Michelle P Brown on the Lindisfarne Gospels and the passionate and dedicated spiritual world of those whose high calling it was to be their makers
The Lindisfarne Gospels arc a magnificent book intended to enshrine the
Word of God, made entirely by hand in the early Middle Ages at Lindisfarne (Holy Island), a tidal island off of the coast of north-eastern England in what was the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.
Lindisfarne was founded by Irish monks from St Columba's monastery of Iona (in western Scotland) in 635. The book contains the four Gospels, recounting the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. The Latin text is illuminated with intricate decorations; a riot of decorated lettering, powerful iconic images of the Gospel writers and amazingly intricate cross-carpet pages. Mound 950-960 it was translated into Old English by Aldred, a member of the community of St Cuthbert, and is the oldest surviving translation of the Gospels into English. In a note at the end of the volume Aldred recorded that it was made on Holy Island in honour of God and St Cuthbert, citing the names of those whom the community probably believed had made it: the artist-scribe Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698-721; the binder, his successor as bishop, Aethilwald; the metalworker who adorned the covers or a book shrine, Billfrith the anchorite. A note written some 250 years after the event cannot be taken at face value and several leading scholars have challenged where and when the book was made, suggesting Ireland, Jarrow and Luxembourg as other contenders. New research accompanying the facsimile examines all the available evidence and reaches the conclusion that it was indeed made at Lindisfarne by Eadfrith around 715-20, at a time when he was collaborating with Bede and others to shape the cult of St. Cuthbert to reflect reconciliation and inclusiveness and to create a new identity for England.
This year is an important landmark in the life of the Lindisfarne Gospels. A new facsimile, a faithful replica of the original, has been produced (and copies presented to Durham Cathedral and the Heritage Centre on Holy Island); an accompanying commentary containing detailed new research has been written and also published as an affordable stand-alone book; a major exhibition — "Painted Labyrinth: the World of the Lindisfarne Gospels" — is being held, free of charge, at the British Library from May to September, with an accompanying popular book and new video, educational materials and a range of special merchandise including a limited-edition carpet: and a Lindisfarne Gospel.: peace garden is being created at the Chelsea Flower Show by Newcastle City Council in association with the British Library. Details of these can be found at the end of this article.
The Gospels of the New Testament are the basis of Christian belief, along with the Old Testament and other texts relating to the early Church. These texts circulated in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic and were gradually codified into the Bible. Under Rome various Latin versions appeared and to overcome this St Jerome (d.420) made a new standardised translation known as the Vulgate version into Latin, the "common" or "vulgar" language of the day, and it is this text which is contained in the Lindisfarne Gospels.
The Lindisfarne Gospels begin with St Jerome's prefaces and Canon Tables, which show where the four Gospels agree or differ from one another. Each Gospel is introduced by prologues concerning authorship, chapter summaries and instructions concerning readings for feast days. The inclusion of the Neapolitan saints Januarius and Stephen in the list of feast days suggests that the text may have been copied from a manuscript from Naples where there are churches dedicated to these saints.
The script is known as half-uncial, developed in the 7th century by Irish and Northumbrian scribes, influenced by its Italian model, written in an even grander script known as uncial. The 10th-century translation is written between the lines in a less formal script.
Each Gospel is introduced by a portrait of its author. Matthew, Mark and Luke are shown writing, John sits holding a scroll and staring challengingly straight at the reader. He is an icon, meant simultaneously to represent St John and, symbolically, Christ in Majesty enthroned at the Last Judgement, holding the scroll of life.
Each Gospel gives us a different emphasis on the life and teachings of Christ and is represented by a different symbol. Matthew was the man, symbolising the incarnate, human Christ.
Luke was the calf, the sacrificial victim of the Crucifixion. John's visionary Gospel was represented by the eagle, which flew directly to the throne of God for inspiration and symbolised Christ's Second Coming.
Matthew is joined by a mysterious haloed figure behind a curtain, probably representing the inspiration of the Lord, the curtain being drawn aside, by Christ's sacrifice, to unite the Old and New Testaments.
The Lindisfarne Gospels was a book to be seen, a shrine of sacred text and a cult-focus. It would have been displayed on the altars of Lindisfarne, Chester-le Street and Durham and used during important services. A glimpse of the book could change the lives of pilgrims, such relics being famed for their powers of healing body and soul. It symbolised hope and a foretaste of a better existence to come.
Producing sacred texts was an act of meditation, prayer and praise during which the scribe might glimpse the divine. It was said that each word written was a wound on Satan's body — this was the spiritual front line. Imagine what it must have been like to make such a book in a but on an island in the wild North Sea, The scribe took up his pen to preach and entered his own desert — the book — in emulation of Christ in the wilderness, of the monastic fathers of the eastern deserts and of St Cuthbert, doing battle with his demons on the barren rock of Inner Fame on behalf of the world.
The most committed religious would seek out places in which to live out this round which presented extra challenges by virtue of the harshness or remoteness of the environment: the wilderness places in which there was no place to hide, from your God or from yourself, and where you could practise the spirituality of solitude.
Yet even the hermit's lot was not a renunciation of the world, but the spiritual front line, where you emptied yourself out to become filled with the Spirit that would send you forth once more into situations of suffering and need. Monasteries of Celtic origin, such as Lindisfarne, were not otherworldly cloistered havens of tranquillity.
They were vibrant agricultural, industrial and trading centres, the forerunners of towns, to which lay families would also attach themselves to live out the Gospel.
They were also our early libraries, schools and universities, centres of learning and repositories of group memory (even that great "pagan" epic Beowulf was first written down in a monastery).
hey were centres of local government, providing social services and humanitarian aid across large territories. They offered a safe haven for travellers and pastoral outreach to even the most remote, hostile and povertystricken settlements, bringing healing and a life-giving message of hope.
They functioned as open prisons for those performing penance or "community service" in recompense for crimes (often of extreme violence) and offered sanctuary to those fleeing a swifter form of "justice" the asylum seeker and the political refugee.
Transmitting biblical texts was a high calling entrusted to the senior members of the community, Unlike later scholars such as Wycliffe and Tyndale, Aldred was not persecuted for translating the Bible into English, a process started by Bede who was translating St John's Gospel on his deathbed. The Anglo-Saxons and Celts wanted to spread the Gospel.
The Painted Labyrinth: The World of the Lindisfarne Gospels runs from 16 May — 28 September 2003 at the British Library, 96 Euston Rd, London NW! 2DB. A new video and two new publications will be available: Michelle P Brown, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality and the Scribe (London and Toronto, 2003). f19.95 Michelle P Brown, The Painted Labyrinth: The World of the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, 2003), £5.95