The Lindisfarne Gospels
Until I moved to Newcastle, I had never heard of St. Cuthbert. And it was only a few short years ago that I learned that Lindisfarne is not in Ireland. (It does sound like an Irish name, eh?)
Well, earlier this week I learned a fair amount about both. I visited the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibit at Durham University Library.
The Gospels, which normally live in the British Library, have been on display in Durham since early July and, as of this writing, will be there for one more week. The library has created a wonderful environment — historical, artistic, and æsthetic — for this illuminated manuscript that played a crucial role in religious history, not only of the North East of England but of Great Britain as a whole.
The Holy Island of Lindisfarne has an Irish name, it turns out, because it was founded by the Irish. A delegation of monks was sent there from the Isle of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, where St. Columba had brought Christianity from Ireland to Great Britain in 563 CE. The community at Lindisfarne, led by Cuthbert, followed the Irish/Celtic rule, while those farther south followed the Roman rule, and both their customs (e.g., the style of tonsure) and their calendars differed. In 664 CE, King Oswald of Northumbria called the Synod of Whitby to hash out the matter and decide which tradition to follow. They decided to go with the Roman way, and Cuthbert commissioned the Gospels to integrate the two traditions. The Gospels’ art, calligraphy, and phrasing show features of both Celtic and Roman style, and the exhibit said the book was an essential part of St. Cuthbert’s effort to bring the two factions together. About a hundred years later the Vikings attacked Lindisfarne and the monks took their possessions (including the book) to the mainland. They lived in Chester-le-Street for a while and ended up in Durham, where Durham Cathedral now is.
This exhibit meant a lot to me because I have been to all of the places it featured (except for Chester-le-Street); and I am also familiar with the Roman style of art of that period because I’ve spent so much time in Italy.