A masterpiece of Insular illumination and one of the most iconic books of the medieval period, the Lindisfarne Gospels melds Insular and Mediterranean traditions in both pictures and text. The manuscript was produced in the years around 700 on the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne off the northeast coast of Northumbria, England, by the monastic community founded there by St. Aiden.
Its four evangelist portraits draw direct inspiration from Mediterranean sources while its incipit pages, which dissolve the boundary between text and image, are Insular in tradition. Perhaps the most glorious and enigmatic of its pictures are the five carpet pages.
Relying not on gold and silver but on intense, jewel-like color and fields of involute, interwoven creatures for its stunning beauty, the Lindisfarne Gospels is a book made by monks and for monks. It at once makes physical the holy words of the gospel and yet transcends the physicality of pen, paint, and parchment through its calm balance and seemingly infinite intricacy.
A Masterpiece of Insular Illumination
The Lindisfarne Gospels is both quintessential and extraordinary. It contains the typical texts—the four Gospels with their canon tables and prefaces. Each of the four Gospels is prefixed by a full-page portrait of the evangelist with his symbol that draws from Mediterranean exemplars.
The arcaded canon tables also look to Late Antique manuscripts. These traditional pages are in contrast to the turbulent interlace and spirals filling the grand capital letters of the incipit pages, where there is a playful inventiveness expressed in the ordered chaos that threatens the very legibility of the text itself. Dividing order from chaos are the exquisite carpet pages, precise in their design and yet writhing with serpentine creatures and fine knotwork contained in cross-shaped frames.
“Eadfrith… Made This for God and St. Cuthbert”
The gospels are written in Vulgate Latin in two columns of twenty-four lines. The refined Insular half-uncial is in rich black ink with colorful rune-inspired Insular uncial used for incipit pages and display fonts. Above the original script is Aldred’s Old English gloss, the first extant version of the Gospels in English, in Anglo-Saxon pointed minuscule.
In the same hand, the colophon cites the original scribe as Eadfrith, the bishop of Lindisfarne, who died around 720. Added over two centuries after the main text was written, it reflects an institutional knowledge passed down through generations of the monastic community and is a priceless record of manuscript production in early medieval Europe.
From Viking Loot to Cultural Icon
The glorious gospel book fell victim to Viking looters, who stripped off the jeweled cover and threw away the parchment pages. These were recovered with minimal damage. It remained with the monks as they fled Holy Island and eventually settled at Durham. It was kept in the cathedral priory until the sixteenth century when, for unknown reasons, it entered into private ownership. It was eventually acquired by Sir Robert Cotton and later donated for the “Public Use and Advantage” in 1753.
The only evidence of the Lindisfarne Gospel’s original cover is information provided by Aldred in his tenth-century colophon. He names Ethiluald (Æthelwald), a later bishop, as the binder and Billfrith, an anchorite, as having created gold and silver ornaments for the cover, which he adorned with gems and riches. This cover was looted in the Viking attacks that drove St. Cuthbert’s monastic community off Holy Island. The current binding was made by Messrs Smith, Nicholson, and Co. in 1853.
We have 2 facsimiles of the manuscript "Lindisfarne Gospels":
- Das Buch von Lindisfarne (Leather Edition) facsimile edition published by Faksimile Verlag, 2002
- Das Buch von Lindisfarne (Victorian Binding Edition) facsimile edition published by Faksimile Verlag, 2002