Lindisfarn Gospels History

The Lindisfarne Gospels is an illuminated manuscript gospel book, produced around the year 700. It was crafted in a scriptorium, in a monastery, off the coast of Northumberland, at Lindisfarne, also known as “the Holy Island.” The manuscript is presumed to be the work of a monk, a highly trained calligrapher, named Eadfrith, who became Bishop of Lindisfarne in 698 and died in 721. It’s is one of the finest works in the unique style of Hiberno-saxon, or Insular art, combining Mediterranean, Anglo-saxon, and Celtic elements. It is the best documented, and most complete, manuscript of the time period.


The text is written in a dense dark-brown ink, often almost black, which contains particles of carbon, from soot or lamp black. The pages are vellum, made from calfskin. The pens used could have been cut from either quills or reeds. There is also evidence to suggest the trace marks (seen under oblique light) were made using an earlier version of the modern pencil. The colors were derived from animal, vegetable, and mineral sources, some local and some foreign.


Preliminary designs may have been done on a wax tablet, as the vellum was too expensive to be used on practice runs. Once a sketch had been transferred into the manuscript, the wax could be remelted and reused for the next design. One of the most characteristic styles in the manuscript is the zoomorphic style (adopted from Germanic art) which utilizes interlaced animal and bird patterns. The Gospels were originally encased in a fine leather treasure binding, covered with jewels, and metals, made by Billfrith the Anchorite, in the 8th century.


During the Viking raids on Lindisfarne, this jeweled cover was lost, and eventually replaced in 1852. It’s believed that the book was produced in honor of St Cuthbert, one of England’s most popular saints at the time. After being ordained as a priest, he began to travel throughout Northumbria, quickly gaining a reputation for holiness and having miraculous powers. He was eventually sent to Lindisfarne, with the goal of reinvigorating their religious community. He died March 20, 687, and was buried at Lindisfarne. Due to Viking raids, the monastic community left Lindisfarne around 875, bringing with them St. Cuthbert’s body, relics, and books, including the Lindisfarne Gospels. Today, the manuscript can be seen on display at the British Library in London.


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