#AceHistoryNews says the story of the “Lindisfarne Gospels” are part of our very fabric of Britain, this is how they came into being.    

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The Lindisfarne Gospels, British Library

An Eight Century monk’s artistic legacy is one of Britain’s greatest literary and religious treasures.

The Lindisfarne Gospels were produced more than 1300 years ago at the monastery of Lindisfarne on the Northumbrian coast. The single volume manuscript consists of 500 pages of beautiful calligraphy and decorative symbols. An Anglo-Saxon translation of the Latin text was added two centuries later and is the earliest known English version of the gospels. The book survived the centuries in spectacular condition and is now held by the British Library.

Dr Michelle Brown, curator of illuminated manuscripts for the British Library, has researched the origins and craftsmanship of the work. Her findings are shared at an exhibition called Painted Labyrinth – the World of the Lindisfarne Gospels. The original manuscript is the centrepiece of the free event alongside an exact duplicate which visitors will be able to handle.

Dr Brown said: “The gospels hold a timeless universal appeal. It was made in an era of immense multiculturalism in England and the imagery is a mix of Roman British, Irish, Germanic, Mediterranean and even Middle Eastern influences. This was a deliberate attempt to include all aspects of society and faith resulting in a breathtaking piece of art.”

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The central text is the Christian gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with prefaces by Saint Jerome. Dr Brown said: “The Lindisfarne Gospels were made in memory of Saint Cuthbert who lived near the abbey and was Bishop of Lindisfarne for a time. He was canonised soon after his death in 687. The work was probably carried out from 715 to 720. The book was clearly made by one skilled artist unlike many medieval manuscripts which were made by a team of scholars.”

Bishop Eadfrith, leader of the monastery from 698 to 721, is credited as the creator of the work. Dr Brown said: “The monastery was responsible for the spiritual welfare of people living across the north of England and southern Scotland up to Edinburgh. Eadfrith administered this social service. He also attended church eight times every day as part of his duties. It is amazing he was able to dedicate time to the production of the Gospels.”

Eadfrith was inventive and came up with modern solutions to problems he encountered. Dr Brown said: “We now understand the process used to generate the lavish pages. Each piece of vellum covered two pages, for example a spread of pages two and seven, which when folded and bound together created the book. The elaborate designs took up more space than the text in the Naples gospels he was copying from so it was a complex task to visualise the end design at the early stages. Eadfrith created test sheets using his own costly vellum to solve the problem. First he drew out his designs on one piece of vellum. Then he placed another piece over the top and carefully copied the markings. He rubbed the vellum in order to transfer the ‘pencil’ drawings onto the back of the sheet, as a reversed design.”

Images from the British Library

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Dr Brown continued: “He then turned the sheet over and painted on the other side from the drawings, using candles to backlight, like a modern light box. This ensured his detailed drawings were not obscured by the first layers of pigment and could be followed and consulted throughout the painting process. He worked on the front of the second piece using a candle as a backlight. The finished work has no preparation markings on the painted side because the layout is all on the back.”

Research also shows Eadfrith adapted and expanded on existing artistic practice. Dr Brown said: “Pigment analysis reveals the gospels have 108 distinct shades. This is in an era when just three colours were generally used for work of this type. Eadfrith used a palette of six base colours made from locally available substances from which he expanded his range. We also believe Eadfrith may have been the inventor of the pencil. The traditional method of marking a design was to score the page using bone, it was difficult to read and paint was often trapped in the indentations. Eadfrith used a metal point with a lead graphite element so the grooves were not as deep. This is about 400 years before any other recorded use of a pencil.”

The exhibition features the different production styles used on the manuscript. It also looks at how the book has been passed down through the ages. Dr Brown said: “The Lindisfarne monks fled in 875 to escape Viking invaders and took the book with them to Chester-Le-Street, near Durham. A priest called Aldred added the Anglo-Saxon translation in about 950. He also made notes about what was known of Eadfrith. The monks and the book moved to Durham in 995 where they stayed until at least the time of Dissolution of the Monasteries. It came into the hands of Sir Robert Cotton in the Seventeenth Century and was part of the collection his heirs bequeathed to the nation.”

Painted Labyrinth – the World of the Lindisfarne Gospels is at the Pearson Gallery, British Library, London

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http://www.bl.uk/collections/treasures/lindis.html
The British Library, 96 Euston Road
London, NW1 2DB

 

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