpet page of the Novum Opus. Lindisfarne. Folio-02v. Ancient Civilizations
Sutton Hoo treasure shoulder strap. A close-up. Ancient Civilizations

Fig. 7. Comparison of the Novum Opus carpet page -Lindisfarne- and shoulder strap pattern from the Sutton Hoo treasury

Continental or Anglo-Roman influence

Abandoning the unsuccessful conquest by arms, Rome was better able to establish itself on English territory through the introduction of Christianity. Accompanied by about forty missionaries and monks and sent by Pope Gregory the Great in 597 AD. J C.; Augustine, monk and prior of Rome, arrives in Kent with the mission of converting the Anglo-Saxons settled in England. Its beginnings are marked by some notable successes including the conversion of King Æthelberht and part of his army. Conversions, which, if not deeply sincere, are effective and lead to a second wave of missionaries (601 AD) which reinforces the first. And this one is laden with liturgical objects… and fundamental books as to their influence on the art of Anglo-Saxon illumination!

We traditionally evoke the so-called Saint Augustine Gospel (cf. Fig. 8), which included miniatures and portraits. A Bible of Saint Gregory, an illuminated Italian Gospel book from the 6th century, a Rule of Saint Benedict… Each work introducing with it the Roman and Byzantine styles with, for example, portraits of evangelists and these models were distributed throughout England. Less attached to abstract ornamental motifs than to narrative and figurative motifs, without stylistic exuberance or audacity. The Codex Amiatinus (cf. Fig. 9), contemporary with the Gospels, also testifies to this Roman influence.

St Augustine Gospels. St Luke. Folio 129v. Ancient Civilizations

Fig. 8. St Augustine Gospels. St Luke. Folio 129v

One cannot omit mentioning the question of the rivalry, if not the difference between the “Celtic” Church of the West, based on a network of monasteries; and the “Roman” Church influenced by the missionaries arriving from the continent, with a traditional structure, hierarchical around the bishoprics and subject to Rome. This question is settled at the Council of Whitby (664 AD) by the “victory” of the Roman Church. But this rivalry manifests itself in art. The scriptoria of St. Augustine’s Abbey and Christ Church Cathedral in Canterbury, founded at that time, quickly became major places for the production of books which artistically influenced the whole English territory and colored the works with a more rigorous formalism. and a predominance of the message over the decoration. Through the use of more or less Celtic, more or less Roman decorative motifs, political tensions and struggles for influence are played out.


Codex Amiatus. Roman influence. ancient civilizations

Fig. 9. Codex Amiatus example of Roman influence on a portrait page from the Lindisfarne Gospels


It is the symbiosis and assimilation of Irish-Celto-Picto-Roman Saxon styles, the meeting of Celtic abstract tendencies and continental formalism which finds its quintessence in mystical works such as that of Lindisfarne. A grandiose work but less “Irish” and exuberant in connotation than the book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels is a work of balance.

For an in-depth study of the comparisons between the motifs, I refer you to the excellent work of George Bain: “ Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction in which he clearly highlights the similarities between Celtic art, Pictish and the illuminated works of the island. .

I invite you to find us in the chapter devoted to the content strictly speaking of the Lindisfarne Gospels. To know everything about what a Novum Opus is and what was the eventful itinerary of this fabulous work…

Treasure of Sutton Hoo. Gold belt buckle. British museum CI. 600 AD. ancient civilizations

Fig. 10. Gold Belt Buckle – Treasure of Sutton Hoo. This. 600AD. british museum