What are the Lindisfarne Gospels?

The Lindisfarne Gospels (created in 715 AD by Bishop Eadfrith) consist of 259 leaves of vellum (calf skin) depicting the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Neil Shorney, ArtRatio Business Development Director (UK), tells us more about the history of these beautiful and significant objects.

Image Credits: Carpet page from the Lindisfarne Gospels with stylised cross and colourful knot work (public domain).

Neil Shorney, Business Development Director (UK), ArtRatio

Neil Shorney, Business Development Director (UK), ArtRatio

When I look at the world of fine art and antiques, I see things covering two broad categories: objects that are beautiful to look at, and objects which are historically or culturally significant. Some objects will fit neatly into one category but not the other, then there are some truly impressive objects which cross the divide between the two. One of the most fascinating of these to me is the Lindisfarne Gospels.

What are the Lindisfarne Gospels?

The Lindisfarne Gospels consist of 259 leaves of vellum (calf skin) upon which are written the four gospels of the Bible: the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Created around the year 715 AD by Bishop Eadfrith, these are a direct copy of the Latin Vulgate (more on that later), which Jerome of Stridon translated from Greek into Latin in 382 AD.

Significance as a work of art

Viewed purely as a work of art, the Lindisfarne Gospels are impressive. Taking Eadfrith approximately 10 years to create and likely using wax tablets as a practice medium (vellum being too expensive for mistakes), the Gospels are a beautiful illuminated manuscript which used previously unknown techniques to create the intricate designs.

One of these is the use of lead point to trace sketches before colouring. A forerunner to the pencil, Eadfrith used this tool 400 years before the technique was supposed to be known in Europe.

Professor Michelle Brown, an expert in medieval manuscript studies at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, goes as far as to state: 

“He was a technical innovator who invented the pencil and the light box in order to achieve his complex artistic and social vision.

To create his beautiful illuminations, Eadfrith manufactured 90 colours himself, using just 6 minerals available locally. It is possible that Eadfrith also used lapis lazuli from the foothills of the Himalayas, or possibly he knew of its existence but couldn’t get any, so “faked” this from local minerals. Either way, it’s impressive.

The full-page carpet pages at the beginning of each gospel, and the illuminations throughout the work, mean that this work of art is as significant as it is beautiful.

Eadfrith’s successor, Ethelwald, added the original binding to the work including jewels and precious stones. This was lost during a Viking raid in 793 when the monastery was pillaged. Fortunately, the text itself was transported safely to Durham.

Folio 27r from the Lindisfarne Gospels, incipit to the Gospel of Matthew

Image Credits: Folio 27r from the Lindisfarne Gospels, incipit to the Gospel of Matthew

Historical significance

Where the Lindisfarne Gospels become even more fascinating, is when we look at them in the context of both sacred and secular history. This is because the work is not just a Latin transcription of Jerome’s Vulgate – it’s also the first known full translation of the Gospels into English. This was carried out by a monk called Aldred in around 950 AD. Aldred wrote his translation in much smaller script, between the lines of Eadfrith’s illuminated manuscript.

Let’s have a brief history lesson…

The New Testament of the Bible was originally written in Greek in the years immediately following the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in around 30 AD.

As the Catholic church expanded across the Roman empire, it was realised that a translation would be needed for it to be used in Europe, and in 382 AD, Jerome of Stridon created the Latin Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Greek which is still used in the Catholic church today.

For various reasons which are too lengthy to go into here, the Catholic church actively discouraged further translation of the Bible into more modern or local languages. And when individuals did create translations, the church came down hard on those involved. Some examples of the impact this had on the translators include:

  • John Wycliffe, who directed a translation from the Latin in 1382, was declared a heretic and his body exhumed, 44 years after his death, so that it could be burnt and scattered into the river Swift rather than resting in consecrated ground.
  • William Tyndale, who completed his translation of the New Testament in 1526, was captured in Antwerp, declared a heretic, then strangled at the stake before his body was burned.
  • During the 1550s, a number of Protestant scholars were forced to flee to Geneva, where they translated the Geneva Bible (New Testament completed in 1575) into English. Significantly, this was not just a translation, but a commentary on the church and the state of the time through marginal glosses (annotations), explaining the meaning of parts of the biblical text in the context of the day. This became a widely-used translation, but due to the anti-establishment commentary, King James I wanted a new “official” translation which was less politically inflammatory. Thus the “authorised” King James Bible was born.

With this context in mind, the Lindisfarne Gospels are ground-breaking: the first translation of the Gospels into English, 400 years before Wycliffe’s Bible translation. It seems that Aldred escaped the fate of his successors, perhaps because this was so “unofficial”. Did Rome even know it had been done? And if they did, was it considered a threat that someone had written a translation in a single copy of a book which wasn’t widely circulated?

So, the Lindisfarne Gospels represent the first known translation of the complete Gospels into the English language. They also have parallels with the Geneva Bible (mentioned above), in that Aldred didn’t just produce a translation, but also more expansive explanations in the margins of the work, explaining a little about the text, rather than just translating it. And this 600 years before the Geneva Bible was produced.

Summary

This is why I find the Lindisfarne Gospels so fascinating. A beautiful work of art, made by a monk who created cutting-edge technology to aid its creation. A book which, through its translation into English, becomes a significant work in the history of the church and the world. And to close, you remember that Viking raid of 793 where the original binding was lost… that’s the first ever recorded example of a Viking raid anywhere on the British isles.

About Neil Shorney

Neil Shorney, Business Development Director (UK), for ArtRatio

As Business Development Director (UK) at ArtRatio, Neil manages to combine his love for the arts with his love of professional selling. A music graduate and active musician (he plays the ‘cello), Neil spent much of his early career working for Informa plc, the London-based global information provider as Sales Manager for their project management division. He is a firm believer in the value of business relationships through a thorough understanding of a client’s situation, and providing exactly what they need. Neil is a fluent French speaker, and has a passion for classical music, interesting bibles, and fine wines.

References

1. Invasions of the British Isles, Wikipedia, URL

 2. Nees, Lawrence. “Reading Aldred’s Colophon for the Lindisfarne Gospels.” Speculum, vol. 78, no. 2, 2003, pp. 333–377. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20060636. Accessed 15 Mar. 2021.

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