The Book of Lindisfarne

The Book of Lindisfarne, or British Library Cotton MS Nero D.IV, is an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels  from the New Testament of the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). The manuscript was produced in Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island (formerly called Lindisfarne Island), off the coast of Northumberland in about 715 C.E. Given the style of the art, and the history of the time, scholars generally favor the creation of the manuscript happening over the course of five years between 715 and 720.

The Book of Lindisfarne is the work of a single artist, Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne between 698 and 721. This attribution is based principally on the colophon at the end of the ms., added about a hundred years after Eadfrith died in 721. The general practice for manuscript creation, even in a monastery, was to have several people working on specific aspects of a manuscript; some the body text, some the principal illuminations, others as colorists or specializing in page ornaments. Eadfrith appears to have been the sole creator responsible for the text, and all the art. Unfortunately, Eadfrith died without completely finishing the manuscript. Despite its unfinished state, The Book of Lindisfarne is a masterpiece.

Eadfrith was not only unusual in being the single person responsible for a very important, complicated manuscript; he was an artistic and technical innovator as well. He used an early version of a lead pencil to rough out his designs on the reverse of his pages, a compass and straight-edge to create the geometric foundations of his designs, and in some cases, he used a light source behind the pages when he created the actual art.

The Book of Lindisfarne opens with one of five elaborate full-page decorative “carpet pages,” followed by the richly ornamented incipit of St. Jerome’s prefatory letter, then the body of his preface explaining his translation of the gospels. Sixteen pages of canon tables follow St. Jerome’ preface; these are elaborately decorated charts that allow similar passages in the four gospels to be compared; they are a standard feature of medieval gospels. Each of the four gospels is preceded by a short introduction (this is not part of the gospel) about the evangelist associated with the gospel, the holy days associated with particular readings, etc. Each of these introductions contains a carefully illuminated ornamental capital letter.

Each of the four gospels opens with a full-page illuminated (and symbolically  stylized) portrait of the particular gospel evangelist (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John),  then a full page elaborate decorative “carpet” page, then an exquisitely ornamented “incipit” or opening page featuring the opening line of the particular Gospel in Latin, followed by the Latin text of the remainder of the Gospel.

In the case of Matthew, there is a second illuminated incipit page for the Gospel of Mathew, this one an elaborate Chi-Rho-Iota initial illumination for the opening of the story of the birth of Christ from Matthew 1:18. The Chi, the Rho and the Iota are the letters used as the abbreviated form of Christ’s name in Greek, and open that passage from Matthew in Latin. You can very clearly see the x-like Chi, the p-like Rho, and the i or Iota in the illumination in the image below of f. 29r from Lindisfarne.

British Library Cotton Nero D iv The Book of Lindisfarne f. 29r showing the chi_rho from Matthew

The Priory at Lindisfarne was closely associated with Saint Cuthbert (634–87). Cuthbert was persuaded by King Ecgfrith to become Bishop of Lindisfarne in 685, when Cuthbert was already respected and popular as a monastic, sometime hermit, and associated with miraculous cures. Shortly after Cuthbert’s death, the priory began encouraging a cult in Cuthbert’s name, and that would have required devotional  objects as part of the saint’s heritage. It is likely that Eadfrith deliberately created the Book of Lindisfarne as a deliberate homage to Saint Cuthbert.

Provost Aldred

Many of the Latin text pages of the Gospels contain Old English glosses of the Latin text in red (the in sometimes appears more red-brown now, but it was bright red originally) under the main text. This is because c. 970 C.E.  when the priory had moved to Chester-le-Street and Durham, Aldred, the Provost, added Old English glosses translating the Latin. Aldred’s cheat notes therefore are the oldest surviving version of the gospels in any form of English.

Detail of the top of f. 203v of the Book of Lindisfarne showing interlinear Old English glosses

BL Cotton Nero D IV The Book of Lindisfarne f.203v det. of the Gospel of John showing Aldred’s Old English glosses

Aldred also added a colophon to the manuscript in the middle of the tenth century. The colophon says the work was “for God and St. Cuthbert.” Aldred’s colphon cites

  • Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne (698-721); the artist and scribe
  • Bishop Aethilwold of Lindisfarne (c.721-740); Eadfrith’s successor, as the binder
  • Billfrith the “anchorite”;  the artisan who adorned the original binding with precious metals. (That binding is not the current binding; the current binding was added in the 19th century.)


Resources for The Book of Lindisfarne

The British Library’s online Turning the Pages facsimile of The Book of Lindisfarne. They also offer an “images only” version of The Book of Lindisfarne.

Brown, Michelle P. The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality, and the Scribe. (British Library Studies in Medieval Culture). University of Toronto Press, 2003.  ISBN: 0802085970. This is a scholarly examination of the ms. in a socio-cultural historical context, by the British Library’s Curator of Western Manuscripts. There are 30-some plates, several of them showing details, but the real value of this book is in Brown’s commentary and discussion. The bound-in CD contains scholarly apparatus, including MS. symbols and abbreviations.

Brown, Michelle. The Painted Labyrinth. British Library Publishing. Revised edition, May 1, 2003. If you mostly want some example plates and a survey of the history and background of the Book of Lindisfarne, this is the book. It’s a small, 48 page “souvenir” booklet produced to accompany the 2003 British Library exhibit of The Book of Lindisfarne. It includes a good beginning reading list and some photographs of the exhibit itself, including some of the artifacts that were included.




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