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The Egyptian Connection

Sometime in the winter of 1540, Henry VIII’s commissioners for the dissolution of the monasteries seized from Durham Cathedral library a large gospel book that they seem to have valued principally for its magnificent jeweled binding. The binding was stripped off, and the carcass of the book found its way to London. There it ended up in the collection of the great early-seventeenth-century antiquarian and bibliophile Sir Robert Cotton, who noted that it was indeed “a fair Book.” From there it found its way—along with Cotton’s other great treasures such as Magna Carta and the earliest copies of Beowulf, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—to the new British Library.

The Lindisfarne Gospels are now recognized as one of the most important manuscripts in the development of medieval art, as well as a crucial document in the history of Western Christianity. For they are not only one of the great glories of monastic book illumination, they also contain the earliest surviving translation of the gospels into the English language.

This summer it was announced that there is a move to return the 1,300-year-old gospels to the North of England where they are rightly recognized as one of the supreme artistic achievements of the region. The British Library is currently engaged in negotiations to find a northeast English base for the manuscript—probably its old home of Durham Cathedral—which would allow it to be permanently displayed in the region where it was illustrated and out of whose mix of cultures it was born.

It is certainly true that the British Library currently makes remarkably little fuss over the book. Visitors to Dublin often have to queue for over an hour to see one of the other great masterpieces of Insular art, the early-ninth-century Book of Kells.1 This is reached at the end of a dazzling six-room exhibition in Trinity College which wonderfully places the book in the Irish monastic tradition of the early ninth century AD. The attention lavished on this remarkable manuscript is partly because the Book of Kells has assumed an iconic quality in modern Irish culture, and is seen to represent the high point of the early Christian Celtic civilization that many once saw—and some still do—as defining a certain vision, or construction, of Irishness.

By contrast the Lindisfarne Gospels—a slightly earlier Latin gospel book, illuminated on Holy Island, off the coast of Northumbria, around 700 AD and unquestionably one of the world’s greatest works of art in book form—currently sits marooned and almost unvisited in a dimly lit display case in the British Library next to King’s Cross railway station, ignored by all but the odd passing tourist with time to kill before catching a train. Only a three-line typed card explains the significance of the book. The British Library’s former curator of illuminated manuscripts, Michelle Brown, has however gone some way to bring the book the attention it deserves by writing a superb study of this great masterpiece, entitled The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality and the Scribe.

Both the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells were the products of a formative period in British and Irish history when three distinct forces were competing to shape the region’s art and culture. The first of these forces were the pagan traditions of the Angles and Saxons, Germanic tribesmen from northwest Europe who had arrived in southern Britain after the withdrawal of the Roman legions in the fifth century. They fought their way north, killing, expelling, and driving westward the Celtic British farmers who had lived on the land for millennia. These new arrivals from the continent renamed the landscape, towns, and many of the rivers in their own tongue so that only a handful of pre–Anglo Saxon British words—such as mattock, brock, bannock—remain in modern English.

Many Anglo-Saxon place names reflected the great composite pantheon of gods that they worshiped. Some of those gods still lurk in the fields and hedgerows of the English countryside: Thurstable and Thundridge in Kent are echoes of the thunder god Thor, while Wandsdyke and Wensfield in Staffordshire commemorate the cult of Woden. The names of the same gods are still preserved in the names of the days of the week: Wednesday is Woden’s day and Thursday is that of Thor. Even the Christian feast of Easter preserves the name of a pagan Saxon deity, Eostre, the goddess of spring and of the dawn.

As the early pagan Anglo-Saxons had no books and were often on the move, their art was largely ornamental and nonrepresentational, portable and small in scale. At its finest—such as in the magnificently intricate shoulder clasps and belt buckles found amid the grave goods of the pagan ship burial at Sutton Hoo, from the early seventh century—pagan Anglo-Saxon art was also fabulously intricate and lavish, with interwoven animal, interlace, and checkerboard patterns formed of glass, garnets, enamel, and—a particular feature of pagan Saxon work—solid gold. By the time of the illumination of the Lindisfarne Gospels around 700 AD, however, this pagan world was under intense pressure from two rival groups of Christian missionaries operating from different directions.

One of these missions came from the Celtic monks of Ireland, who were working their way south and westward from their base at the abbey of Iona off the west coast of Scotland. This had been built in 563 by an Irish prince, Saint Columba, who founded monasteries across what is now Ireland, Scotland, and northern England. Lindisfarne was established by his disciple Saint Aidan in 635 AD.

From the early fifth century when the Roman legions abandoned Britain, the imperial religion of Christianity had to a large extent disappeared too, clinging on only in a few isolated communities in Ireland and northern Scotland. But amid the great movements of peoples that swept through Europe as the “barbarians” took over much of the western half of the empire, burning the monasteries and looting the libraries, the Celtic fringe of Europe became by default an important center of Christian civilization. For almost a hundred years, Western Christianity survived partly by holding on in places like the sea-battered rock pinnacles of Skellig Michael on the stormy southwest coast of Ireland.

Here the Celtic monks learned to write Latin, and copied the manuscripts of the old classical authors. They relished their new traditions of literacy, and generated a renaissance of book illumination and scholarly commentary that embraced Virgil as well as the sermons of Saint Jerome and the Vitae Patrum (The Lives of the Desert Fathers). Amid this flowering of creativity, they devised new scripts which became the common form of writing throughout the Middle Ages, produced intricate sacred objects, and illuminated gospel books that are among the greatest glories of medieval art. The theological complexity of these books are such that scholars are only now beginning to grasp their true sophistication.

Meanwhile, a second mission, this time from Rome, had arrived at the Kentish royal seat of Canterbury in the southeast of England in 597 AD—around the time that the warrior king of Sutton Hoo was being laid to rest in his ship a little further up the East Anglian coast. At one point the Roman missionaries wanted to turn back—“they were appalled at the idea of going to a barbarous, fierce and pagan nation,” according to the Venerable Bede (circa 673–735), a monk of the monastery of Jarrow and the author of Ecclesiastical History of the English People, who is still sometimes dubbed “the father of English history.” But under the leadership of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, the mission eventually succeeded in converting the royal house of Kent.

The missionaries had been instructed by the Pope to adapt rather than prohibit pagan practices: “We have been giving careful thought to the English,” wrote Pope Gregory the Great,

and have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols among that people should not be destroyed. The temples are to be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them, and relics deposited there…. In this way, we hope that the people may abandon their error and, flocking more readily to their accustomed resorts, may come to know and adore the true God.

Like the Irish, these missionaries also brought with them their own quite distinct artistic traditions. Saint Augustine arrived in Kent with “many books” and “approached the king carrying…the likeness of our Lord and Saviour painted on a board.” One of these books, the Gospels of Saint Augustine, is now in the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and contains realistic Evangelist portraits in the illusionistic classical Mediterranean tradition which had not been seen in Britain since the departure of the Romans. It could not be more different from the restless and intricate decorative art styles then being produced both by the Anglo- Saxons and the monks of Ireland.

The place where these three distinct streams of art and culture—pagan Anglo-Saxon, Celtic Irish, and Roman-Mediterranean—all collided was in the Kingdom of Northumbria. It was here that the fusion, synthesis, and interplay of these very different cultural traditions produced an extraordinary renaissance, sometimes called the Golden Age of Northumbria. In scholarship, this was a period of intense intellectual activity which reached a peak in the writing of the Venerable Bede. In art, the twin peaks of achievement were the Lindisfarne Gospels and, in sculpture, the great Ruthwell Cross.

This monument dates from the early eighth century and stands some five meters tall. It is a fantastically sophisticated and elegant creation on which a variety of poetic and biblical texts are carved in panels between groups of deeply cut high-relief carvings, which together form the most extensive iconographic program of any sculptural monument of the period anywhere in Europe. It has recently been the subject of a detailed and erudite study: Éamonn Ó Carragáin’s Ritual and the Rood: Liturgical Images and the Old English Poems of the Dream of the Rood Tradition.

The cross stands today in a small eighteenth-century chapel in a remote one-street village in rural southwest Scotland. As a teenager growing up in Scotland I remember being taken to see the cross on a family holiday and being amazed by its distinctly classical beauty. What was this masterpiece doing in the middle of sleepy rural Galloway?

The answer seems to be that Ruthwell was once home to a monastery that art historians have linked with the most intensely Romanophilic monastery in Northumbria—Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, home of the Venerable Bede. The monastery’s abbot was Benedict Biscop, who had traveled several times to Rome, returning with wagons full of Byzantine icons and Gaulish stained glass, as well as Mediterranean craftsmen, painters, and glaziers, and a learned cleric, John the Archcantor, who was brought to teach the English monks how to sing “according to the Roman usage.” In the same way, the art produced in Jarrow and the foundation of further monasteries it sponsored showed a strong allegiance to Roman tradition.

  1. 1

    Insular” (i.e., of the islands of Great Britain and Ireland) is the term now given to the art of the early medieval period when the entire region shared a surprisingly unified artistic and cultural landscape and it is impossible to say from which part many artworks derive.

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