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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.

On the side of the cross is the Eucharistic vinescroll, dangling with heavy grape bunches, symbolic both of the sacrifice of the Mass and the Tree of Life. Nearby, there is an image, clearly based on Romano-Byzantine icons, of the gospel story of the healing of the man born blind, representing the opening of the eyes of the heathen; beside it is another panel showing Mary Magdalen washing the feet of Christ, also a symbol of conversion and repentance.

Éamonn Ó Carragáin’s recent study of the cross shows that the community at Ruthwell were not just in touch with Roman stylistic models; they were also attuned to the latest developments in Roman theology. Ó Carragáin interprets the cross as the production of a well-connected monastery that planned its monument to educate the community on monastic life in accordance with the deliberations of several recent Church councils.

There is emphasis, for example, on the newly fashionable cult of the Virgin, demonstrated by images of the Annunciation and Visitation. There is also a concern with showing Christ’s will and courage, which is illustrated both through images of the crucifixion and a poetic text stressing Christ’s bravery, a reaction against a recently condemned heresy denying the full humanity of Christ’s will. Ó Carragáin believes that other images and inscriptions on the cross show an attempt to align its iconographic program with the new Good Friday liturgy, which had just been developed in Rome by Pope Sergius I, whose liturgical innovations also explain the presence of the image of the Lamb of God.

But the Ruthwell community’s attempts to connect to the latest liturgical innovations were not limited to developments in Rome. The cross also shows a strong interest in the monastic movement of Coptic Egypt. There is a panel showing the two greatest desert fathers, Saint Paul the Hermit with Saint Anthony of Egypt, the first monk, breaking bread in their cave.2 Likewise on the front of the cross is an image of Christ which Ernst Kitzinger has compared to a panel in St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai. Christ is shown receiving the submission of the beasts of the earth in the desert, as the accompanying inscription records: bestiae et dracones cognoverunt in deserto salvatorem mundi—the beasts and dragons knew in the desert the Savior of the World.

Yet the decoration of the cross is also deeply rooted in its local Anglo-Saxon setting. This is shown not so much in the style, which looks unambiguously to Mediterranean models, so much as in the poem which is carved between the different panels that line the shaft. High on the front face of the cross is an image of Christ. But he is not shown as the Suffering Servant so much as the Hero—tall, well-formed, and toga-clad, receiving submission. To make this explicit, the side of the cross has inscribed on it in runes the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem, “The Dream of the Rood,” a complete copy of which survives only in a single manuscript now in an Italian cathedral library. The poem, widely regarded as the finest short poem in Old English, was written from the point of view of the cross on which Christ would be crucified. To the poet, Christ’s torturous death was not something humiliating, but instead an act of epic heroism like the sufferings undergone by Beowulf to cleanse the world of evil:

I saw the Lord of Mankind

hasten with such courage to climb up on me…

Then the young warrior, God Almighty,

stripped Himself, firm and unflinching. He climbed

upon the cross, brave before many, to redeem mankind….

A rood was I raised up; I bore aloft the mighty King,

The Lord of Heaven….

Like the image of Christ receiving the submission of the beasts, the poem is a celebration of the victorious Christ. Christ the young warrior mounts the cross because he chooses to, and he remains in control. When he is taken down, his men are standing around their fallen chieftain, who lies there “worn out after battle.” Instead of the fear-filled disciples of the gospel, “The Dream of the Rood” reimagines them as brave followers, or comitates, who would follow their Lord to his death. The poem ends with Christ’s liegemen seated at a banquet: paradise reimagined as a sort of semi-Christian Valhalla, a heavenly Anglo-Saxon mead hall “where the people of God are seated at the feast in eternal bliss.”

Unlike the Ruthwell Cross, whose sculptor remains anonymous, we know the names of those who worked on the Lindisfarne Gospels. The superbly intricate painting and calligraphy were all the work of one lone genius, almost certainly Bishop Eadfrith (698–712) of Lindisfarne, while the book was brought to completion by two of his brethren: Brother Aethilwald, his successor as bishop, made the binding, while the hermit Billfrith the Anchorite was responsible for the now lost metal and jewelry work that once enshrined it. The book also contains a word-for-word translation of the Latin text into Old English, added by a priest named Aldred in the 950s.

As Michelle Brown, the author of the wonderful new study of the book, points outs, the Lindisfarne Gospels are a fusion of all of the different influences—Celtic, Germanic, and Roman—at play on this cultural frontier. After all, this was a period “during which one of the great shifts in world history was taking place and cultures were metamorphosing and melting into one another.”

Portraits of the different Evangelists are borrowed from Italian and Byzantine models, like those used as models by the sculptor of Ruthwell. But here they are painted in a flatter, more stylized, and less humanistic manner than either the Roman originals or the copies made by Jarrow scribes and sculptors. Inside, illuminated letters begin each successive gospel, demonstrating the influence of indigenous British and Irish styles of metalworking. Other interlace patterns derive from ornamental traditions of the pagan Anglo-Saxons, and are similar to those found in the jewelry of Sutton Hoo. Then there are the intricately painted “carpet pages” inspired by Coptic work, usually arranged around the shape of a cross and largely sticking to the “Coptic palette” of greens, reds, and yellows (see illustrations on pages 77 and 79). Yet there are imaginative local innovations too: one of the types of interlace used in the carpet pages is made up of the interwound necks and wings of the gannets the artist could have seen from his cell.

The books produced in Lindisfarne and Iona at this period are some of the great wonders of medieval art. Later generations were astounded by such work: “Look more keenly at it,” wrote Gerald of Wales in the twelfth century, when he saw one such book,

and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and subtle, so exact and compact, so full of knots and links, with colors so fresh and vivid that you might say that all this was the work of an angel, and not of a man.

At the time, however, such books were looked upon by a still largely illiterate society as wonders so extraordinary that they were regarded as magical objects. As William Diebold points out in his brilliant short book Word and Image: An Introduction to Early Medieval Art, one Irish psalter of the period was known as the Cathac, or “Battler,” because it was regularly carried into battle as a magical weapon guaranteed to bring victory. Likewise Bede mentions that he had seen

that folk suffering from snake bite have drunk water in which scrapings from the leaves of Irish books have been steeped, and that this remedy checked the spreading poison and reduced the swelling.

I have myself seen fragments of sacred manuscripts and written charms drunk as elixirs in modern Indian Sufi shrines.

Brown shows us glimpses of the hard daily life of the men who worked to create these great gospel books. Many of these insights are derived from the marginal scribbles the monastic scribes themselves left on their manuscripts. None is more charming, or revealing, than that left by a monk in one Irish monastery who while copying the words of Virgil wrote a poem comparing his life of study with the mousing prowess of his feline companion:

I and Pangur Ban my cat,

Tis a like task we are at:

Hunting mice is his delight,

Hunting words I sit all night….

Gainst the wall he sets his eye,

Full and fierce and sharp and sly;

Gainst the wall of knowledge I

All my little wisdom try….

So in peace our task we ply,

Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;

In our arts we find our bliss,

I have mine and he has his.

If there is one theme that is common to both the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Ruthwell Cross, it is the extraordinary geographical range of the Mediterranean influences that scholars have seen playing on the Northumbrian artists working at the furthest extremes of the known world. Éamonn Ó Carragáin sees the principal stylistic and intellectual influence on Ruthwell as emanating from Rome, while Michelle Brown sees the Lindisfarne artist looking toward the even more distant deserts of Egypt.

Certainly the early monks of Britain and Ireland consciously regarded Saint Antony of Egypt as their ideal and their prototype, an inspiration that was acknowledged by contemporaries: in a letter to Charlemagne, the Northumbrian scholar Alcuin of York described the Irish monks as ” pueri Egyptiaci.” The proudest boast of Celtic monasticism was that, in the words of the Antiphonary of Bangor:

This house full of delight

Is built on the rock

And indeed the true vine

Transplanted out of Egypt.

One of the earliest known Insular gospel books, the Cuthbert Gospels, is bound and sewn in a specifically Coptic manner, which Michelle Brown believes indicates “an actual learning/teaching process” linking Egypt and Northumbria. The same process is hinted at in the Book of Kells, which contains an image of the Virgin suckling the Christ child clearly taken from a Coptic original: the virgo lactans was a specifically Coptic piece of iconography borrowed from the pharaonic image of Isis suckling the infant Horus. The Irish wheel cross, the symbol of Celtic Christianity, has recently been shown to have been a Coptic invention, depicted on a Coptic burial pall of the fifth century, three centuries before the design first appears in Scotland and Ireland.3

A growing body of evidence suggests that contact between the Mediterranean and early Christian Britain was surprisingly frequent. Egyptian pottery—perhaps originally containing wine or olive oil—has been found during excavations at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, the supposed birthplace of King Arthur, while the Irish Litany of Saints remembers “the seven monks of Egypt [who lived] in Disert Uilaig” on the west coast of Ireland. Travel guides in circulation in early Christian Britain gave accounts of the Egyptian monasteries. Indeed so common did pilgrimages around the Mediterranean become that Saint Boniface wrote to the archbishop of Canterbury asking that he “forbid matrons and nuns from making” such journeys as “a great part of them perish and few keep their virtue. There are many towns in Lombardy and Gaul where there is not a courtesan or harlot but is of English stock.” There was also traffic in the opposite direction: one of the earliest leaders of the Anglo-Saxon church was the Byzantine Theodore of Tarsus, sent to be archbishop of Canterbury from his home in what is now southern Turkey.

Contrary to the impression given by earlier generations of scholars such as Henri Pirenne, the Islamic conquest of the Near East does not seem to have brought an end to this contact. The Anglo-Saxon Saint Willibald left an account of his visit in the 720s to the monastery of Mar Saba in Palestine where Saint John Damascene was then writing his refutation of heresies entitled The Fount of Knowledge. This contains a detailed critique of Islam, the first ever written by a Christian, in which Damascene regarded Islam essentially as Christian heresy related to Arianism and Monothelitism, which the Ruthwell sculptor was so concerned to avoid.

What makes this link so intriguing is that Michelle Brown demonstrates convincingly how the same Coptic and Eastern Christian manuscripts that influenced the Lindisfarne Gospels also influenced the work of early Islamic painters and calligraphers. The fascinating point that emerges from her book is that, to a considerable extent, both the art and sacred calligraphy of Anglo-Saxon England and that of early Ummayad Islam grew at the same time out of the same East Mediterranean culture compost and common Coptic models.

I for one had no idea until I read Brown’s book that Northumbrian, Celtic, and Byzantine monks all used to pray on decorated prayer carpets, known as oratorii, just as Muslim and certain Eastern Christian churches have always done, and still do. She also demonstrates how these prayer mats influenced the “carpet pages” of abstract geometric ornament which are such a feature both of Insular and early Islamic sacred texts.

All of this is a reminder of just how much early Islam drew from ascetic forms of Christianity that originated in the Byzantine Levant but whose influence spread both to the Celtic north and the Arabian south. The theology of the Desert Fathers was deeply austere, with much concentration on judgment and damnation, a concern that they passed on to the Irish monks:

The space of air is choked by a wild mass

of [Satan’s] treacherous attendants….

The day of the Lord, most righteous King of Kings, is at hand:

a day of anger and vindication, of darkness and of cloud…

a day also of distress, of sorrow and sadness,

in which the love and desire of women will cease

and the striving of men, and the desire of this world.4

There is much in the Koran—notably its graphic hell scenes and emphasis on Godly Judgment—that, though off-putting to many modern Western readers, would have been quite familiar both to a Desert Father and a monk on Iona. Today many commentators in the US and Europe view Islam as a religion very different from and indeed hostile to Christianity. Yet in their roots the two are closely connected, the former growing directly out of the latter and still, to this day, embodying many early Christian practices lost in Christianity’s modern Western incarnation.

Just as the Celtic monks used prayer carpets for their devotions, so the Muslim form of prayer with its prostrations derives from the older Eastern Christian tradition that is still practiced today in pewless churches across the Levant. The Sufi Muslim tradition carried on directly from the point at which the Desert Fathers left off, while Ramadan is in fact nothing more than an Islamicization of Lent, which in the Eastern Christian churches still involves a grueling all-day fast. Likewise, the recent outbreak of iconoclasm seen in Taliban Afghanistan had many counterparts in Christian history: the Ruthwell Cross was itself broken down and briefly buried as recently as the seventeenth century after the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland passed an Act ordering “the demolishing of Idolatrous Monuments.”

Certainly if a monk from seventh-century Lindisfarne or Egypt were to come back today it is probable that he would find much more that was familiar in the practices and beliefs of a modern Muslim Sufi than he would with, say, a contemporary American evangelical. Yet this simple truth has been lost by our tendency to think of Christianity as a Western religion, rather than the thoroughly Oriental faith it actually is. Because of this, we are apt to place Celtic monks, Coptic Desert Fathers, and Muslim Sufis in very different categories. But as the art of this period so clearly demonstrates, we are wrong to do so. These apparently different worlds were all surprisingly closely interlinked; indeed in intellectual terms perhaps more so in the eighth century than in today’s nominally globalized world.

Letters

The Lindisfarne Moment December 18, 2008

  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.

  2. 2

    There is a fascinating discussion of the cross in Ernst Kitzinger, “Interlace and Icons: Form and Function in Early Insular Art,” in The Age of Migrating Ideas: Early Medieval Art in Northern Britain and Ireland, edited by R. Michael Spearman and John Higgitt (Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland, 1993). See also Meyer Schapiro’s great essay “The Religious Meaning of the Ruthwell Cross,” in his Late Antique, Early Christian and Mediaeval Art (Braziller, 1979).

  3. 3

    For Coptic influence on the Celtic Church, see my own From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East (Henry Holt, 1998), and Robert K. Ritner Jr., “Egyptians in Ireland: A Question of Coptic Peregrinations,” Rice University Studies, Vol. 62, No. 2 (Spring 1976), pp. 65–87. For the Coptic origins of the “Celtic” wheel cross see Walter Horn, “On the Origin of the Celtic Cross,” in Walter Horn, Jenny White Marshall, and Grellan D. Rourke, The Forgotten Hermitage of Skellig Michael (University of California Press, 1990).

  4. 4

    Thomas Owen Clancy and Gilbert Márkus, Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995).

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