Previous articles in Ancient Civilizations have been devoted to an overview of the Lindisfarne Gospels and the main stylistic influences that contributed to its development.

In this article, I invite you to discover the content of the book: liturgical and literary content but also the graphic arts which are an integral part of the book.

The Novum Opus

As part of the preamble, the Novum Opus or “New Work”, is also called “preparatory material”. It is an introductory letter which explains the difficulties encountered by Saint Jerome in transcribing different texts from different languages and extracting from them a “truth” in good Latin. It is a sort of user manual for the operation of the concordance tables, which also gives the order in which the Gospels must appear. This work is consistent with the concept of Maiestas Domini : the structure and the rigorous order must contribute to transmit the divine perfection by the bottom and the form.

As an element in its own right, the Novum Opus has its own carpet page and its initial capital letter at the beginning of the letter. Folio 2v (Fig. 1) presents as a frontispiece an introductory carpet page adorned with a richly decorated Christian cross. I refer you to the article on the carpet pages : the abstract motif puts the reader in a state of spiritual awakening by contemplating the interlacing and the multiplication of details. The geometric work refers to Saxon cloisonné motifs, as found in the objects in the Sutton-Hoo hoard. Around the central motif are birds, identifiable by wings and claws. The intersections of legs and animals are reminiscent of the Staffordshire Hoard. This carpet page introduces the work, so it invites us to enter into prayer. A cross is visible and underlined by a thin bluish-grey border and the abundant elements are an excuse to lose sight. Most of the composition is made using lines, interlacing and key patterns. Knots are visible at all four corners. The tone is predominantly gold and purple, symbolic choices in both cases, whether wanted or not, because they convey a sense of wealth and power.

Opposite, folio 3 introduces the letter itself, with capital initials “N” and “O” from “Novum”. The “N” and the “O” are remarkable: the left side -the shaft of the letter- of the “N” presents a starting knot . It is hollow in its length, with many birds recognizable by beaks, claws, and feathers (cormorant, very present on the holy island?! to be compared to the character of Cuthbert, protector of birds, as we have seen). The crossbar of the “N” is made up of two coiled circular motifs, stylistically close to Celtic iconography (I refer you to the Staffordshire Moorlands Pan). As for the “O”, it wraps around a central point drawing everything around it in a dynamic movement. It is reminiscent of the designs of the Battersea shield. It is in folio 5v. that we find a slender dragon motif which evokes the figure of the Celtic carnyx (cf. the article on the influences ).

The entire letter is set in semi-uncial interspersed with Aldred’s gloss in Anglo-Saxon lowercase.

Carpet page of the Novum Opus. Lindisfarne. Folio-02v. Ancient Civilizations
Novum Opus. Lindisfarne Folio-03. ancient civilizations

Fig. 1 & 2. Lindisfarne Gospels. Novum Opus. Folio carpet page 2v. And Incipit Folio 3r


The article in Ancient Civilizations on the Table of Canons -or table of concordance- allowed us to understand how this tool works. It is a kind of instruction manual which ensures a good understanding of the Gospels with a view to a good transmission. It builds bridges between different stories.

Those of Lindisfarne present sixteen stylized pages (folios 10r to 17v). They have the particularity of using arcades for the first time: this is an innovation specific to Lindisfarne. The ornamentation is inspired by religious architecture. The columns and capitals are surmounted by a semicircular arch, typical of Romanesque architecture. The elements, in hollow, allow a filling by polychrome flat areas alternating reds, blues, grays and the addition of all kinds of animal motifs (donkeys, horses, rabbits, birds …) and geometric (key motifs, interlacing …).

Unlike the tables in the Book of Kells, those at Lindisfarne are airy. Fills are limited and not all surfaces are filled. Blanks, spaces, angles, are left free and give the whole an impression of finesse and lightness, enhancing a fluid, balanced and harmonious writing.

Lindisfarne-folio-11-table-canon. Ancient Civilizations
Lindisfarne cross-reference table detail. ancient civilizations

Fig. 3 & 4. Lindisfarne Gospels. Table of canons folio 11. And detail of a capital ©Marjorie Benoist


Each Gospel is written in the order set out in the Novum Opus. The four texts written in semi-uncial relating each version of the life of Christ by each evangelist are preceded by an introduction then by a specific opening. But in order to find one’s bearings in the text and to breathe life into the whole, each Gospel is preceded by a portrait.

Lindisfarne Gospels. Portrait Lindisfarne Folio 25 St Matthew. Ancient Civilizations

Fig. 5. Lindisfarne Gospels. Portrait of Saint Matthew. Page 25

Full-page, illuminated and stylized, each portrait represents the evangelist accompanied by a symbolic graphic element (ox, eagle, etc.). The set of these four symbols is called Tetramorph. They respond to the marked taste of the Anglo-Saxons for expressive symbols, including in art.

According to the Venerable Bede, the evangelists each carry an aspect of Christ, of the scriptures and of their own roles played in the testaments. Matthew is the man, representing the human nature of Christ. Mark is the lion that symbolizes Christ triumphing over resurrection and eternal life. Luke is the calf, or the ox, sacrificial victim by the crucifixion. Animals carry within themselves a sacred dimension, as with Pictish motifs (cf. Burghead Bull). While the miniature portraits of Matthieu, Marc and Luc represent them at their writing work; John, accompanied by the eagle, is traditionally apart. It symbolizes elevation and contemplation at the highest of the sky. The eagle faces the sun as it faces God. Similarly, Jean looks straight at the reader, while holding his parchment. It is also a symbol of renewed youth and resurrection. Its frontal attitude gives it a particular positioning.

Each represents the dual nature of Christ: Mark and John are depicted as young men, symbolizing the divine and immortal nature of Christ. Matthew and Luke are older and bearded, more Byzantine in influence, they represent the mortal nature of Christ. The four portraits are composed in the same way: a rectangular frame with a line of color that isolates it in a world that is not that of men. There is a simple geometric node at each corner. Two of the portraits have lightly colored backgrounds but no superfluous decorative fill or overlay. This gives the book this impression of lightness. The seat decorations are simple and always the same: small circles and a dot. The colors are monochrome solids. The message is essential, rewarding, direct. As for the table of canons or the body of the text which presents only few ornaments. A few words clarify the content, such as the first name of the saint or a comment (“ imago leonis ” for “image of a lion”). Made without relief or effect of depth, the constituent lines of the animals are reminiscent of the animals appearing on the Pictish standing stones (cf. Burghead Bull).

Seated, with their feet resting on a stool, the saints are represented in writing, a calamus in hand. Except Jean who presents a roll. Lindisfarne is a special case in this regard. A good number of works from the same period represent the holy characters face on. It is here a Roman influence in the treatment of the representation. Each of the characters is surmounted by its symbol, which is quite realistic compared to the abstract stylistic figures in the book. Matthew has the particularity of having, in addition to the angel, a male figure hiding behind a curtain and whose head appears. This is a direct influence of the Codex Amiatinus because the portrait of the prophet Ezra -or Esdras- in it is in the same posture as that of the Lindisfarne saint. But not in style: if the clothes, brightly colored, envelop them in Roman drapes, the use of clean lines hatching the fabric is a much more insular characteristic.

Portrait Lindisfarne. Saint Jean. Folio 209v. Ancient Civilizations

Fig. 6. Lindisfarne Gospels. Portrait of Saint John. Sheet 209v

The essential carpet pages

There are five carpet pages in the Lindisfarne Gospels: one for the Novum Opus and one per Evangelist, opposite each initial capitalized “ Incipit ” (or “first words”) of each Gospel. The carpet pages are intended, by their appearance, to bring prayer into a spiritual world. The gaze starts from the angle to enter a full-page, bounded, framed pattern. From the general to gradually enter into the increasingly minute detail, the gaze follows the rhythm imposed by the intermediate animals, animated spirits of nature and the skeins of thread and intertwining evoking time, infinity and ruptures. .

We find the Christian symbol of the cross of Christ. It imposes itself on the pages of the Novum Opus and Matthew ( thus in the first part of the book) . Latin in shape, elongated, it is clear and prominent while integrating into the whole. But if the other carpet pages always evoke the cross, this fades away in front of the other motifs: it is a Greek cross in John, it is concealed in the Saxon motif in Mark and completely replaced by a Celtic roll in Luke.

We mainly find interlacing interlacing in all dimensions: width, length and depth. Wrapped in a concentric, universal dynamic, the abundant patterns are layered, abstract and seem animated and alive. A bubbling and teeming bestiary that seems to invite the mind to another reality.

The gaze is lost, absorbed in contemplation and meditation. If the tracery pattern was used, it is not only for aesthetic purposes. Indeed, the circular patterns, the triskel, the mandala, the labyrinth, the endless ribbon… whatever the civilizations, the periods in which they are found, are deeply symbolic. They accompany humanity in its metaphysical search for the signifier, the passage of time, the sacred…

The dynamic movement towards interiority, the Center (fundamental notion in the Celtic universe), towards a central “knot”, the crossings and breaks of lines represent the tormented meanders of the life of the great “universal fabric”, embroidered by mystical powers. It invites us to take a path towards God but also towards ourselves, in an initiatory journey. They refer to Celtic, Pictish motifs… of the key, the swastika, the triskel. The colors and patterns used in the carpet page of the Novum Opus are very similar to the ironwork patterns found on one of the bracelets from the Sutton Hoo treasure. This one uses the same colors and patterns in cloisonné.

The carpet pages are followed by an introductory page adorned with a capital letter richly decorated as an incipit (“first words”). They are not part of the gospel but comment on the text. They are followed by a few semi-uncial pages. This initial capital letter is a pretext to introduce bright colors, light and allow bold iconography that enhances the text. A letter such as “o” allows a rounded pattern, animal or geometric fillings, key patterns, dotted lines. The stems of the letters, like the “M” of Matthieu and Marc, allow slender animal motifs.

Lindisfarne carpet page. ancient civilizations
Carpet page Saint Luke Lindisfarne-folio-138v

Fig. 7 & 8. Lindisfarne Gospels. St John. Carpet page. Folio 210v (g) & St. Luke. Carpet page. Folio 138v (d)

The Gospel of Matthew

The first words of each gospel are pretexts for an opening by illuminated capital letters incipit, decreasing in order of size, to the text itself. The Lindisfarne Gospels have the particularity of presenting two introductory opening pages for Saint Matthew: the “ Liber ” then the famous “ Chi-Rho-Iota ”.

First the Gospel opens with the Latin words: “ Liber generationis iesu christi ” (“The book of the generation of Jesus Christ”). The “L”, the “i” and the “B” are used for the main illuminations. We find there the traditional ornamental vocabulary: interlacing of birds, geometric lines, dotted lines with red lead, serpentine figures, coils, knots, triskels and other concentric movements. The zoomorphic and geometric figures literally accompany the movement of the letters. The rest of the word ( -er ) is empty of any pattern as if to underline illuminations. The “ Liber ” is without doubt the most balanced of the four opening pages.

The Chi-Rho-iota page is the most spectacular page. The reference to the letters Chi (represented by an X), Rho (represented by a P) and Iota (represented by an I), letters of abbreviation used to form the name of Christ in Greek and also called CHRIST . This page opens with these words: “ Christi autem generatio sic erat ” or “Christ came into the world like this”. It begins the story of the birth of Christ but its interest comes mainly from the decorative and filling motifs of the particularly remarkable chi-rho . The decorative motif takes up globally the same elements as the bast but it is much more exuberant in its composition. The “X” is filled with zoomorphic elements, the “R” and the “i” with geometric elements of all shapes and both respond to each other in harmony, including in color. Again, the rest of the word ( -autem ) is void of any pattern, as if to emphasize Christi ‘s importance by contrast.

Lindisfarne Gospels. St Matthew. ChiRhoIota. Folio 29.HD
Liber generationis. Lindisfarne. Saint Matthew. Folio 27. Ancient Civilizations

Fig. 9 & 10. Lindisfarne Gospels. St Mark. Introduction. Folio 29r (g) & St Matthew. Initial page. Liber generationis. Folio 27 (d)

The Gospel of Mark

Initium Evangelii Iesu Christi, Filii Dei. Sicut scriptum est in Esaia propheta” or “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophets”.

Balanced as a whole and less rich in colors and patterns, the gospel of Mark uses the same letters “IN” as for John but with more sobriety. With fewer patterns or boxes filled with ornaments while maintaining the same stylistic vocabulary.

The research is accentuated on the red lead points, in particular in animal figures. However, we note for Marc a spectacular capital letter and remarkable initials as the first word of the introductory letter. The “M” seems crowned and the whole of the first name gives a summary of all the decorative motifs: red dotted lead point background, rounded motifs identical to those of the Battersea shield, Celtic interlacing, cloisonné in the “A”.

Lindisfarne. St Mark. Initial page. Folio 95. Ancient Civilizations

Fig. 11. Lindisfarne Gospels. St Mark. Initial page. Initium Evangelii . Sheet 95

The Gospel of Luke

The introductory page of Luke is called “ Quoniam quidem ” (f 139r) and comes from the Latin “ Quoniam quidem multi conati sunt ordinare narrationem ” (“As many have taken it in hand to put themselves in order”).

The chromatic and iconographic vocabulary is identical: birds, swirling patterns, most often curvilinear, in shades of red and blue. “ Quo ” is illuminated but “- niam ” is empty of any pattern. Stylistically, it is the one that could be described as the most “joyful”, the effect being reinforced by the extremely decorative aspect of its left part.

The long shaft of the “q”, on the left of the page, is filled with triskels, spirals. A circular central motif seems to take the whole thing into a great concentric dance. The circular outline of the top is filled with intertwining birds and dogs.

The “U” is formed by two intertwined dogs, so it is a more temporal and figurative motif. On the contrary, the “O” presents a geometric filling decorated with squares -identical to those of the cloisonné of the Sutton Hoo bracelet- and therefore more abstract. Are the two consciously opposed?

Another remarkable decorative element: in a border on the left, there is a margin filled with intertwined birds. Facing him on the right, a border composed of a cat with a purple body: head down and clawed paws up. One theory is that these birds are said cat’s meal and if you look closely, it seems ready to jump towards the enclosure on the left, full of birds! Cats are legion in medieval monasteries and the companions of monks. They are a temporal pretext as much as decorative.

St Luke

Fig. 12. Lindisfarne Gospels. St Luc.Page Initial. Quoniam quidem . Sheet 139

The Gospel of John

The incipit of the Gospel of John is a kind of apotheosis which responds to its abundant carpet page.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, “ In principio erat verbum ”. Celtic, concentric interlacing, geometric patterns underlined in black, zoomorphic patterns: dogs, rabbits, birds… claws, wings, gaping mouths seeming to want to devour the geometric patterns in a kind of battle of the temporal against the spiritual… It is one that could be described as the most solemn.

On the right, we find the confrontation of two types of fillings: zoomorphic with a light tone on one side and geometric with a dark tone on the other, giving an ingenious relief effect.

Another very special specificity: a human face appears in the letters. He is the only incipit to possess this motif. Eyes fixed on the reader, pout on his lips particularly severe, this figure seems to be a somber warning in a text highlighted in black. It is also the only one to have a zebra fill pattern, made of broken lines like lightning that give an impression of tension. The text of the Gospel ends with the colophon – I refer you to the part on the authors for an explanation of this element.

Finally, note the introductory letter in folio 208r. It has two pretty initials (including a remarkable key motif). But above all this page is the only one, in the whole text, which has the particularity of not having “suffered” too many additions of glosses – of commentary in English to translate the Latin text – on the part of Aldred. It shows the text in pure semi-uncial as it appeared in all the Gospels. This page reveals the perfect simplicity of the whole and the mastery of the writing, the harmony of the letters.


Lindisfarne. St John. Opening. Folio-211. ancient civilizations

Fig. 13. Lindisfarne Gospels. St John. Opening. Folio-211. ancient civilizations

Lindisfarne gospels. Colophon. Folio 259. ancient civilizations

Fig. 14. Lindisfarne. St John. Colophon. Sheet 259

Itinerary and adventures of the relics of St Cuthbert

From the 8th century to the present day, a work like the Lindisfarne Gospels is called upon to know many turpitudes. First of all, as we saw in a previous article , the arrival of the Vikings in 793 caused a first series of displacements of the community and translations of the relics. First to Chester-le-Street, where the community settled until 995, then to Durham. It should be noted that among the relics found in Cuthbert’s coffin, the Gospels were accompanied by the small (9*13 cm) Anglo-Saxon gospel book that belonged to the saint. This was known as the “Gospel of Stonyhurst” and is still visible today. It is remarkable for its famous red goatskin cover-binding (cf. fig. 15 ) . This Gospel of St John is not illuminated, which makes it a more personal book whose interest is liturgical, narrative, close to the spoken word.

The passage of William the Conqueror -1069- led to a brief return to Lindisfarne of the relics before their installation, this time “definitively”, in Durham Cathedral in 1104. These works were considered there as objects of sacred devotion and kept in reliquaries, probably protected by a decorated case named cumdach. Accessing it was a specific ritual, characteristic of island Christianity (fasting, prayer, wearing it around the neck).

The rise to power of Henry VIII marked the dissolution of the wealthy monasteries of England in 1536 and the dispersal of their treasures. The Gospels are then seized, along with the jeweled cover, and sent to London and the Tower. They were acquired in the 17th century by a certain Sir Robert Cotton, a lover of old books, and it was his heirs who transferred them to the British Museum in 1753, before moving definitively to the British Library in 1973, where they now remain. In 1852, a new cover was laid.

In order to allow as many people as possible to have access to this treasure, the entire work was digitized to become an easily consultable virtual document (you will find the link to the digital version of the Lindisfarne Gospels among the sources in the next article) . The original is exhibited in London and is sometimes the subject of temporary exhibitions such as that of Durham in 2013.


Leather gospel cover. ancient civilizations

Fig. 15. Red leather cover of the Gospel of Saint Cuthbert