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27 July 2022

How the Lindisfarne Gospels became an emblem of Englishness

The spectacular 8th-century illuminated book is returning home to the north, after 500 years in London.

By Michael Prodger

Even for a saint, Cuthbert was a prolific miracle worker. Added to the standard celestial gifts of healing, asceticism and clairvoyance, Cuthbert, a 7th century holy man and hermit from the north-east of the British Isles, had special communion with animals and the sea. When a group of monks were stranded on a raft on the River Tyne and in danger of being washed away, it was Cuthbert who prayed until the wind changed and brought them to shore. After he spent the night waist deep in the sea in prayer, a witness saw otters emerge to dry him with their fur and warm him with their breath. When he was building a church and in need of a hefty roof beam, one was dispatched on a heavenly tide to wash up on the nearby shore. When stranded on an uninhabited island for three days by a storm, the saint was sent cooked dolphin meat by God, just as on a previous journey Cuthbert’s horse had found warm bread among the roof straw when they stopped, tired and hungry, at a derelict hut. When ravens pecked away at the thatch of Cuthbert’s hermit retreat on the Farne Islands, he reprimanded them and they returned in contrition bringing lard for him to oil his shoes.

And on the miracles went. He brought plague-dead back to life; saved villages from fires; cured the sick, including, posthumously, a paralysed man who regained the use of his legs when the saint’s shoes were placed on his feet. All these unequivocal signs of holiness quickly spurred a cult around him and Cuthbert became England’s most popular saint, unrivalled until the canonisation of Thomas à Becket in 1173. When Cuthbert’s body was moved from Lindisfarne in AD 875 as the monks fled Viking raiders, his corpse was found to be uncorrupted and the shrine in Durham Cathedral, where his relics were eventually laid to rest, was for centuries a place of pilgrimage and one of the holiest sites in the realm.

Even saints, however, need their proselytisers. Cuthbert found his in St Bede, who wrote three accounts of his life, drawing on the memories of the monks who had known him. Bede’s writings helped ensure that the saint’s memory remained strong, particularly in his home region, the Kingdom of Northumbria, which once covered most of northern England and southern Scotland and spread from coast to coast. As far away as Wessex, Alfred the Great was drawn by the potency of this northern divine and when, during his own travails with the Danes, the king saw a vision of the saint he co-opted Cuthbert into his nation-building programme. And later, during the 14th-century Scottish wars of independence, Cuthbert’s altar-cloth was used as a banner and gave protection to English soldiers in battle.

St Cuthbert’s most tangible miracle was not a hallowed tale, however, but an object. He was the inspiration behind the Lindisfarne Gospels, created in the early 8th century in a monastery on the tidal island of Lindisfarne, where he had served as prior and then bishop. The magnificently illuminated book is one of the foundational texts of English identity and perhaps the greatest artwork to survive from Anglo-Saxon times. Every one of its vellum pages not only refutes the idea that the Dark Ages – or Early Middle Ages – were creatively barren, but makes clear the reverence in which the saint was held, a reverence made explicit in an inscription attesting that the book was created “for God and St Cuthbert”.

[ See also: China Miéville: “If you don’t feel despair, you’re not opening your eyes” ]

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To the chagrin of many north-easterners, the Lindisfarne Gospels have been in London for centuries. Just when they arrived is unclear but it was probably with Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s. The book was part of the Cotton Library that was gifted to the nation in 1702 and that became one of the founding collections of the British Museum at its institution in 1753, and it was later transferred to the care of the newly established British Library. This September, the Gospels are returning to their origins and will be on display at a special exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle (17 September – 3 December), where they will also be the focus of a series of other art events in the region.

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The last time the book made the journey north, to Durham in 2013, it was seen by more than 100,000 visitors. Matters of both nationhood and regionalism have become more pressing in subsequent years, and the loan will cause mild trepidation in London, since there has been a long-running campaign for the Gospels to be permanently relocated to the north-east. In 1998 the Bishop of Durham stated in the House of Lords that “the questions surrounding the location of the Lindisfarne Gospels are far from being of interest to only one region of the country. The issue touches on matters religious, cultural, social and commercial which help to shape the whole nation.”

St Cuthbert as depicted in a 12th century manuscript. Photo by CPA Media Pte Ltd / Alamy

What is it about an artefact made in the early 8th century that has such power today? The book contains the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, chapter lists, canon tables (a scheme for dividing the gospels into parallel passages), prologues and feast day readings. The four gospels, written in Latin, are taken from St Jerome’s Vulgate version of the Bible. Each is prefaced by a full-page illustration of the author-saint and the gospels are separated by a “carpet page” – a rectangular geometric illustration of great elaborateness that resembles a Persian carpet.

Almost as important as the original text and decoration, however, is the colophon, or statement of information, added to a blank column at the end of the book by a priest named Aldred, who was provost of the community at Chester-le-Street, just north of Durham, in the 970s. It reads:

“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./And Aldred, unworthy priest, the lowest,/glossed it between the lines in English with God’s help and St Cuthbert’s.”

[ See also: The forgotten politics of personal sacrifice ]

For good measure, Aldred added a pen portrait in the margin recounting that his father was called Ælfred and that he himself is called “the excellent son of a good woman”. This nice family touch aside, it is thanks to Aldred that we know who wrote, bound and ornamented the book and who was responsible for adding, between the lines, a direct translation into Old Northumbrian, a dialect of Old English. Aldred’s gloss means the book is the first known, extant full translation of the gospels into English – starting a tradition that would ultimately lead to the most influential book in the English language, the King James Bible of 1611.

The decorative work of the goldsmith “Billfrith the anchorite” no longer survives: his “treasure binding” has long since disappeared and the current ornamentation on the book’s cover was commissioned in 1852. The work of the other men remains intact. Of the three it is Eadfrith who is most important. Rather than being the product of many hands in a scriptorium – the usual practice for a work of such value, length and complexity – the script of the Lindisfarne Gospels is the work of this one man. And although the exact dates of its composition are not known, Eadfrith became Bishop of Lindisfarne in AD 698 and died in 721, so the book is usually dated around  AD 715-720.

It is worth imagining the nature of his labour, working by daylight in a south-facing room in summer, augmented by tallow candlelight in winter, on a rocky speck in the North Sea, with cold and raiders a constant anxiety. He copied the text from another book, possibly brought back to Northumbria from Rome by one of the bishops of Wearmouth Jarrow some 60 miles down the coast. Before he could start work he needed to source the vellum – the skin of a stillborn calf that has been thinned, stretched and abraded (the Lindisfarne Gospels required the skins of 150 animals). He had to make his pigments: it has been estimated that using just six natural ingredients – from lichens and lead to verdigris and chalk – he developed a palette of 90 colours which he then mixed with egg white as a binder. Finally, he needed to acquire both gold leaf and gold powder.

The routine part for Eadfrith was the writing, 259 pages in all. He wrote in insular script – a style that may have originated in Ireland and that was dominant in the British Isles between AD 500 and 900 and also used in the other great example of early decorated calligraphy, the Book of Kells (circa AD 800). Even before he dipped his quill into gall ink (made from iron salts and oak gall) he had to rule each and every one of his pages, and it has been suggested that Eadfrith was the inventor of the lead pencil.

The glory of the Gospels, however, lies in their illuminations, which reveal a variety of sources. The four portraits of the saints show Graeco-Roman influences. The incipits, the highly decorated opening words of each of the gospels, contain Celtic knotwork deriving from Ireland and Iona in the Hebrides (the monastery at Lindisfarne was founded by an Irish missionary, St Aidan, in AD 635). The intertwined animal and bird forms that snake around one another are often associated with the German lands. Eadfrith had been exposed to a multiplicity of sources, some in books and manuscripts, some in metalwork, some in stone carving, and his genius lay in melding them in the Gospels. This emblem of Englishness is, like so much about the nation, a polyglot mixture that drew on faraway realms.

For all his extraordinary inventiveness, Eadfrith’s flourishes were nevertheless kept within the tightest of designs. They are too intricate to have been drawn spontaneously straight on to the page and it would have been too expensive for him to work out his patterning on vellum, so he probably used wax tablets and then, when his forms were painstakingly perfected using compasses and rulers, transferred them in outline to the vellum, possibly using some form of 8th-century lightbox. His indentations, prickings and other planning marks can be seen on the back of the pages.

It is the carpet pages that show Eadfrith’s technical skills at their most refined. Each is constructed on a grid and contains a different cruciform shape at its centre, around which skeins of knotwork and animal forms are braided or inset as panels. They bear similarities with the metalwork of the Sutton Hoo treasures in East Anglia, which, like the Gospels, contain elements from distant lands, including silverware from Byzantium and garnets from Sri Lanka. The Lindisfarne carpet pages are two-dimensional versions of Sutton Hoo’s wrought objects.

St Cuthbert as depicted in a 12th century manuscript. Photo by CPA Media Pte Ltd / Alamy

Nevertheless, the meaning of the carpet pages – extraordinary pieces of abstract art – is unclear. There are five of them in all and they separate the four gospels and so act like further covers within the book, distinguishing the separate texts, and indeed their designs may be a visual nod to Billfrith’s lost jewel covering, “bedecked with gold and gems”. Eadfrith’s intention was undoubtedly to honour St Cuthbert by creating patterns of almost divine difficulty that also delight and divert the eye of the reader. Their resemblance to Islamic prayer mats, however, suggests that they were also intended to function as aids to meditation, that by following the patterns the reader could get closer to the intentions of God. They serve as a visual metaphor too: God, in the form of the cross, is at the heart of each page, giving structure to the mass of surrounding patterns that mimic the infinite varieties of human life.

The Lindisfarne Gospels also contain an intertwined human story. Aldred’s colophon lays out the names of the men responsible for the book but there was a posthumous coda too. When, in AD 875, the monks abandoned Lindisfarne to escape the Viking Halfdene Ragnarsson and his “Great Heathen Army”, they embarked on years of wandering. Before they left, they placed their most precious possessions inside St Cuthbert’s coffin: alongside the body of the saint they put the bones of St Aidan, the head of St Oswald, a miniature leatherbound gospel of St John known as the St Cuthbert Gospel, and not just the Lindisfarne Gospels itself but the remains of two of its creators, Eadfrith and the man responsible for its binding, Bishop Æthilwald.

For the next seven years, this rattling holy treasure chest was carried all over Northumbria. At one point, according to legend, the monks tried to sail to Ireland and during the passage the Gospels were somehow washed overboard. They floated ashore three days later, totally unaffected by the water (there are no water stains on the book today): Cuthbert had effected yet another aqueous miracle. The monks eventually made it to Chester-le-Street, where Aldred made his translation of the Gospels, and the book and relics remained there for more than a century before being moved in AD 995 to a permanent shine in Durham.

Although Cuthbert and the other holy men were finally separated from the Lindisfarne Gospels by Henry VIII’s commissioners, they themselves remained together. The bodies had been reburied in 1542 after the Reformation and exhumed and reburied in 1827; in 1899 they were dug up once more. This time, however, while lifting the coffin the wood collapsed and the bones of Cuthbert, Eadfrith and the others fell in a jumbled heap to the bottom of the tomb.

There was a macabre poetry to the episode. Eadfrith, England’s first great native artist whose name has survived, the creator of the work of art that encapsulates the nation’s origins, had in life dedicated both himself and his wondrous book to the memory of St Cuthbert. Now, even in death, he would not be parted from him.

[See also: How Patrick Nasmyth brought Dutch mastery to Scottish art]

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This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special