Gospels of Lindisfarne or The Book of Lindisfarne

The Lindisfarne Gospels, better known as 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 Gospels of Lindisfarne  over the course of five years between 715 and 720.

The Lindisfarne Gospels are almost entirely the work of a single artist, Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne (698–721). 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 Lindisfarne Gospels 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 a lead stylus to rough out his designs on the reverse of his pages, a compass and straight-edge to create the geometric core of his designs, and in some cases, he used a light source behind the pages when he created the actual art. He also was inventive in terms of the various natural pigments he created for the wide variety of colors in the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The Lindisfarne Gospel Contents

The basic text is the Gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John from the New Testament of the Bible. The Latin text is derived from Jerome’s Vulgate translation of the Bible, and includes some standard prefatory material from Jerome’s Bible.

Carpet Pages

The Book of Lindisfarne opens with one of five elaborate full-page decorative “carpet pages,” cruciform geometric designs reminiscent of eastern hand-made rugs. Carpet pages have been described as virtual prayer rugs, intended to help create a contemplative state. Carpet pages are a standard feature of Insular gospels; you’ll see carpet pages in The Book of Kells, too. The five carpet pages are f. 2v, f. 26v, f. 94v, f. 138v, f. 210v.

Jerome’s Prefatory Materials

The initial carpet page is followed by the richly ornamented incipit (the opening) of St. Jerome’s prefatory letter, then the body of his preface explaining his translation of the gospels. Sixteen pages of canon tables (ff. 10r–17v) follow St. Jerome’ preface; these are elaborately decorated charts that allow similar passages in the four gospels to be compared. Canon tables 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.

The Four Evangelists

Each of the four Gospels proper opens with a full-page illuminated (and symbolically  stylized) portrait of the particular gospel evangelist.

Matthew is depicted as a man (f. 25v) seated on a bench, an open codex book in his lap, a quill pen in his right hand. His symbol, the winged man, hovers above and behind his shoulder. There’s another bearded man peeping from behind the curtain, a closed codex book in his hand.

Mark with the winged lion (f. 93v) is shown sitting on a bench, a closed codex book in his left hand, and writing on a sheet of vellum that sits on a round table, with a quill in his right hand. Behind him, above his head his symbol of the winged lion is holding a closed codex book.

Luke with the winged ox (f. 137v), writing with a quill on a scroll-like sheet of vellum rather than a codex. The winged ox behind him is carrying a closed codex book.

John with his Eagle (f. 209v) is seated and also writes on a scroll-like sheet of vellum. He isn’t holding a pen, and his gaze is direct, as if looking at his reader.

Each of the gospels opens with the full-page illumination of the specific evangelist, followed by 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. This opening is followed by the pages containing 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 “second opening” is 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 the passage from Matthew in Latin “Christi autem generatio sic erat” “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was of this kind . . .” 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 the Lindisfarne Gospels.

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

The History Of The Book of Lindisfarne

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 in Old English to the manuscript in the middle of the tenth century. The colophon says the work was “for God and St. Cuthbert.” Aldred’s colphon (f. 259r) 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.)

The Text of The Book of Lindisfarne

The primary Latin text of the Lindisfarne is written in an exceedingly readable insular majuscule (sometimes called half-uncial); this is the most common hand for Insular gospels of the era, like the Book of Kells. The base text is Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation. The inter-linear glosses in Old English are in Anglo-Saxon Minuscule, the work of Aldred, and a more “modern” hand than insular majuscule.

The Artistic Style Of The Book of Lindisfarne

The ornamentation of Lindisfarne combines elements of Anglo-Saxon metalwork (the enamel ornamentation associated with Anglo-Saxon jewelry is a particularly stylistic influence) and Celtic insular styles most commonly associate with stonework. Other aspects, particularly in the portraits of the four evangelists, are influenced by Coptic and Roman manuscript styles.

The incipit or opening pages of the four gospels are each elaborately decorated and illuminated, with large richly ornamented initials for the beginning (the incipit) of the first words of the gospel. The Gospel of Mathew has two ornamented incipits; the first is f. 3r. The second is the “second opening” of Mathew sometimes referred to as the Chi-Rho page (see above). The Chi-Rho page is probably the most famous illumination in the Gospels of Lindisfarne. The incipit page for the Gospel of Luke is (f 139r), and the incipit for the Gospel of John is f. 211r.

an image of the incipit of the Gospel of Luke from the Lindisfarne Gospels showing the elaborate illumination of the first few words of the Latin text
Lindisfarne Gospels incipit of the Gospel of Luke British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f. 139r.

My personal favorite of the incipits is the one for Luke f. 139r. The opening words of the Gospel of Luke in Latin are Quoniam quidem multi conati sunt ordinare narrationem, “Forasmuch as many have taken it in hand to set forth in order” (Luke 1:1). The large q with its serif and long tail is visible on the far left of the page, with the rest of the text following, with non standard line breaks.

The center of the q is filled with triskeles and spirals; the circular outline of the top is filled with birds and dogs, interlaced and entwined. There are more dogs and birds as well as spirals and triskeles in the long stem of the q.




British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f. 139r. detail showing the U and O of Quoniam
British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f. 139r. detail showing the U and O of Quoniam

Just to the right of the q are the u and o of Quoniam. The u is formed by two intertwined dogs (look for their heads and ears at the top). The O is decorated with interlace and the kind of abstract geometric tiling used on the carpet pages.

On the far right is a vertical right-angle border, filled with more intertwined birds. But if you look closely, the border is actually a cat, with the head of the cat at the top, and the feet at the bottom, having presumably ingested the birds.






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.

Backhouse, Janet. The Lindisfarne Gospels. Phaidon Press, 1994. ISBN: 0714824615. Quality photographs of a selection of pages, with a decent introduction to the history of the manuscript.
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Cover of LIndisfarne Gsopels: Society, Spritiutality, and the Scribe by Michelle P. BrownBrown, 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.


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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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Gameson, Richard. From Holy Island to Durham: The Contexts and Meanings of The Lindisfarne Gospels. Third Millenium Pub Ltd, 2014. ISBN: 978-1908990273. I have as yet not seen this book. Richard Gameson is Professor of the History of the Book, Durham University. He has published nearly 100 studies on medieval manuscripts, art, and book collections, and was the academic curator of the exhibition “Lindisfarne Gospels Durham: one amazing book, one incredible journey.”


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Aidan Meehan. The Lindisfarne Painting Book. Thames & Hudson (April 2000). ISBN:  978-0500281840. After careful study, artist and calligrapher Aidan Meehan has beautifully redrawn more than fifty designs from The Lindisfarne Gospels. Each one has been taken from its amazingly intricate background, often extricated from other entangled ornaments, and enlarged. The original manuscript page from which each design is derived is provided so you can refer to reproductions of the gospel book and see the decorative style and colors used by the scribes in the eighth century. The images are drawn, but not colored.

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