This new book by Eleanor Jackson, Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library, on the Lindisfarne Gospels offers a fascinating insight into this magnificent manuscript. The fact that the Gospels are thought to have been created by one man, Eadfrid, Birshop of Lindisfarne, before 720 is quite remarkable. It is also glossed, an Old English translation of every word, not necessarily making complete sense, by Aldred, who describes himself as ‘a miserable priest’ in the colophon (‘peak’ or ‘finishing touch’ from the Greek) which he added at the end of the book, and is the earliest surviving translation of the gospels into English.
The new book has magnificent images, many of them enlarged so that the innovative and inspirational design and mastery of skill of pen and brush are clearly shown. This is the incipit, the beginning, of Luke, and it shows the innovative design, the intricacies, and the precision of execution. La Tène ornament (the whirls and swirls) contrast with the entwined bodies of birds lower left, and the multitude of red dots, so characteristic of insular manuscripts.
The enlargements emphasise also the accuracy of Eadfrid’s designs and the different colours used and can be studied in great close-up. At the top here is ‘Eusebius’ (note Aldred’s script just above), having a diamond for the middle crossbar of the letter ‘E’, and with its entwined birds, a dog, interlace, and a multitude of red dots; this is the opening to the prefatory text. Below is ‘Generationum’, the beginning of the chapter lists for the Gospel of Matthew, with restrained decoration but again many many red dots. Note the capitals written in Half-Uncial in red at the top ‘Incipit capitula lectio sec mattheum’ indicating what is to follow. The colour red used is beginning to deteriorate at the beginning to a darker red.
The book is notable for its cross carpet pages. These are designs that incorporate crosses (in the Lindisfarne Gospels many on one page), and look like the intricate designs in a Middle Eastern carpet. Research by Professor Michelle Brown suggests that carpets were used for prayer on special occasions at the time the book was produced in a similar way to Islamic traditions. Here the cross carpet page for Matthew is a riot of intricate birds and dog-like creatures. But for me, it is those white circles which really catch the eye. Were they left to be illuminated with gold or another colour? With such an eye for effect, it is really interesting that Eadfrid left them blank like this.
The author images are particularly striking, taking up a whole pages and showing the ages of man, writing in books and on scrolls, and three-quarters and full face. This of Luke, with his name and representative animal of a calf, is shown with him sitting on a cushion and bench, his feet on a stool, and writing on his lap. His name is written in Greek but in an angular script that is similar to Runes.
The angle of the face of his calf is very similar to that inscribed in wood on the coffin of St Cuthbert made probably at Lindisfarne at the end of the seventh century. The calf is shown also holding a book between its front legs.
The colophon of Aldred is particularly important naming as it does Eadfrid as the scribe, Æthelwold as the person who bound it, and Billfrith who adorned the covers. It must have been truly magnificent and a great asset to the cult of St Cuthbert who was regarded as the greatest saint in England until Thomas Becket at Canterbury.
This new book by Eleanor Jackson brings together the knowledge that we have of this great book and looks anew at the manuscript. It, like the book, is a true treasure trove and anyone who is interested in Lindisfarne the Gospels, St Cuthbert and the history of this area, and wants their eyes to be delighted and their souls to be enriched by the artistry of this amazing manuscript needs this book!