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What are the Lindisfarne Gospels? - Writer & Facts

Instructor: Jennifer Shaw

Jennifer is a third year PhD student in women's studies and has a a Master's degree in History.

This lesson will examine the beautifully decorated and preserved Lindisfarne Gospels, a medieval manuscript that has survived nearly 1300 years in almost perfect condition.

The Lindisfarne Gospels

If you're like me, when you read a book it probably doesn't always make it through unscathed. Coffee, rain, bent pages, something always seems to damage whatever I'm reading. But the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illustrated 7th-8th century manuscript, has somehow survived over 1,300 years in almost perfect condition. No coffee or bent pages here!

Creating the Lindisfarne Gospels

Most of us recognize the word 'gospel' but don't know the actual definition. A gospel is an account of the life of Jesus and his teachings. Though many were written, only four were officially approved by the Council of Nicaea. This was a conference of bishops in 325 that sought to impose uniformity on Christianity. These bishops said that the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were the ones to be included in the Christian bible. These four are the subject of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The manuscript was likely created sometime between 687-720 (recent testing has suggested it was produced between 710-720) on Lindisfarne, an island off the northeast coast of England (now known as Holy Island). The island was the home of a group of monks including one named Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne between 698 and his death in 721. He produced the Lindisfarne Gospels, taking between five and ten years to do so. Intended as a gift for God and St. Cuthbert, who was buried on the island, it still was not entirely finished when Eadfrith died in 721.

Miniature of St. Cuthbert from Bede
St. Cuthbert

It's rare to know the names of the people who created manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels. The fact that we know about Eadfrith is due to a Lindisfarne monk named Aldred who lived more than 200 years later. Around 970, Aldred, a Provost of the order, wrote down the history of the book, including Eadfrith's name and rank, and also wrote in a word-for-word translation of the Latin in which Eadfrith had written the Gospels. This translation was written in Anglo-Saxon, a precursor to modern English, making the Lindisfarne Gospels the oldest surviving example of the Gospels in any form of English. This fact makes it one of the most important books in existence.

Layout

Medieval manuscripts were usually created by teams of scribes; the Lindisfarne Gospels is unique because it was done by one man, Eadfrith, which gives it a consistency and coherence in style and design that many other such books don't have. The book reproduces the four official gospels, and comprises 516 illuminated pages, requiring 150 calf skins to produce the vellum on which it's written. Eadfrith created over 90 different colors using only ingredients derived from animals, local minerals and vegetable extracts. He was influenced by the styles of the different groups that lived in the area -- Celts, Britons, Picts and Anglo-Saxons -- providing us with some insight into the cultures of these groups.

Each gospel begins with what is called a carpet page that has an intricate and colorful pattern.

One of the carpet pages
Carpet page

The carpet page is followed by an incipit or the opening page of each gospel. These have the first few letters or words intricately drawn and illustrated:

Incipit page from the Gospel of Luke
incipit page

The rest of each gospel contains the text done in elaborate calligraphy, and with illustrations throughout.

Image of St. Matthew from the Lindisfarne Gospels
st. matthew

Later History

The monks were chased out of Lindisfarne in 875 by nearly a century of Viking raids, and ended up in Chester-le-Street until 995, They moved to Durham Priory, where they stayed until the end of their existence, except for a brief period when they returned to Lindisfarne because of the invasion of William the Conqueror around 1066. In 1104, the body of St. Cuthbert, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the other treasures of the monastery were installed in Durham.

Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island
Lindisfarne Priory

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