After seeing the Lindisfarne Gospels, a friend asked, "How did they do that?" Methodically, I described the preparation of the vellum to the final mixing of the paint. "No," he said, "Where did the ideas come from for that decoration?" It is a thought provoking question. The decoration of the initial letters, borders, and carpet pages in the Lindisfarne Gospels is amazing. One marvels at the beauty and intricacy of creatures intertwined in endless loops and tiny spirals. The majuscule insular hand looks jewel-like with brilliant colors contained in the counter spaces. Were these scribes tapped into something that we modern scribes have lost?
The Lindisfarne Gospels (British Library, Cotton MS Nero D.iv) is included in a group of illuminated insular manuscript books produced during the 6th and 7th centuries in Ireland and Northumbria, an area of northeast Scotland and England. They include the Book of Durrow, the Durham Gospels, the Echternach Gospels, the Gospels of St. Chad, the Codex Amiatinus, and the Book of Kells. They are the basis of our written language and literature, and are some of the earliest surviving records of the Christian Bible.
In September I attended a well-organized course entitled "The Lindisfarne Legacy" at St. John's College in Durham, England. Rev. Robert Cooper of the Chaplaincy to the Arts and Recreation organized this class. The Chaplaincy's educational goal is to recognize the integral part that Christianity played in the development of western calligraphic tradition. We were a group of fifteen, a mixture of hobbyist and professional calligraphers of all ages. The nine-day course included lecturing, sightseeing, and studio work.
Professor Gerald Bonner, former Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Library, lectured on the Durham Gospels, related insular manuscripts, and on the Venerable Bede, England's first historian. At Durham Cathedral Library we viewed the Durham Gospels and a dozen or so other early manuscript books; including the 11th century Carilef Bible, and the 12th century Puiset Bible.
We traveled to the monastic sites of Monkwearmouth, Jarrow and Holy Island, where the Lindisfarne Gospels were written and illuminated. While visiting Holy Island, Canon Kate Tristram delivered a riveting talk on the life of St. Aidan. St. Aidan, an Irish monk from Iona, traveled from Iona to Northumbria and established the monastery at Lindisfarne. Kate also spoke of St. Cuthbert's monastic life, in whose honor the Lindisfarne Gospels were made. We took a boat tour to the Farne Islands and landed on the Inner Farne, where St. Cuthbert spent his solitary hermitages. It is the only island among the Farne that can sustain even meager farming. Cuthbert, an early protector of birds, allowed eiders to nest on the steps of his altar. The Farne are now protected by the National Trust Reserve.
Our studio work included a day with Susan Moor, learning the traditional insular hand used in the Lindisfarne and Durham Gospels. The final two day workshop with Ewan Clayton was directed at integrating our Lindisfarne experience into our own work. Students produced some exciting pieces of lettering and painting.
A great deal is known about the origin and making of the Lindisfarne Gospels, including the identity of the scribes and original bookbinders. Janet Backhouse, Assistant Keeper in the Department of Manuscripts at the British Library, gives a thorough history and analysis of the manuscript in her book, The Lindisfarne Gospels. It includes full color reproductions of the decorated pages and the binding. The most recent binding by Smith, Nicholson and Co., done in 1852-3, takes its inspiration from several decorated manuscript pages.
Daily life of the monks may have been grim by our standards, but they were not isolated. Extraordinary trade routes existed during the Middle Ages. Monks made regular journeys to other monasteries throughout England, Ireland, and Europe exchanging ideas and manuscript books. Exotic supplies reached the monasteries, such as lapis lazuli, which, when ground, produces a luminous blue pigment. Lapis could only be obtained from Badakshan in the Himalayas. Metalwork and jewelry from Europe, Persia, and China also reached Northumbria and Ireland. The painted spiral and knotted work so prevalent in the Lindisfarne Gospels and other insular manuscripts is found in the crafts of the La Tene culture. The La Tene, from central Europe, had perfected this technique by the 3rd century BC. The red dots outlining the large initial letters in insular manuscripts can be traced to North African Coptic books.
Although the Lindisfarne Gospels were produced in Northumbria, it's influence begins in Ireland. The Irish perfected this intricate decorative knotwork and ignored the new Roman tradition of using images to depict the gospels. They developed a version of the Roman uncial and half-uncial hand. As Irish monks established missionaries throughout Northumbria, they brought with them knowledge of the insular majuscule alphabet and a highly developed style of manuscript decoration.
The Lindisfarne Gospels and other manuscript books of this era are a curious mixture of early Roman iconic (figurative) art and aniconic (nonfigurative) art. Nigel Pennick in his book, The Celtic Cross, devotes a chapter to the significance of the geometry of knotwork in early manuscript painting. Monks had knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem and the 3-4-5 dimensions of the right triangle. We can see physical evidence of geometry in the regular pin pricking and penciled guidelines on vellum pages that the scribes used as the basis for drawing intricate designs. Pennick, discussing the symbolism of this decoration, believes that aniconic images are more inspirational and contemplative to the viewer than figurative images. Christopher de Hamel in, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts, suggests that the pages of figurative images of the saints would have been held up to the congregation and the elaborate knotwork designs were for the contemplation of the celebrant. These illuminated pages must have been a powerful symbol of the word of God when held up to an illiterate congregation. Their greatness is evident in their power to inspire us after 1300 years.
Did those early scribes have a greater connection to their work? We do not know. However, they had the benefit of working without the noise and distractions of today's world.
Any study of early manuscript books quickly expands to the history of geography, literature, language (both Latin and Anglo-Saxon), science, and Christianity. As scribes, we owe a great debt to scholars who ferret out this information for our use. I would highly recommend any course organized by Rev. Cooper. I am grateful to Professor Bonner for his guidance to resources that inspire my continuing exploration of early insular manuscript decoration.
You may find the following books helpful for further reading on the history and production of insular manuscript books: