The Lindisfarne Gospels: A 7th-Century Thing of Beauty

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The world of Anglo-Saxon England was often terrible and violent. People died in the blink of an eye, as the result of a mysterious illness or at the point of another person’s sword. Accounts of the strange (and not so strange) deaths of great and unimportant people fill the ranks of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other books about the times. Few and far between are the stories of beauty and wonderment. This is one such story.

The Lindisfarne Gospels remain one of the most beautiful books ever produced. The pages are relatively few, but the presentation is stunning. Here is their story:

We begin with Cuthbert, the Bishop of Lindisfarne for many years. Cuthbert died in 687. A mere 11 years later, the Bishop Aedfrith illuminated and wrote the Translation of St. Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels. The latter is by far the more famous of the two.

In one sense, they comprise yet another account of the Four Gospels of the Bible (the first four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). But it is not the words so much as how they are presented and accompanied that set this work apart from others of its kind. The painstaking care that Aedfrith took to complete this manuscript is evident, as is his attention to detail. It is all the more amazing to contemplate the successful completion of this project, which must have been started shortly after Cuthbert’s death, when held up against the long list of Eadfrith’s other duties, many of which surely consumed much of his waking hours. We must also remember that Lindisfarne, in Northumbria, was susceptible to particularly harsh winters, which sometimes prevented the monks from doing anything short of surviving. That Aedfrith was able to complete so monumental an achievement in such a short time is testament to his determination and fortitude.

The Gospels were made on vellum, as usual, and written in ink, as usual. One large difference, however, can be found in the large number of colors used. Some historians think that as many as 40 inks were used.

It is also notable that the Gospels contain many illustrations of birds, which was unusual for that time period.

In addition to the text and the accompanying illustrations are 15 specially illustrated pages. Four of these precede the Gospels; the others are spaced throughout. It is these that deserve special attention, for their skill and beauty are almost without surpass.

So in one sense, this is a book, a retelling of the Gospels of the Bible. In another sense, it is a piece of art history, one of the most beautiful books ever produced. Leave it to the monks to create beauty out of chaos.

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