A week or so back, my son lost his Bible. We searched everywhere for it and in the end, had to send him to church with another one. Finding that particular Bible proved difficult, finding another one to send in its place – 2 minutes. Sitting in my office I have within reach at least three different Bibles in English, one in Spanish and one in Romanian.
But there was a time when not every individual had a Bible, yet alone more than one. In fact, there was a time when whole communities of believers were without any part of the scriptures in writing. This was the world of early eighth century England when the Lindisfarne Gospels were produced.
Written circa 700 A.D. this is more than just a text of the four gospels. It’s a work of art. It is also evidence of the dedication to and reverence for the Word of God at the time it was produced. Most copies of scripture during the middle ages were done by teams of scribes in a scriptorium at a monastery. But the Lindisfarne Gospels were written and illustrated by one man – Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne (698-721). Eadfrith produced the book in honor of St. Cuthbert who had died several years earlier. It’s estimated this work took ten years to complete. But beyond the cost in time was the cost in resources, especially the calf skin required for the vellum pages. Michelle Brown of the British Library tells us:
The creation needed a remarkable input of human resource, as well as the physical resource of 300 of the best, finest cattle skins imaginable. It must have meant many, many communities’ annual incomes, with lots of gift exchange as well. Pigments too were needed, not only local ores, leads and materials of that sort, but possibly lapis lazuli from the foothills of the Himalayas. That tells us so much about the environment in which it was made and it’s socio-economic and historical context. But the most remarkable thing for me is the fact that it is one person’s time.
Each of the four gospels begins with a page of beautiful artwork depicting the evangelist. There are also fifteen other pages with ornate illustrations throughout the book. These show the influence of native Celtic and Anglo-Saxon art as well as Roman, Coptic and Eastern traditions – revealing the cultural diversity of Northumbria at the time. During the Viking raids of the ninth century, the original jeweled cover was lost. Thankfully, the text was evacuated from Lindisfarne and preserved. A new jeweled cover replicating the original was added in 1852.
The gospels were written in Latin but around 970 A.D. an Anglo-Saxon translation was added in red ink beneath the Latin. This makes the Lindisfarne Gospels the oldest surviving version of the gospels in any form of the English language.
They were donated to the British Museum in 1753 by a private collector. In the summer of 2013, they will be on display at a special exhibition at Durham University’s Palace Green Library. This exhibition will also feature St. Cuthbert’s Gospel (of John) the oldest surviving intact European book.
You can read more about the July 1 – September 30, 2013 exhibition here.
You can also virtually thumb through the Lindisfarne Gospels here courtesy of the British Library.