Tuesday 19 November 2013

An Introduction to Lindisfarn Illumination by THL Asa Gormsdottir

July 2008

The following remarks are mainly condensed from and reflect the biases of Michelle P. Brown’s The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality & The Scribe, University of Toronto Press, 2003. Dr. Michelle Brown is Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at The British Library. The practical section represents my own knotwork experiments while studying the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The Lindisfarne Gospels is a very well preserved work containing the Gospels of Apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John from the New Testament. Design, materials, techniques and skill displayed are of the highest quality. The Latin text of the Gospels was glossed by Aldred in Anglo Saxon in the 10th century. The original treasure binding was lost at some point and replaced with a new binding in the Victorian era.

The Lindisfarne Gospels were made in the first part of the 8th century, probably in the interval 710-725, taking 5-10 years at least to complete. In other words, this gospel book is 1300 years old.

The island of Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island, is located in Northumbria and is very convenient to Northern England, Scotland and the Continent. According to the Venerable Bede, Christianity came to this region in the early 7th century, approximately 100 years earlier, and St. Aidan established a monastic settlement at the Island c. 635. There would have also been remnants of Christianity from the previous Roman occupation, which departed Britain in the 5th century.

Based on the evidence – consistency of and uniformity in construction, artwork and calligraphy (palaeographic evidence) – the Gospels were created by one artist-scribe, quite possibly Bishop Eadfrith of the St. Cuthbert community on Lindisfarne Island. Eadfrith was Bishop from 698-721.

Construction of this treasure-book was driven in part to establish the Cult of St. Cuthbert (d. 687) against the rival Cult of St. Columba, for strategic reasons of politics, patronage and tourism. Creating such a book – a very lonely, long-term project – was also a labour of God, an “act of ecclesiastical piety”.

The artwork represents a “synthesis of art influences across Europe”, including Celtic metal working and stonework – a mix and match of Celtic, Germanic and Pictish stylistic elements of the 6th-8th centuries (p. 46).

Based on provenances and lists of books available in the area at the time and stylistic comparisons, the creator of the Lindisfarne Gospels was influenced by the internationally sourced library at Wearmouth/Jarrow (p. 63). For example, the Latin text of the Gospels “seems to have been copied primarily from one major southern Italian exemplar” (p. 299). Books and people travelled then as they do now. The artwork and layout of the Lindisfarne Gospels represents a sophisticated synthesis of the best Insular and Continental Europe could offer in the early 8th century.

Other roughly contemporary Insular manuscripts with parallel artistic features: (p. 274)
·          Book of Durrow
·          Book of Kells
·          Lichfield Gospels
·          Durham Gospels
·          Echternach Gospels

Metalwork and stonework parallels:
·          Tara brooch
·          Ardagh chalice
·          Sutton Hoo treasures
·          Carved early Irish high crosses
·          Pictish sculptures and metalwork


·          The Lindisfarne Gospels begin with a cross-carpet page, Jerome’s Novum Opus and Plures Fuisse,  Eusebius’ prefatory and a set of Canon Tables, before the Apostle sections begin.
·          Each Gospel includes a Cross-Carpet page, an Incipit Page, a Portrait Page and body text. The Cross-Carpet and Portrait pages do not necessarily open the Gospel. John’s Gospel is last, as he is the one who received the Gospel direct from God.
·          Cross-carpet page: Each Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John) opens with a cross-carpet page, absolutely solid with ornament based around a large cross that fills the page.
·          Incipit page: Opening page of the individual Gospel, with a large decorated principal initial, partial page border, and descending initials including the Apostle’s names and the opening words of the text. The hierarchy of initials displays Roman, Greek and Germanic features (p. 274).
·          Portrait page for each Apostle
·          Subsequent pages show decorated initials opening specific passages and the remainder of the body text is rendered in half-uncial. Body text is double-spaced. This facilitated Aldred’s Anglo Saxon gloss 200 years later.

Initials and Borders:

The hierarchy of initials functions as an “aid to navigation”. Sacred services involve various readings at various points in the annual religious cycle. The initial types are functional, not just for beauty’s sake.

Major initials and borders were filled with knotwork, gripping beasts, and coloured pinwheel shapes known as Pelta: a “crescent with a cusped interior curve, derived from the profile of an ancient Greek shield”. Example of motif from Celtic La Tene art, which originated in the Iron Age and “still enjoyed currency in Celtic Christian Art” (p. 273).

These shapes were also painstakingly outlined with up to 8 layers of outlining as follows from the inside out (AG observations; not from Brown):

·          Fine black line
·          Thin gap
·          Medium line in gold or other colour
·          Medium black line
·          Thin gap
·          Fine black line
·          Two rows of red dots. Red dots were also used to fill large gaps between major initials by tracing simple grids, mini-knotwork or simplified gripping beasts

Drawing the pages:

Backdrawing was used throughout. Designs were drawn on the reverse of the page then traced on the right side using a light source (p. 290). The marks were then frequently obscured as both pages might have similar designs.

Compasses, rulers and dividers were used to lay out the carpet pages through prickings and rulings.  The Lindisfarne Gospels represent perhaps the earliest example of a leadpoint (i.e. pencil).


The colour palette of most insular ms tended to be red, green and yellow (p. 275). The Lindisfarne Gospels use red, blue, violet, green, yellow, gold, black, white. This larger palette suggests Mediterranean influence via the Wearmouth-Jarrow library.

Colour sources (p. 281)
·          Yellow – orpiment
·          Green – verdigris
·          Blue – a plant extract, likely woad
·          Red/orange – red lead
·          Purple – a plant extract, possibly folium
·          White – chalk
·          Black – carbon or text ink – iron salts suspended in gall with added carbon

·          The Lindisfarne Gospels exhibit limited amount of gilding e.g. on portions of incipit pages and some chrysography (writing using powdered or shell-gold ink) on sacred name rubrics (p. 278).


Brown, Michelle P. The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality & The Scribe, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Duane, O. B. Celtic Art, Great Britain: Brockhampton Press, 1996. Discussion and images of various Insular manuscripts, Irish high crosses and later pieces including the Lismore Crozier, St. Patrick’s Bell Shrine and the Cross of Cong.

Lawther, Gail. Celtic Cross Stitch: 30 Alphabet, Animal and Knotwork Projects, Readers Digest, Great Britain: David & Charles Publishers, 1996. Excellent close-ups of portions of the Gospels, plus a useful alphabet for initials found on incipit pages.

Zaczek, Iain. Celtic Art and Design, Treasury of Decorative Art, London: Studio Editions, 1995. Pages from insular manuscripts including the Chi-Rho page from the Book of Kells. Other images include the Tara brooch, Ardagh chalice and stonework crosses.

PRACTICAL: Adapting Lindisfarne construction and motifs for SCA award scrolls

The decorated initials, borders and knotwork designs in the Lindisfarne Gospels are all useful motifs that can be easily adapted for SCA award scrolls. As well, the carpet and incipit pages themselves can be adapted for grant-level award scrolls.

·          Used as motifs to help fill figures, as termini (danglies) on letters and to help fill border bars
·          When trying to analyze knotwork, one can be stymied by the thickness of the line. Need to visualize the knotwork as a thin line and then widen it.
·          Simple knotwork can be created by taking a sine wave and putting a kink in it, then duplicating the image.
·          The actual knotwork effect is created by alternately going over and under the lines.

·          Line (border) knotwork:
·          Trillium knotwork
·          Double circle knotwork
·          Simple gripping beast (for borders)
·          Simple initial
·          Sample award scrolls

All artwork shown is by THL Asa Gormsdottir

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