Lindisfarne Gospels
Irish Illuminated Manuscript, 7th/8th Century: History, Provenance.

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Lindisfarne Gospels Illustration
(British Museum, London)
Miniature portrait painting of St Mark.

Lindisfarne Gospels

Masterpiece of Hiberno-Saxon Art (Insular Art)

The Lindisfarne Gospels (or the Book of Lindisfarne), written in insular script with many Celtic-style decorative elements, is an illuminated manuscript of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, created on Lindisfarne in Northumbria at the turn of the 7th/8th century CE. The book is widely regarded as the finest example of the kingdom's unique style of religious art, a style that mixed Anglo-Saxon and Celtic themes with early Biblical art to form what is now known as Hiberno-Saxon, or Insular art. The manuscript is complete (though without its original bejewelled leather binding), and remains exceptionally well-preserved despite its great antiquity. It is an exquisite example of medieval Christian art.

Making of Illuminated Manuscripts
History of Illuminated Manuscripts
Cathach of St Columba
Book of Durrow
Lichfield Gospels
Book of Kells

For facts and information about the
evolution of painting & sculpture
in Munster, Leinster, Connacht and
Ulster, see: History of Irish art.

For a review of Celtic culture,
see: La Tene Culture (450-50 BCE)



The Lindisfarne Gospels were written at roughly the same time as the Echternach Gospels. An inscription written in the 10th-century by Aldred gives us an unusually detailed description of the way that it was created and embellished over the years:

"Eadfrith, Bishop of the Lindisfarne church (Bishop of Lindisfarne in 698, died in 721), originally wrote this book for God and for St Cuthbert and jointly for all the saints whose relics are in the island. And Ethelwald, Bishop of the Lindisfarne Islanders impressed it on the outside and covered it, as he well knew how to do. And Billfrith, the anchorite, forged the ornaments which are on the outside and adorned it with gold and with gems and with gilt-silver. And Aldred, unworthy and most miserable priest, glossed it in English between the lines."

This statement, which is generally assumed to be accurate, helps to date the manuscript to around 698, when Eadfrith became bishop. On balance, it seems likely that he would have worked on it before his appointment, when his duties would have been lighter.

Note: For the world's most ancient illuminated gospel manuscript, please see: the Garima Gospels (390-660) from Ethiopia.



Latin Text With Old English Gloss

As the inscription mentions, a word-for-word Old English translation (the oldest complete example) was inserted into the Latin text in the 10th century by Aldred, Provost of Chester-le-Street.


The Lindisfarne Gospels mark a significant shift in the development of Celtic book illustration. The influence of La Tene Celtic art is still very strong and, in the calligraphy and the ornamental pages, it reaches new peaks of sophistication. These elements, however, are now combined with images from a very different range of sources.

The change is most obvious in the portraits of the Evangelists. These stately figures are far removed from the stylized figures in the earlier Gospel Books, betraying a number of classical and Eastern influences. One specific source has long been identified. The figure of St Matthew bears a close resemblance to that of Ezra in the Codex Amiatinus, which was being copied out at Jarrow during the same period. Almost certainly, the two figures were taken from a common source. This is likely to have been one of the books, which were purchased from the library of Cassiodorus, a Roman author and scholar, and transported to Jarrow. The Lindisfarne artist, however, did not simply copy the picture. He borrowed the figure and combined it with a number of Byzantine art motifs. This much is evident from the saints' names, which are written in Latinized Greek, and from the Greek style of their clothing.


The foreign inspiration of the Evangelists' portraits is further emphasized by the unusually complex imagery. In the portrait of St Matthew, for example, the identity of the figure on the right has been the source of much speculation. The halo confirms that he is holy and many commentators interpret him as the figure of Christ. According to this theory, the words that the Evangelist is writing help to draw aside a curtain in men's minds, thereby revealing the teachings of God.

The most Celtic elements in the Lindisfarne Gospels appear on the Initial Pages and the Carpet Pages. There are five of the latter, one at the start of the volume and one before each of the Gospels, and they constitute the finest achievement of the manuscript. (But compare Christ's Monogram Page in the Book of Kells.) Most are centred around the image of the cross, but they include a full repertoire of other motifs. On the opening Carpet Page, for instance, the cross and the adjacent panels are inlaid with a combination of fretwork and key patterns. Surrounding these, there are sections of interlacing, composed of much finer strands than in the Book of Durrow and arranged into a coloured grid. In the border, there is a running pattern, formed out of elongated birds which bite the claw or tail of their neighbour. The decoration is completed by interlaced projections at the corners, woven out of the ears of eight animal heads. Similar projections can be found on some of the jewellery of the period, most notably the Tara Brooch.

The Lindisfarne Gospels Today

The manuscript was originally encased in a luxurious 8th century leather binding studded with jewels and precious metalwork made by Billfrith the Anchorite. Unfortunately this was plundered during the Viking raids on Lindisfarne. However, a replacement copy of the binding was paid for in 1852 by the Bishop of Durham, Edward Maltby. A facsimile copy of the Lindisfarne Gospels is now on view at Durham Cathedral.

• For more about the history of Irish culture, see: Visual Arts in Ireland.
• For information about the cultural achievements of Monastic Ireland, see: Irish Art Guide.
• For more on the history of illuminated gospel manuscripts, see: Homepage.

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