The Lindisfarne gospels are witnesses to the past which help us question the present, says Michelle P Brown
In 597 St Augustine arrived at the court of the pagan King Ethelbert of Kent. He had been sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the Germanic peoples (Anglo-Saxons) who had taken over southern and eastern Britain after the
Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century. That same year the Irish St Columba died at Iona, his base for the conversion of Scotland. Columba's mission also spread into England via Lindisfarne.
This two-pronged Roman -Celtic conversion movement has been over simplified. Christianity had been introduced to Celtic Britain under the Roman Empire and many Christian British kingdoms survived, including Wales, Cornwall, parts of Pictland (Scotland), Rheged and Lindsey. Augustine's mission targeted court conversions, via mixed faith households. King Edwin of Northumbria married a
Christian and converted, but it was left to his succes sor Oswald, previously exiled amongst the Irish, to invite lona's monks to establish the monastery of Lindisfarne in 635 and convert Northumbria's people.
The "Roman" and "Celtic" (or more specifically Columban) Churches observed different traditions including the dating of Easter. In 664 a synod held at Whitby decided the matter in favour of Rome. Uniformity was important and there were also politi cal and trading implications.
The rallying point for reconciliation became the charismatic figure bridging both traditions — St Cuthbert.
In 731 Bede (673-735) completed his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, our best source of information for this period. He entered the twin monastery of Weamiouth and Jarrow aged seven, only leaving on a few local trips. However, his grasp of national and international affairs was great and he gathered information from sources as distant as the papal archives in Rome.
Bede brought a sense of identity and cohesion to the new Christian nation, also acknowledging the different traditions and the roles played by other cultures in the formation of "England". The Lindisfarne Gospels can be considered the visu al equivalent of Bede's History celebrating the diversity and origins of the peoples of Britain and their international contacts, signalling a place for everyone in the new order.
"Insular" culture (of the islands of Britain and Ireland) fused the different strands of the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon traditions and merged them with those of the Mediterranean. Styles and models circulated throughout much of Britain and Ireland and areas of the Continent to which missionaries travelled. The Germanic fashions of the Sutton Hoc treasure, discovered in Suffolk, were found in Celtic regions and Celtic spiralwork could be found in England and on the Continent. Nowhere are they blended more effectively than in the Lindisfarne Gospels. following the Synod of Whitby in 664 the English Church could be organised as a single body.
In 667 a new archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus (in Turkey) and Abbot Hadrian, from northern Africa, established a school of learning that was the envy of Europe. Among Theodore's prot6g6s were the Northumbrian nobles and clerics, Benedict Biscop, Ceolfrith and Wilfrid. They were filled with enthusiasm for Rome. and brought back books, icons, paintings and other objects. Stonemasons and glaziers were brought from Gaul to adorn their buildings, which would have been colourful and exotic. Biscop founded the twin monastery at Wearmouth and Jarrow in 674 and 681 and brought the Papal choir master to teach liturgy and chant. Wilfrid established Ripon and Hexharn, the biggest church north of the Alps.
The reintroduction of Christianity into Britain transformed Anglo-Saxon
society, but also preserved many of its traditions. It provided not only the means of government but a framework for society. The Lindisfarne Gospels represent and emphasise the culture born of the new ideas that would lead seasoned warriors to embrace paci
fism and kings to free slaves. Its visual ingredients embraced and included all the cultures of the world known to its maker. Roman capitals, Greek letters and Germanic runes were cornbined on the Lindisfarne grave-markers, the Franks Casket and the Lindisfarne Gospels — the AngloSaxons were proclaiming themselves as heirs to Rome and the cultures of the past, while asserting their own new identity in their ecumenical Christian present, reaching out to embrace other peoples of the Word. The Lindisfarne Gospels are considered today to be one of the greatest masterpieces of Anglo Saxon and Celtic art. We recognise them as remarkable not just, for their beautiful intricate designs, glowing colours and consummate workmanship, but for their amazing survival intact over the centuries. As such they are also a greatly respected link with the beginnings of Christianity in Britain. There has been keen scholarly interest in this volume over the years, but for many Christians they have never lost their status and mystery as a holy relic and cult object. Beyond faith, many people see such witnesses to the past as valuable clues to their identities. The experience of the past can help us question the present and inform the future.
ow can we understand what motivated Aidan, Cuthbert and Eadrith? The words of Christ when sending out the disciples: "Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves' (Mt. 10.16) would have been held in their hearts. St Cuthbert had to tread carefully with a king – Ecgfrith, potentially one of the most ruthless and bloodiest despots of his day, but nominally a Christian ruler, Cuthbert was a charismatic preacher who taught by example, living out his message; a saint by popular acclaim who got his hands dirty ministering in the field; a risk taker sustained by his faith. He was politically astute, accepting the challenges of confronting politics and politicians face-on, building up the authority of the Church to enable it to have a voice in society. With power came wealth and its temptations, as well as responsibility. As Lindisfarne's landholdings and commitments spread throughout northern England and southern Scotland Cuthbert warned of the love of money for its own sake, saying that if he could but live on a rocky island in a cell, his only view the sky, he would still be afraid that the cares of the world and the love of money might snatch him away.
This, of course, is exactly what he did, spending as much time as he could as a hermit on the bleak island of Inner Fame and living a life of extreme physical