Tag Archives: Lindisfarne Gospels

‘Art of the Islands’ by Michelle Brown

img_1727Michelle Brown is a prolific author, yet every additional book comes with new insights explained in her inimitable user-friendly way, and this volume is no exception. It covers the period from c. 450–1050 AD, that is from the departure of the Romans to the incoming of the Normans and their conquest. The book is beautifully produced and the illustrations particularly clear and detailed, and it brings together aspects of manuscripts, stone-work, armour, metalwork, jewellery and architecture as well as archæological finds and hoards.

 

 

ship_burial_helmetAfter an Introduction, the book is divided into five sections, starting with the period 300–700. This includes artefacts from the Sutton Hoo burial mound, a belt buckle from Kent, the St Augustine Gospels, and the Franks Casket. The influence of figures such as Benedict Biscop, Bede, King Æthelbert of Kent and his wife Bertha are also considered.

 

 

 
lindisfarne_gospels_folio_139r-1The importance of the identity of the Anglo-Saxons in their art and artefacts at this time is brought out in the next chapter in a consideration, amongst others, of manuscripts from the early eighth century such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Codex Amiatinus. The influence of Bede and stylistic aspects led Michelle Brown to date the Lindisfarne Gospels later than the previously accepted date of 698. Her conclusion is that they were completed by Bishop Eadfrith from 710–20, the unfinished nature of a few pages in the book likely to have been due to his death in 722.

 

 

staffordshire_hoard_annotatedThe Staffordshire Hoard was found in 2009 near Lichfield, and, at over 3,500 items, is the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold. In the next chapter in the book on Southumbrian art, this hoard is linked to the crypt at Repton and the ‘Tiberius’ group of manuscripts. This group includes the Vespasian Psalter, the Book of Cerne, the Tiberius Bede and the magnificent Stockholm Codex Aureus.

 

athelstanWhat happened in art after the defeat of the Vikings is covered in the following chapter where Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert is shown here being presented by King Æthelstan to the saint himself. Their rather swarthy appearance is due to the discolouration of white pigment. Art in Wales, Alba (Scotland mainly), Cornwall, Ireland and other places is considered with illustrations of many local stone crosses, and also a delightful set of stone caryatids from Fermanagh in Ireland and the glorious Cross of Cong.

 

 

2006bc6621_jpg_lThe fusion of Insular, Carolingian, Ottonian, Byzantine and Scandinavian influences are brought together in the last chapter which deals with art from the mid-tenth century onwards.The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, the Ramsey and Harley Psalters, the Sutton Isle of Ely brooch and a grave slab from St Paul’s Cathedral all show those influences.

 

 

 

For anyone who loves manuscripts this is a wonderful book, produced by the Bodleian Library Publishing, as it places script, illumination, and page design and decoration in the context of what else was happening in other forms of art at various stages in this fascinating period of British history. It is very highly recommended.

 

 

 

Christmas or Xmas?

Chi rho from KellsThere was an article in the paper towards the end of last year which posed the question of whether people would have Christmas or Xmas. The suggestion was that Christmas would be a time of having a loving day with family and friends, caring and sharing, and Xmas would focus on the commercialisation of the season. In fact, Christmas and Xmas, as many know, are one and the same thing. X representing the Greek letter chi, which is the initial letter for Christ. In early manuscripts the names for God and Christ were thought to be so holy that they should be written not in Latin as the rest of the text but in Greek, the language of the early New Testament. These names were called the Nomina Sancta (holy names).

Chi rho in LindisfarneIn Insular Gospel books, at the end of the genealogy of Christ in Matthew 1:18, the page is often marked by large decorated initials, such as the one above in the Book of Kells. The letter chi is very large, followed by a smaller rho (looks like the letter p), and this is entwined with the letter i.

Contrast this with that in the Lindisfarne Gospels on the right, where again the letter chi is enlarged, but the letters rho and iota (i) are clearly visible, albeit smaller. The letters on the following line have been outlined in red dots, but are unfinished. Then follows beautifully painted angular letters with colours that bring a subtlety to the whole page. Note, too, the unfinished letter C towards the end of the third line.

Chi rho in St Gall Gospel Another insular book is the St Gall Gospel shown on the right. St Gall in Switzerland has a famous library with many manuscripts online. It is certainly worth looking at for early books. This Gospel was written by Irish monks around the year 750. The manuscript has the distinctive decoration of many of the books of this time, with, in a strip at the base, interlace, and decorating the space between the chi and the rho, La Tene swirls and geometric decoration.

 

 

Chi rho from Stockholm Codex AureusThe Stockholm Codex Aureus has a well-known history, being written probably in Canterbury in the mid-eighth century. It was stolen by the Vikings, its elaborate, decorated cover ripped off, and then bought back ‘with much gold’ by Alderman Alfred and his wife Werburgh to present to the church. There is a note to this effect written in Old English in two lines at the top of the page and continued at the bottom.

Durham Cathedral – place of saints

St Cuthbert's crossIt is said that St Cuthbert was the most revered saint in northern Europe before Thomas Becket was killed by the four knights in Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December in 1170. Cuthbert must have been a remarkable man for no other reason than Britain’s greatest treasure (in my opinion!) was written for ‘God, St Cuthbert and all the saints of the island’. This was, of course, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and they were written and decorated by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, before 720. St Cuthbert was buried with great pomp according to the custom, and in his coffin were placed not only the St Cuthbert Gospel, but also a small portable altar and his pectoral cross above right. This delicate little jewel was made of gold and garnets, and is in remarkably good condition.

Durham CathedralViking attacks made the monks move from Lindisfarne, and they took the Lindisfarne Gospels with other books and St Cuthbert’s coffin with them. The White Church at Durham was put up by the successors of those monks when it is said that St Cuthbert’s coffin stuck and refused to move any further. This church was replaced by the Norman Romanesque building, started in 1093. Amazingly that building took only 40 years to complete. This was because much of the work was done off site. The magnificently decorated huge stone columns had their patterns cut into them away from the church building, and they were assembled in the cathedral, each pattern fitting neatly in to the one above. This is explained here. The best view of the cathedral must surely be from the railway, and it is a wonderful sight as the train slows down into the station to view the cathedral on its high hill opposite.

St Cuthbert's ShrineSt Cuthbert’s Shrine itself is very plain and simple now, with a greenish stone slab and at floor level. A description of it as it was indicates that previously it was made of gilded marble. There were four spaces at the base where pilgrims could kneel to venerate the saint. The shrine was covered by a precious cloth (see below for a board painted according to a description of this cloth; this board now hangs over the tomb) and on special days this cloth would have been lifted so the coffin itself could be seen in all its glory.

It was not only his many miracles that mean that St Cuthbert was so revered. The story goes that when his coffin was elevated to the altar and it was opened, St Cuthbert’s hair had grown, there was flesh on his body and his joints were still flexible.

Durham CathedralIn fact, this continued right up until the Reformation when Henry VIII’s commissioners in around 1539 came to smash faces on tombs and strip the church of its treasure. An eye witness gives this account: Dr Ley, Dr Henley and Mr Blythman brought with them a goldsmith who, when he had taken off the gold and silver and precious stones, climbed up to a chest strongly bound in iron. The goldsmith took a hammer and smashed open the chest. St Cuthbert was ‘lying whole with his face bare and his beard as if it had a fortnight’s growth’. In smashing the shrine the goldsmith said that he had broken one of the saint’s legs. He was told to throw the bones down, but replied that this was impossible because they were still joined. 

Durham CathedralSt Cuthbert is not the only saint here. Bede, often known as the Venerable Bede, is regarded by many as the father of English history. He was born in around 672–3, and lived and worked around Monkwearmouth (now Sunderland) and Jarrow. He entered the monastery at Monkwearmouth when he was seven, and was taught by Benedict Biscop, and later by Ceolfrith, the Abbot of the twin foundation. Bede wrote over 60 books, including a little of his own life contained in a chapter at the end of his Historia Ecclesiastica, (a history of the church in England).

Codex LaudianusWe do still have a book that is said to have been owned by Bede. This is a sixth-century Greek and Latin manuscript of the Acts of the Apostles. It’s called the Codex Laudianus and is now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Latin is on the left and Greek on the right. It is written in Uncials, similar to the St Cuthbert Gospel, but these letter-forms are not as fine.

Bede died on Ascension Day in 735 and was buried at Jarrow. It is likely that Bede’s remains were transferred to Durham in the eleventh century. His tomb was looted in 1541, but it is thought that the contents were probably interred in the Galilee chapel at Durham where his tomb now stands.

 

Durham Cathedral all lit up!

Durham Cathedral 1Durham Cathedral like you have never seen it before. This wonderfully majestic Romanesque Cathedral, put up by the Normans to replace the original Anglo-Saxon White Church built to house St Cuthbert’s shrine, was more than colourful when, as part of the Durham Lumière Festival, images from the Lindisfarne Gospels were projected on to the building.

 


Durham Cathedral is illuminated as the Lumiere Festival opened in Durham City, UK, on 17 November 2011. The biennial festival of light, which runs until 20 November, features works by 30 international and British artists. Ross Ashton's Crown of Light installation seen projected onto the cathedral.
The Gospels themselves are stunning, but when shown as enlarged as they are here, the true artistry of Eadfrith is emphasised.

 

This is an interesting reference to it, albeit in the Daily Mirror!