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The Lindisfarne Gospels

The Lindisfarne Gospels, a treasure at The British Library, is an illuminated manuscript featuring stunning carpet pages and intricate designs. Created on the island of Lindisfarne, it showcases a fusion of Irish Christian and Roman influences. The manuscript contains the four Gospels, each with a unique carpet page and an author portrait, highlighting the rich cultural exchange of the time. Speakers: Dr. Kathleen Doyle, Lead Curator, Illuminated manuscripts, British Library and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, and we're looking at one of the great treasures of The British Library, The Lindisfarne Gospels. It's an illuminated manuscript. It's a handmade object. - [Kathleen] In this exhibition, we have the unparalleled opportunity to see the beginning of the Gospel of Saint Matthew. One of the most famous images in the book, the evangelist writing, he is identified by his name, partly in Greek, and he's accompanied by his symbol of the man, here, winged, who is also identified. - [Steven] So, by gospel, we're referring to one of four books in the New Testament. And one of the authors is Saint Matthew, an Evangelist, here, depicted literally writing the words that are contained within the manuscript before us. - [Kathleen] Yes this is an extraordinary copy of the four Gospels, so the accounts of Jesus' life and teaching written by his disciples and followers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In front of each of these four books is an extraordinary page typically referred to as a carpet page. Detailed entwined decorations with the shape of a cross. These beautiful pages may have served as the internal cover to make each Gospel its own separate book. - [Steven] And this particular carpet page is extraordinary for its brilliance and color, its precision in line, its complex mirrored interlacing. - [Kathleen] This sort of decoration puts us in mind immediately of the metalwork that has been found in various archeological finds, most notably, Sutton Hoo, the great buckle, which is in the exhibition. So we can see ideas that the artist is using in creating these remarkable images. - [Steven] And this carpet page, which comes just after the image of Saint Matthew, is largely abstract, with the exception of the cross and certain minute animal and bird heads that are woven into the carpet, in a style that we often refer to as Hiberno-Saxon. And it's in such contrast to the more classical image that we're seeing here. - [Kathleen] We have this fusion of cultural ideas, artistic understandings, and that is one of the themes that we're bringing out throughout the exhibition, that people traveled, books traveled, ideas traveled, and you get this wonderful mixing of creative ideas. - [Steven] And it makes sense, because the Irish Christian tradition was longstanding by this point, but influences also coming from Rome, and this book is a perfect reflection of the integration of those traditions. - [Kathleen] This book was made on the island of Lindisfarne, it's off the coast of Northumbria, and that monastery was founded from missionaries from Iona, which is now in Scotland, but ultimately, from Ireland. So the Irish tradition that's strong there, but equally, the abbots, traveled regularly to Rome. We know that they brought back books, they brought back liturgical material, stained glass, so they're very aware of, and writing in a style, reflective of a Mediterranean tradition. - [Steven] I think, when many people think about the island monastery on Lindisfarne, they think about an isolated community, but it was anything but. - [Kathleen] Yes, it was one of the great centers of learning in Anglo-Saxon England at the time, and I think it also points out how often people traveled. Sometimes, as you say, we think of them isolated, remote, and it is a bit remote, yet people and ideas traveled throughout Europe, as they do today. - [Steven] And we can see that, in this magnificent painting at the beginning of the Gospel of Saint Matthew, we see Matthew, his head surrounded by a halo, his body represented sitting firmly on a cushion, on a stool, seen in perspective, perhaps not perfect linear perspective, nevertheless, that moves back into space. The pose is a complex one, an ambitious one, clearly referencing the naturalism that comes from the ancient Greek and Roman tradition. - [Kathleen] Yes, a few steps away from where we're standing here is the great Codex Amiatinus. This is a whole Bible, so both the Old Testament and the New Testament. It's huge, it has over 1000 leaves, about a foot in width, and it weighs over 75 pounds. We have it open to the famous image of Ezra writing. We can compare how very similar these two images are, the colors of the robes, what they're sitting on, the position of the feet, even their sandals, the way they're holding the pen. But in Lindisfarne, it's flatter, it's more linear, it's more stylized. This has been debated, but one can see that as a deliberate artistic choice, reflecting the aesthetic of metalwork pattern and design that's slightly different from this depiction, which was made in Northumbria, within a decade, or maybe at the very same time that Lindisfarne was being made. - [Steven] So it's entirely possible that both of these illustrations were drawing on the same source. - [Kathleen] There's much debate in the literature, are they both copying the same exemplar? But, clearly, they're so similar, and they're working at the same time, very closely related, geographically, so perhaps they were looking at the same book, or same type of book, to produce these images. But this is absolutely the classic author portrait, derived from antiquity, adapted for Christian use, for the writers of the Gospels. - [Steven] Scholars believe that the manuscript was penned by a single individual. - [Kathleen] We have quite detailed information about the individuals who were involved in the production of this book. In the late 10th century, the provost of Chester-le-Street, then called Aldred, wrote a very detailed colophon in Old English. He also went through the entire book, and put translations of the Latin words into Old English above each word. That is our earliest surviving copy of the Gospels in English. - [Steven] And this provides a record of the authorship of the manufacture of the book itself, not only the bishop who actually was the scribe, but also the man who bound the book, and then the hermit who applied jewels to its cover. - [Kathleen] He gives us the names of three people, that Eadfrith wrote it, and then he goes on to say Bishop Ethilwald bound it, and that the anchorite, Billfrith, adorned it with jewels and gold. So the missing person here, who made these extraordinary decorations? - [Steven] And there's been some assumption that it was the bishop who penned it, but we have no real evidence. And it's important to remember that the colophon was produced more than two centuries after the book was produced. And although scholars feel generally comfortable with it, we do want to be aware that the colophon was not made immediately after the manuscript. We now often buy books online, or we walk into a bookstore, and they're relatively inexpensive things. It's important to locate this as a luxury object of almost unimaginable value. It would have taken hundreds of animals to produce the skin necessary to write this. - [Kathleen] I think we sometimes forget that a manuscript means handwritten. Absolutely every aspect of all of these books in the exhibition, including this Gospel book, was done by hand. Skins had to be prepared, the lines ruled, the script written and copied from another book, decoration added in different colored pigments, it really is an astonishing achievement. (gentle piano music)