Friday, July 12, 2013

The Lindisfarne Gospels

The Lindisfarne Gospels 

Mention the world Lindisfarne and you will get two responses.  One will be “Wasn’t all that fond of their music”

                                                                       Lindisfarne the group

 and the other one will be, "Oh I’ve always wanted to go there.”
                                                                         Lindisfarne the place

Lindisfarne Castle sits on the Holy Island in Northumberland which is at the top of England and right a bit.  It is the same area as Alnwick Castle pronounced Annwick. For the trivia obsessed bloggers it’s often used as a location in films- Beckett, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, Dracula, various bits of Harry Potter but most importantly the Blackadder.


The name means travellers from Lindsey but does not state who Lindsey was and why people would trek over to a tidal island to get away from him.  It is only two miles from the mainland of England. The sand and mud flats are accessible at low tide and these form an ancient pilgrim path, nowadays there is a modern causeway.  The area is protected by a national nature reserve and the population of the island is never more than 200.

All visitors to the island ignore safety advice at their peril. The path, the tide times and the weather should alll be checked, but local RAF rescue say that at least one vehicle a month manages to get itself stranded.
The fascinating thing about Lindisfarne are the Lindisfarne gospels, an illustrated Latin copy of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John probably written at some point in the early 700s.  The original artist was Eadfrith and then a monk called Aldred added an old English gloss to the Latin text and this makes the book the oldest surviving English copy of the gospel. It is a mix of Celtic, Germanic and Roman styles and it survived because of, you’ve guessed it, a Viking raid.  OK, that last picture was a slight giveaway. After nearly one hundred years of continuing raids the monks abandoned Lindisfarne and I have a lovely image of a monk sticking this huge gospel under his habit and making a run for it while the tide was out.  It definitely happened on 8 June 793 and the raid on Lindisfarne was the start of the Viking’s influence on Celtic culture. The monks referred to their attackers as “fiery dragons flying in the sky and the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.”

Walter Scott verse ...The Holy Isle;

On the deep walls the heathen Dane
Had poured his impious rage in vain;
And needful was such strength to these,
Exposed to the tempestuous seas,
Scourged by the winds’ eternal sway,

The monks travelled around for many years, carrying the gospels with them and in 1069 when William the Conqueror turned his attention to the north of England, the monks and the gospels went back to the island to hide. Then of course in 1536 Henry the Eighth ordered the dissolution of the monasteries and the gospels were taken to London to have the jewelled casing removed.  It then seems to have been sold to Sir Robert Cotton whose heirs presented it to the British Museum in 1753 and in 1973 they became part of the British Library.
For the next three months the gospels are on display back up in Northumberland, in the Palace Green Library, Durham alongside the closely related St Cuthbert Gospel. They are complete and in excellent condition. Cased in silver, the individual pages are made of calf skin, the Italic text and the drawings are perfect in every way, each page is covered in gold leaf.  It was written in a scriptorium.  The ink looks black but is in fact dark brown by the use of soot or lamp black.  It was probably written with quills or reeds and recent investigation suggests trace marks used by some kind of ancient pencil. Interestingly many of the colours – pigments derived from animal, vegetable or mineral -  were local.

  Other pigments were imported from the Mediterranean but the lapis lazuli could only have been imported from the Himalayas.  The colours are bound by egg white or fish glue.  I found it interesting that each page shows that a sharp and very discreet point was used to rule the paper just so the monk could keep his lines straight.  The pigments are now so unstable that the single camera that was allowed in to film for the tv news was not allowed too close.

  They are under a glass case, in dim light in a modified environment and you can’t help but look at it and wonder how long did that monk sit there and copy it out by hand.  Years of work to honour God and St Cuthbert - you can’t help but look in awe at the perspicacity. To think that we get annoyed when the autocorrect gives you an American spelling of colour rather than the correct one....:)
A campaign is ongoing to have the gospels housed back in the north east of England but the suggestion is condemned by the British Library and international scholars.  A modern facsimile of the gospel is in the Durham cathedral treasury where it can be seen by the public.

The most famous thing about Durham is it’s the birth place of The Pink Panther with his famous theme tune - altogether now "durum, durum, durum, durum, durum".

Caro  GB  12.07/2013


  1. Oh Caro - a huge bit of Scottish predujice on diplay here - the most famous thing about Durham is the Pink Panther indeed. The capital of a princiality, site of a wonderful cathedral, and a palace - the centre of the English Scottish struggle for centuries - and all you can comment on is a silly film..... Shame on you

  2. Caro, you brought me back to my courses in medieval English literature--my favorite period: Arthurian legend, the wonderfully ribald Chaucer. But we began with the Lindisfarne Gospels and went from there through Juliana of Norwich before we got to the adventurous stuff. I loved this post. THANKS!

  3. Sorry, Caro, but in New York, especially to Brooklyners of a certain age, the response to Lindisfarne, would be, "Is that the place with the cows where they make their famous cheesecake?"

    And that's the gospel truth...durum rum.