Glendale Local History Society

'Keeping the Past Alive'

2014 November - The Lindisfarne Gospels: their making and meaning

Ross Wilkinson, a member of the Learning and Access Team of Durham University Library, spoke on this subject which is of immense importance in our area, and the large audience proved to be extremely appreciative. Mr Wilkinson, who brought a facsimile of the gospels, displayed an enthusiastic and profound knowledge of the book, which delighted everyone.

   He began by explaining that his team, since September 2012, had delivered workshops to over 25,000 learners of all ages.  Whilst the gospels were on display at Durham last year, an engagement programme of workshops, family activities and lectures involved a further 13,500 people. 

   The gospels, kept in The British Museum, are constantly giving up more of their secrets about their creation to researchers.  A lot is known; more is being revealed all the time.

   What we know is that they were written between 650 and 715 AD, by one monk called Eadfrith.  He would have taken 10–20 years to carry out the task.  Although he was the only scribe, several other monks undertook the illustrated folios.  At that time, Northumbria was the hub of all Christendom for the writing of books.  Written on vellum, it is estimated that 300–400 calves would have been required for the vellum.  Although 129 folios make up the book, the remaining skins would have been used and discarded, or else made up into less important books, as those in ‘The Lindisfarne Gospels’ had to be perfect.

   We were taken through slides of key pages, beginning with the carpet page of Jerome – like a prayer mat of Islam, but with a Coptic cross, and the words, ‘You are humble before God.’

We were shown the carpet, the portrait, and the incipit pages for each of the four evangelists.  Writing on these pages was in a mixture of Greek and Hebrew, and illumination incorporated symbols of the Celtic church and the Roman church as well as elements of Judaism and Islam. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are all portrayed with their own symbols, such as the eagle of St John (a link to heaven) and the lion of Mark.

   It is to Aldred that the attribution of the gospels being written for Cuthbert is due.  However, the only reference to Cuthbert, written 300 years after the saint’s death, is in Aldred’s ‘Collophon’ at the back of the book, stating ‘Eadfrith wrote this book for God and St Cuthbert.’  He attributes the binding to Ethilvald, and the cover to Billfrith, a jewel smith.  The original cover is missing. We know it was elaborately decorated with gold, silver and gems, but it was taken by Henry VIII’s men at the dissolution.  The cover had an all-important part to play with illiterate pilgrims to Durham, since it represented ‘God’s Word’ when on display before Cuthbert’s tomb.

  The gospels disappeared at this time, only to re-appear as part of the ‘Opening Collection’ at the British Museum in c1750.  It was last checked out in 1908.  Now it is rarely handled, save when a page is turned each year.

  The audience was invited to examine the facsimile themselves, the use of local pigments was discussed, pencil designs on the back of pages noted and illumination wondered at.

   A deeply appreciative audience acknowledged a very successful evening and a vote of thanks was offered to Ross Wilkinson.

   There follows a trip to Lindisfarne for a limited number of people on Saturday 29th November at 11a.m. where at St Mary’s Church Canon Rev. Kate Tristram will make a presentation.

Margaret Kirby