Following 9th century monks as they flee from invading vikings with the body of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels – and undertake a momentous journey that helps shape England
In July 2013, one of the world’s most beautiful and important books will return to the North-East of England. The Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated manuscript created in the early 8th century, is to be exhibited at Palace Green Library, near Durham Cathedral, from July 1st to September 30th. The return of the gospels will be preceded in June by The Festival of the North-East, a month long celebration of the region’s creativity and innovation.
The Lindisfarne Gospels were created on the holy island of Lindisfarne between 715 and 720 and quite astonishingly, given the amount of intricate work undertaken and its differing worldwide influences, were mainly the work of one man, a monk named Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 until his death in 721. Eadfrith wrote and decorated the Gospels, a vulgate (everyday Latin) text of the four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It’s likely Eadfrith, who created the gospels for the shrine of St Cuthbert and for God, was inspired by other great books held in the libraries of the twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow, a little further down the coast. St Cuthbert’s shrine was already attracting great numbers of pilgrims, which continued in later years at Chester-le-Street and still continues today at Durham Cathedral. The addition of the Lindisfarne Gospels only served to increase peoples’ fascination and devotion.
Eadfrith, who had already asked Bede, the greatest scholar of his age, to write the Life of St Cuthbert, fused diverse influences into the Gospels. As well as reflecting the multi-cultural nature of Britain at that time, it also highlights the growing influence of Christianity throughout the world; Celtic, Germanic, Mediterranean and Near Eastern art and culture are all contained within its pages, which were made from the skin of three hundred calves. Other great books of this era, such as The Book of Kells, were created by a team of at least eight people, yet Eadfrith, who would have had to combine monastic duties as well as prayer eight times every day and night, managed to write and illustrate the Lindisfarne Gospels all by himself, a testament not only to his creativity but also to his dedication to his God.
Creating the Lindisfarne Gospels was Eadfrith’s way of worshipping God and every word and image created would have been considered to be a wound upon Satan. Eadfrith’s personal views of the Anglo-Saxon society his monastery was part of are not known, but he lived in a violent age of warring kingdoms. Honour and valour were praised above all, and epic stories such as Beowulf inspired warriors and kings to acts of glorious bravery with the sword. He would surely have hoped to lead people into pacifism and Christianity though; monasteries were the publishing houses of the medieval world and scribes thought of themselves as channels between humanity and God.
The text of the gospels is a dark brown, almost black, and contains carbon from soot. As for the artwork; Michelle P. Brown, in ‘The Lindisfarne Gospels and the Early Medieval World’, describes where Eadfrith found his colours:
“Our artist-scribe reconstructed the Mediterranean palette using a handful of local materials and must have been a skilled chemist. He obtained a range of purples, crimsons and blues by introducing acidity or alkalinity to plant extracts such as woad and lichen. His yellow was orpiment (trisulphide of arsenic). Red/orange was toasted lead. Green was verdigris, made by suspending copper over vinegar. White was chalk or crushed shell/eggshell. Black was carbon. Pigments were mixed with adhesive beaten egg white. Ink was made principally from oak galls and iron salts according to an extremely good recipe – the ink has not faded. Some fine details and rubrics were of gold leaf and powdered gold ink.”
The book was bound by Eadfrith’s successor after his death, Bishop Aethilwald, and given a jewelled and gold cover, later lost or stolen, by Billfrith, an anchorite in the monastery. And there the Lindisfarne Gospels stayed, in the monastery of Lindisfarne, receiving pilgrims alongside the body of St Cuthbert and other important relics, until once again, in 875, came unwelcome visitors.
The Community of St Cuthbert took the coffin of their beloved Saint and put inside, along his still preserved body, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the head of St Oswald, bones of St Aidan and other priceless relics. For seven years they wandered, not just fleeing from Viking invasion and settlement but also taking political decisions and galvanising Christianity at a time when Vikings had captured and settled much of the east coast of England. After seven years they settled in Chester-le-Street, at the site of an old Roman fort, where about sixty years later a monk named Aldred added a gloss between the Lindisfarne Gospels original Latin that translated the book into Old English.
The Community of St Cuthbert stayed at Chester-le-Street for 113 years until further threat saw them move again. This time they finally settled at a place called Durham, where St Cuthbert’s body still rests in a shrine in the great Norman Cathedral, recently voted Britain’s Best Building. The Lindisfarne Gospels were part of St Cuthbert’s shrine, as they were always intended to be, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries ordered by Henry VIII in the 16th century. Somehow stolen, they ended up in private hands and then at the British Museum and British Library in London.
Writer Richard W Hardwick and photographer Paul Alexander Knox, two proud Northumbrians, will be following the route the Community of St Cuthbert took with the body St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels. In April 2013 they will visit the different locations it is said the community stopped at, a journey of over a thousand miles around the ancient kingdom of Northumbria. Together with students from Durham University’s School of Applied Social Sciences they will research and write a history of this journey and the locations along the route.
Finally, and very importantly, credit must be given to The Northumbrian Association. This organisation has long campaigned for the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to their native North-East and was instrumental in the decision to bring them to Durham Cathedral for the three month loan starting in July 2013. Hopefully, this will be a stepping stone for the book to remain with the Saint it was made for, but I’m sure the British Library will have something to say about that. So, if you live in the North-East or are visiting from July to September, then this is your chance; come and see one of the world’s most beautiful and important books – The Lindisfarne Gospels.