The Lindisfarne Gospels -or “Lindisfarne Gospels” in English- are victims of the notoriety of the Book of Kells, which many know and which will be produced approximately 75 years later. It is an injustice that we propose to repair here.

Lindisfarne is known to art historians for referring to a marvel of Christian illumination: the Lindisfarne Gospels is an example of great elegance in Anglo-Saxon Celtic art.

Follow the itinerary of one of the finest manuscripts of English High Medieval insular art. The work of a single man and a major work in the history of European civilization.

“Eadfrith, Bishop of the Church of Lindisfarne, wrote this book for God and for St Cuthbert…”

Detail of initial letter from the Lindifarne Gospel. ancient civilizations

Decorated initial drop cap – detail – Lindisfarne Gospels – folio 91

The Lindisfarne Gospels – what are we talking about?

Contributors – a single author

It is thanks to the intervention of a certain Aldred, known as the Scribe or the Glossator, that we know today the author and the contributors of the Gospels of Lindisfarne. Around 970 AD. JC, and under Viking pressure, the priory migrated to Chester-Le-Street and Durham. It is from this place and almost a hundred years after the completion of the Gospels, that Aldred, an obscure provost, undertook to add two particularly important elements to it, for a better understanding of the texts by his contemporaries. First of all a “gloss” directly in the text: this is a commentary in the vernacular language added in the margins or between the lines of a text or a book, to explain foreign or complex words . Its goal is to translate Latin into Old English to make it easier to read. This addition is remarkable for the understanding of the English language, we will come back to it. He also adds in the blank column at the end of the book (folio 259r, digitized image 17) a “colophon” or final note, also in Old English and Latin. It is in this colophon that we discover the name of Eadfrith.

Eadfrith would most likely have been, and contrary to usage at the time, the one and only author of the Gospels. Died in 721 after JC, first monk of the monastery, it will become later bishop of Lindisfarne (c. 698 after JC.C). Scribe and artist, he would have carried out both the layout, the coloring, the writing work… (for example, Kells’ book will have a team of at least eight contributors). However, we believe it is necessary to specify that there is no consensus among historians as to the authorship of the work, as for example for Michelle Brown, who is more moderate. This skepticism being due in part to the fact that Aldred’s addition was made long after the gospels were made. This acceptance nevertheless remains marginal and few question, in the end, Aldred’s writing.

Eadfrith’s work is a tribute to Saint Cuthbert (who lived AD 635-687). Cuthbert was a particularly revered and popular religious figure in early medieval England. Noble convert, first monk, preacher, then bishop, finally hermit, ascetic, protector of birds (which is not unimportant) and saint… Object of worship, of pilgrimages, he is an essential character in England, particularly in the north. It is very logically that the Gospels are dedicated to him. Thanks to Aldred’s colophon, we also discover the names of Æthelwald, the “binder”, who carried out the binding; and of Billifrith, the anchorite, the contemplative, who withdraws into solitude and to whom we owe the external ornamentation in jewels and precious metals (which will unfortunately be lost later).

Lindisfarne Gospels expert Richard Gameson gives us this version:

Eadfrith bishop of the Church of Lindisfarne. He, in the beginning, wrote this book for God and St Cuthbert and generally for all the holy folk who are on the island. And Æthilwald bishop of the Lindisfarne-islanders, bound and covered it without, as he well knew how to do. And Billfrith the anchorite, he forged the ornaments which are on the outside and bedecked it with gold and with gems and also with gilded silver-pure wealth.

In French :

Eadfrith, Bishop of the Church of Lindisfarne. At first he wrote this book for God and St Cuthbert and generally for all the saints who are on the island. And Æthilwald bishop of the isles of Lindisfarne, bound and covered without, as he well knew how to do. And Billfrith the anchorite, he wrought the ornaments which are outside and adorned with gold and precious stones and also with gems and also a wealth of pure gilded silver.

Eadfrith of Lindisfarne ancient civilizations

Cuthbert on an 11th century fresco Durham Cathedral

Lindisfarne at the beginning of the 8th century

It is generally accepted that the Lindisfarne Gospels was produced at the beginning of the 8th century, over a period of between 5 and 10 years, between approximately 698 and 720 AD. JC 715 is often quoted) Aldred’s additions took place at the end of the 10th century in 970.

The Lindisfarne Gospels was produced, as its name suggests, in the scriptorium of the priory on the holy island of Lindisfarne, an island in the northwest of England, infamous for having suffered a few decades later (June 8, 793, I refer you to the article Ancient Civilizations on this and its central importance in the history of medieval England) the first substantial Viking assault on Anglo-Saxon territory.

The Lindisfarne Gospels, associated with the relics of Saint Cuthbert, subsequently made a number of journeys also called “translations”. This term designates the movement of remains (bones, reliquary, liturgical objects, etc.) of saints from one place to another, for their protection in the event of a threat (Viking attack for example!) or when a place is preferred for its accessibility. or his notoriety. The Lindisfarne Gospels is now held in the British Library. We will come back to it.

Medieval manuscript drawing of a translation of saint. ancient civilizations

Opening of the tomb, Inventio and translation of the relics of Saint Cuthbert

Content – what is in a medieval gospel?

The Lindisfarne Gospels contain four New Testament Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Each of them is preceded by an introductory text – whose first letter, a capital letter in initial, is remarkable.

The basic material of this text is the “ vulgate ” composed by Saint Jerome, which is an understandable copy of the Bible in Latin. It was found in England in the form of the Codex Amiatinus. The Lindisfarne Gospels is a derivative version but the influence of the codex is noticeable.

We also find in the preamble the Novum Opus (Folio 2V and 3). It is a letter that Saint Jerome addressed to Pope Damasus; the letter of Eusebius of Caesarea to Carpianus which explains the tables of the canons. As well as the prologue of Saint Jerome to the Gospel of Matthew. Finally, there is a list of liturgical feasts from Naples, also proof of a link with the Latin world.

The text presents, as mentioned, an interlinear translation: Aldred’s gloss, written in Old English, is a fabulous element for the linguistic study of English. This gloss originally allowed the reader who did not know Latin to have access to the content in a common and understandable language. It therefore gives a valuable idea of the original English spoken in 10th century England.

St. Mark's initial and semi-uncial letter and gloss. ancient civilizations

Detail of St Mark’s incipit with Aldred’s gloss visible in line spacing

Content – what an island gospel looks like

The Lindisfarne Gospels is a hardcover book of 518 pages: 259 folios (folded in half) bound in eight-page quires, in vellum paper, in an unfinished version. The book is 34 x 27 cm. Vellum is calfskin: it took about 10 years and about 150 calves, probably a lot more, to create it. Vellum is a rare and precious material that allows little or no trial or error page (but this difficulty opens the way to technical innovations). The book presents, in addition to the text, fifteen pages of illuminations. In particular, the initial page of the letter of Saint Jerome – Novum Opus -, adorned with an initial capital letter and is preceded by a carpet page of its own. The book then includes a table of Eusebian concordance canons. For details and clarification on what the canon tables contain, we refer you to the Ancient Civilizations article on this point. The tables, in sixteen pages represent for the first time in a work of this kind, arcades which crown the columns and allow artistic innovations.

Each gospel is introduced by a full-page and stylized portrait of the saint who is the subject, he is recognizable by his symbol. Similarly, following this, there is a “carpet page” which invites meditation, prayer and entry into the spiritual world – here again we refer you for more details to the article written on this subject on Ancient Civilizations . Then, before the text of the gospel itself, we find an introductory page. This is a pretext for the representation of a stylized and illuminated incipit (“first words”). The Gospel of Matthew has the particularity of comprising two of which a remarkable and fabulous “ Chi-Rho-Iota ”, we will come back to this.

The text is written in three types of defined scripts: the initial capital letter, the island capital letter and the island lower case letter. It is written in “semi-uncial” -or “demi-uncial”-, graphic and readable. It is a common typography for this type of Anglo-Saxon work and which is clearly distinct from the tiny caroline (which, for example, introduced the “space” between words). Aldred’s gloss is written in Anglo-Saxon lowercase. The illustrations are made in the typical island style: it is a mixture of Anglo-Saxon art with Germanic, Celtic, and Latin-Roman influence. Another influence that is rarely mentioned but which, on closer inspection, seems truly relevant: the little-known Pictish art. We will come back to this in more detail. Finally, the initial cover was made of leather decorated with gold, silver and precious stones. As was often the case, it was unfortunately lost over time and replaced in the 19th century.

island semi-uncial. ancient civilizations

Lindisfarne. Saint Jean. Writing detail. Sheet 208

To compose colors for illuminations, an illuminator first used… what he had available around him: animal, mineral and plant extracts. Support and binder are egg white -mucus- and fish glue. Particularly creative, Eadfrith would have composed with a base of ” only six minerals and local plant extracts “, 90 colors that are strictly his own. Having difficulty obtaining certain materials, he undertook to recreate them. This is the case for the blue color of lapis lazuli (originally from the Himalayas) obtained from the maceration of indigo leaves. He would have used the following colors: red realgar (arsenic sulphide), lead white (obtained by the action of acid on lead sheets), purple and Mediterranean mauve, green malachite (a semi-precious stone) or verdigris copper. Gold, rare and very precious, is only rarely used and replaced by arsenic orpiment, yellow in color. Two types of black are used: oak gall and iron salt were used for the text itself. The illuminations are produced with a strong brown ink, tending towards black, based on soot carbon: “lamp black”. The English portion of Aldred features more red ink: an originally bright red that has browned over time.

detail microscope *50 gospel . ancient civilizations

Detail of Folio 44v en50x by Christina Duffy for the British library – ” Under the microscope with the Lindisfarne Gospels

Content – clever innovations

Although it is obvious that the work carried out by Eadfrith is remarkably precise, we are today unable to determine exactly what type of tool he used. The work of historians and microscopic analyzes of the work have nevertheless made it possible to calculate some admissible theories.

First of all, and to limit errors and waste of material, the preparation of sketches most likely had to be done on reusable wax tablets -a sort of sketchbook-, perhaps framed in boxwood, as often in this case. .

Without a doubt, he created instruments of his own, for very specific artistic uses, like his creation of pigments.

The curves and interlacings, by the observation under the microscope of their rigor and their almost mathematical precision, most probably had to be made using a tool resembling a compass, as well as a compass for the curvatures. and concentric and geometric patterns. Rulers, a straight edge, dividers… Similarly, he used pinpricks to ascertain measurements and distances. Another theory evoked, Eadfrith would have used a source of light coming from the bottom of the page. Michelle Brown evokes a kind of “backlight” or “light box”. Observation of the pages in raking light would tend to suggest that he also materialized the line using a lead or silver stylus for his sketches on the back. This tool, different from the traditional goose quill or reed, is in a way the ancestor of the lead pencil. Why a pattern on the back? one of the theories advanced would be that the pattern drawn and backlit on the back made it possible to follow the pattern which is “lost” when the color is applied. It is a daring reflection on the importance of the precision of the decorative pattern and on the little place left to chance or failures.

All of these inventions, strongly assumed, would tend to prove that Eadfrith demonstrated a rigorous, extremely technical and innovative spirit. Finally, the solutions provided to present certain motifs can sometimes also have an innovative aspect, such as for example the shaping of real arcades for the presentation of the Eusebian canons. The Lindisfarne Gospels is the first work to use them.

Lindisfarne-folio-11-table-canon. Ancient Civilizations

Lindisfarne. Cannon table. Sheet 11