Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Lindisfarne's Gospels meet their Bishop

I went yesterday afternoon with my friend Bishop John Arnold, who (as auxiliary bishop is Westminster) has the titular See of Lindisfarne, to the British Library to inspect the Lindisfarne Gospels. Our host was Dr Michelle Brown, curator of medieval manuscripts, pictured with him above, and two suspicious-looking Dominicans from the Luttrell Psalter. Like me, Dr Brown is an honorary Canon of St Paul's Cathedral. Accordingly, I was keen to bring Bishop John - who greatly enjoys his splendid titular See - to meet her.

It is truly enthralling to be in the presence of a major work of British history and culture, and to be introduced to it by such an expert. For well over an hour, Dr Brown explained the context of the Lindisfarne Gospels, and described in detail how they were made. We were able to see the orginal book, but owning to its age and fragility closer examination is permitted only upon a magnificent facsimile (retailing at £10,000!). Dr Brown is the leading authority on the Lindisfarne Gospels, and she has argued that their decoration demonstrates that the artist (a single person) was influenced not just by Celtic art, but by Arabic, Byzantine and Viking culture. Indeed, she believes that the so-called 'carpet pages' (the one introducing Mark's gospel is shown above) derived from the patterns of actual Islamic carpets, used for prayer at Lindisfarne!

The book of the four Gospels was created in the remote monastery of Lindisfarne (pictured left) in the north of England, in the late 7th century by Eadfrith. He was a monk of Lindisfarne who later became Bishop of Lindisfarne. As Bishops tend to be otherwise busily occupied (a statement strongly endorced by Bishop John) it is assumed that Eadfrith completed this extraordinary work before he become Bishop. Dr Brown, however, thinks he created the gospels later, when he was already Bishop. The richly illustrated manuscript contains a good version of the Latin Vulgate, with a 10th century interlinear translation into English (which is the earliest English translation of the bible). Each gospel is introduced by a depiction of the gospel writer - clearly influenced by Byzantine icons - and then by a 'carpet page' - a lavish cross design that in intricacy of design resembles an arab carpet - and finally a richly decorated title page.
ere we
Removed from Lindisfarne at the dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII, they were housed at Durham Cathedral, and later purchased by Sir Robert Cotton, founder of the British Museum. Not only are these Gospels an outstanding example of early British culture; they breathe the fidelity and exuberance of monastic life on the remote holy island of Lindisfarne.

Here we go!go!
Auxiliary (or 'assistant') Bishops in the Catholic Church receive the titles of defunct dioceses; often these can be remote and unconnected with the actual diocese - or country - of the Bishop in question (other auxiliary Bishops of Westminster have been awarded dioceses in the north African desert!). Bishop John was very fortunate to receive this great historic British title when he was ordained Bishop almost a year ago, with its proud monastic overtones - something with which he has a great affinity!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting these pics, I saw the exhibtion at the British Library a couple of years ago and found it fascinating

Anonymous said...

Another auxiliary of Westminster, Bishop Alan Hopes, has a related titular see Chester-le-Street (St Cuthbert's); which was the resting place of St Cuthbert's sarcophagus after it was removed from Lindisfarne when that became too vulnerable to Viking assault and before he found his final resting-place in Durham.