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,…
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