The Lindisfarne Gospels are, in the opinion of many (including me!) the greatest treasure we have. This manuscript had, of course, to be featured in my book The Art and History of Calligraphy, published by the British Library in May 2017. The Lindisfarne Gospels were written before 720 and the scribe and artist was Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, according to Aldred who added a colophon (scribe’s note) at the back of the book in the tenth century. You can see Aldred’s dancing Insular Minuscule gloss between the lines on the right; he added this lettering during the 100 years or so when the monks were at Chester-le-Street. However, what is far more eye-catching are the wonderful colourful and decorated letters. The patterns range from interlace, to geometric red dots, to birds with necks and legs intertwined in the first and last strokes of the enlarged letter N at the start. And it is the invention of letter-forms and their placement that is so delighted. Look at the letter U sitting comfortably within what actually is a V but looks like a U on the top line – NOVUM. Note, too, the four birds’ heads hanging off the top serifs and springing up from the bottom ones on the squared-off letter O on the next line.
Opposite this page is one of the famous cross-carpet pages, called this because they are densely decorated and patterned like a Persian carpet, but are also in the shape of a cross. On the right is the cross carpet page opposite the incipit, the beginning, of Mark.
What is intriguing with this cross-carpet is the central part of the design in that the lines are not completely straight; so this circular design looks almost as if it is slightly raised in the centre, a bit like the ‘boss’ on a shield perhaps. Look at the red geometric patterns top and bottom and right and left; notice the way in which the black outlines aren’t exactly perpendicular emphasising this effect.
Now these patterns didn’t come about by chance when Eadfrith was doodling away one wet afternoon. They were very carefully planned and constructed. This is the back of that page. These are the guidelines made by lead point, the earliest example of it according to the great Michelle Brown. However there are also pin prick marks where a set of dividers has been used to ensure that the distances between the lines on that central ‘boss’ shape are even. Michelle suggests that some sort of back lighting was likely so that Eadfrith could follow his planned design. Read more here about Michelle’s work on the Lindisfarne Gospels.
When the patterns are really enlarged the dots each have a dimple. This means that there would have been a dome. So, were these dots done with a pen/quill or a brush? I’ve experimented and am sure that they were done with a quill. There is a fascinating blogpost from the great British Library Typepad where they have enlarged various parts the page at the top of the blogpost, click here for more details.
The lettering is in a particularly clear Half-Uncial, and even if you don’t read Latin, you will be able to make out the letters once you have realised that the letter A is a ‘two c’ letter and the rather strange squiggle is a letter G.
But you can see all this yourself as the Lindisfarne Gospels have been digitised by the British Library and you can look at page after page of wonderful lettering and glorious patterns, and enlarge them to your heart’s content! Click here for a couple of hours of pure joy!