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British Library, London, Cotton MS Nero D. iv
This is the oldest translation of the Gospels from Latin into Old English. Mediterranean and Celtic cultural influences blend into a unique and rich masterpiece, which laid the foundation for the further development of western art.
A scriptorium on holy ground
There is a small spit of land on the coast of Northumbria called ‘Holy Island’, on which around 635 AD the monastery of Lindisfarne was founded. In the beginning it was still under the famous Abbey Iona, but then developed rapidly into a monastic centre in immediate proximity to the royal residence of the Northumbrian Kings. On the peninsula surrounded by stormy water, outstanding artists and writers found the necessary inner poise and inspiration to decorate the holy texts of the Gospels to make them true masterpieces of early mediaeval book production.
In honour of St. Cuthbert
Already in his lifetime and still today, Cuthbert was and is a highly venerated saint. He lived as a hermit near the abbey before he became bishop of Lindisfarne, but soon returned to being a recluse. In two of his vitae, the famous scholar the Venerable Bede tells us of Cuthbert’s working of wonders and idealistic life style. Only a few years after his death on March 20th 687, Cuthbert was canonised. His brothers had the wish to create a particularly splendid gospel in memory of the saint: the Lindisfarne Gospels.
This pious wish gave rise to a unique masterpiece of book production. The monks venerated the gospel like a relic. Art historians and palaeographers see in its unfathomable wealth a foundation for further art development in the Occident. Linguists find in it the oldest translation from Latin into ancient English, and the curators of the British Library keep it as a national treasure.
The best-preserved Gospel Book of its time
Despite of its age of almost 1300 years, the Lindisfarne Gospels is in an extremely good state of preservation and world wide, it is even the only completely preserved evangeliary from the isles.
On 259 folios in the format of 34.0 x 24.5 cm, made of the most carefully prepared vellum, it contains the Latin text of the Four Gospels according to the Vulgate version of St. Jerome. Each Gospel opens with an introductory explanation, a summary of chapters and a calendar containing the liturgical feast days. In addition, three prefaces, led by St. Jerome’s letter to Pope Damasus, precede the text. A series of sumptuously decorated canon tables, for the first time stretching over 16 pages, solemnly opens up the book.
The manuscript and its masters
Monk Eadfrith, who was made bishop of Lindisfarne shortly after Cuthbert’s canonisation, is not only to be thanked for the complete copy of the gospel text in a particularly beautiful insular majuscule, but also for the entire illumination of the book. Besides Eadfrith, an inscription in the Lindisfarne Gospels from the 10th century names his later successor Æthelwald as bookbinder, and Billfrith the hermit was the goldsmith who executed the ornamenting of the book’s binding. Hence we know more about the production of this work than we would about most other mediaeval manuscripts.
Unique decoration: the carpet pages
Five extraordinary carpet pages present the whole range of insular ornaments in all their breathtaking wealth of form and colour. Thanks to their bright contours, the cruciforms skilfully inserted in the overall composition protrude clearly from the dense interlace in the background.
The Cross-carpet pages preceding each gospel and another one at the beginning of the book are combined with an equally richly ornamented incipit page. The large decorative initials stretch over the whole page, and the flowing ornaments and patterns with which they are filled down to the smallest detail blend with the following letters into elaborate monograms. Furthermore, over 200 fully coloured majuscules, partly outlined with red dots, structure the whole text.
A fusion of insular and Mediterranean art
In the canon tables and portraits of the evangelists in the Lindisfarne Gospels, influences of the Mediterranean and Celtic cultures blend into a unique masterpiece of insular book production. Thus the text of the evangeliary, which goes back to a model from the area around Naples, is represented in a majuscule script characteristic for the insular culture and decorated in the Hiberno-Saxon style. Besides Mediterranean influences, the portraits of the four evangelists also show typical insular traits. The fusion of the two art styles is, however, most impressively exemplified in the classical arcades of the canon tables bearing insular ornament and interlace.
Victorian book binding and goldsmith’s work
During the reign of Henry VIII, the manuscript was robbed of its binding which, in its shining splendour, might have been reminiscent of a relic shrine. To benefit the dignity of the manuscript, in 1852 Bishop Maltby of Durham donated a precious new binding, the decorative ornaments of which are directly inspired by the insular formal vocabulary.
The facsimile edition
The facsimile edition consists of the facsimile volume and an expert commentary. The edition is limited to 980 copies world-wide. The manuscript covering 518 pages is reproduced true to the original and in all detail. For a maximum of 290 copies of the facsimile edition a faithful reproduction of the Victorian binding with all decorative stones will be made. The remaining copies will be available in the same neutral light leather binding that was used for the facsimile edition of the Book of Kells.
The commentary volume
The expert commentary is comprised of two volumes in which Dr. Michelle Brown, curator of the Manuscript Department of the British Library, provides a detailed description of her latest findings about the codex and the new dates. Numerous detailed studies have ensured the complete reconstruction of the manuscript.