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Writing Art: Lindisfarne Gospels, fol. 29 (Cotton MS, Nero D.IV)

» Attr. to Bishop Eadfrith of Lindisfarne (698–721), Northumbria (England)

Lindisfarne Gospels, fol. 29 (Cotton MS, Nero D.IV)

Lindisfarne Gospels, fol. 29 (Cotton MS, Nero D.IV)
Artist / Origin Attr. to Bishop Eadfrith of Lindisfarne (698–721), Northumbria (England)
Region: Europe
Date ca. 680–720
Period: 500 CE – 1000 CE
Material Ink, pigments and gold on vellum
Medium: Calligraphy, Illumination, and Illustrated Books
Dimensions H: 13 ½ in. (34.2 cm.), W: 9 ¾ in. (24.8 cm.)
Location The British Library, London, UK
Credit Courtesy of HIP/Art Resource, NY

In the Middle Ages, scriptoria, or scribal workshops, in religious institutions were the chief producers of illuminated manuscripts.

The creation of prayer books, gospels, and other texts served not only as a form of devotion, but also as a kind of meditation for the pious monks and nuns who created them. This exquisite page belongs to the Lindisfarne Gospels, believed to have been produced at the Lindisfarne Priory located on a small island just off the coast of Northumbria in northeast England. Probably the work of a bishop named Eadfrith, the manuscript consists of the first four books of the New Testament written in Latin (an Old English translation was added between the lines in the tenth century). Each of the gospels is preceded by an illustration of its author, as well as a decorative “carpet page,” and begins with the incipit, or opening words, of the text lavishly embellished.

The page seen here includes a passage from the story of Christ’s birth as told by St. Matthew. Although it is not the gospel’s incipitpage, its intricate, highly articulated decoration signals the importance of the text it contains. Two letters stand out for being both larger and more ornate than any of the other elements. These form the so-called Chi Rho monogram, or the monogram of Christ (chi (X) and rho (P) being the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek). The precious materials and complicated interlace design of the letters serve as an exultation of Christ, while an additional layer of meaning is suggested by the form of the rho;alluding to the shape of a shepherd’s crook, it reminds viewers of Christ’s role as both the shepherd and the lamb of God.

The kind of artistic hierarchy seen in the Lindisfarne Gospels, in which significant passages, words, and sacred names are given decorative emphasis, is characteristic of many medieval religious manuscripts. However, the Lindisfarne Gospels exemplify a unique stylistic blending associated with a particular period in English history. Often referred to as “Insular,” this hybrid style draws on native Anglo-Saxon and Celtic designs as well as Roman, Coptic, and Eastern traditions.

Additional Resources

Backhouse, Janet. The Lindisfarne Gospels. London: Phaidon, 1994.

Brown, Michelle P. The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality, and the Scribe. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Clemens, Raymond, and Timothy Graham. Introduction to Manuscript Studies.Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008.

De Hamel, Christopher. The British Library Guide to Manuscript Illumination: History and Techniques. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

“Sacred Texts: Lindisfarne Gospels.” In Online Gallery. The British Library Web site.

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