December 2, 2015 by bbutler1969
The Lindisfarne Gospels has been heralded as the oldest surviving English version of the gospels and the finest surviving illuminated English manuscript of the Middle Ages. But did you know that this masterpiece of calligraphy and illumination was created on an English island as an expression of faith and devotion in honor of the memory of a sainted monk who was loved by otters and eider ducks?
An 11-feet-high sculpture of St. Aidan stands in the churchyard of the medieval parish church of St. Mary the Virgin, overlooking the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory. The statue was made by local sculptor Kathleen Parbury and was unveiled in the presence of Elizabeth II in 1958.
In 635, King Oswald of Northumbria invited a group of monks from the Scottish island of Iona to establish a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne. The monks’ Irish-born leader, Aidan, had accompanied Oswald on the king’s missionary journeys throughout Northumbria, preaching to encourage the spread of Christianity.
Lindisfarne was the perfect peaceful, contemplative environment for a monastery. Twice each day, for several hours at a time, the island is cut off from the English mainland by the tides of the North Sea.
In 685, Aidan was succeeded by a monk named Cuthbert, who traded a reclusive life on Inner Farne, an island south of Lindisfarne, not only to lead the monastic community, but also to minister to the Northumbrians. His intense faith and powerful prayers earned him a reputation as miracle-worker. Cuthbert is said to have tamed the island’s resident eider ducks by feeding barley to them; now, they are known locally as “Cuddy’s ducks” because of their association with Cuthbert. Otters swam around Cuthbert as he prayed while standing in the sea, so he is often portrayed with an otter hugging his leg to keep it warm.
After Cuthbert died in 687, a Lindisfarne monk named Eadfrith created a magnificent illuminated manuscript in his honor. He carefully wrote the text of the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in Latin, skillfully embellishing it with intricate plait and knot work and fret and key patterns. Interlaced birds with elongated bodies, legs and tails are said to have been inspired by the many birds that flock to Lindisfarne, particularly cormorants. Elaborate spiral patterns are thought to have inspired Anglo-Saxon ornamental pieces like the Tara Brooch and the Ardagh Chalice, now at the National Museum of Ireland. In some places, the manuscript remains partially unfinished, suggesting Eadfrith’s work was ended prematurely by his death in 721. Around 970, a priest named Aldred added an Anglo-Saxon translation in red ink beneath the original Latin. On the last leaf of the colophon, he wrote that Ethelwald, bishop of Lindisfarne, impressed it on the outside and covered it, while a hermit named Billfrith adorned its cover with gold, gems and silver-gilt ornaments.
The monastery that Aidan and his fellow monks founded in 635 was abandoned in the 9th century as a result of Viking harassment, but its ruins remain a destination for pilgrims who still make the trek to honor Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels.
The Lindisfarne Gospels are now in the collection of the British Museum. To discover more about them, read From Holy Island to Durham: The Contexts and Meanings of the Lindisfarne Gospels, by Richard Gameson, and The Lindisfarne Gospels, by Janet Backhouse. There is a special feature in the British Library’s Online Gallery on the world of the Lindisfarne Gospels. The library has also created a digital version of the book.