Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Lindisfarne Gospels are Insular art, not Anglo-Saxon art

Folio 27r, Lindisfarne Gospels with incipit from the Gospel of Matthew. —Wiki

A Facebook site I dearly love,, posts scholarly papers on the the medieval world. Sometimes I find myself disagreeing with posts, and misleading headlines, and then, the next thing ya know, I'm posting a comment that turns into a lively rant (and several hours later, when I've come up for air, I've got what amounts to a bit of a blogeen—not that I usually bother to post them here).

What got my lather all whipped into a fine froth this morning was that, posted "A very beautiful Anglo-Saxon manuscript." I saw red....this is what ensued:

"Chi-Rho" monogram, the Gospel of Matthew—Wiki

Go hailin. Indeed the Lindisfarne Gospels are very beautiful Irish-Anglo-Saxon, or, more correctly, a joint Hiberno-Saxon manuscript, illuminated in the Irish style, The Lindisfarne Gospels, like the (later) Book of Kells, were once considered to be a relic of St. Columba. Calling it Anglo-Saxon art is to do it a disfavor; it's a much more cosmopolitan manuscript than that.

The Celtic monastery of Lindisfarne was founded in 635 AD, by Columban Irish monk Saint Aidan (d.651), from the Isle of Iona. Irish monks founded Celtic monasteries on most of the British, Scottish, and Irish islands, and Columban Irish scribes would've trained Saxon scribes in the the insular Irish style—right down to the red lead dots surrounding the letters (the Durham Gospels, and the Book of Durrow, being its predecessors). But first, the Irish monks had to convert the Saxons....

The beginning of the Gospel of Mark from the Book of Durrow.—Wiki

The Lindisfarne manuscript, an illustrated Latin copy of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, was probably made at Lindisfarne, but it could've been made elsewhere, even Iona, as it has an Iona connection. The text is also written in (Irish) insular script.

The problem with tagging this manuscript as Anglo-Saxon, is that it's virtually impossible to tell the difference between Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscript art, because they were all created in Celtic Irish monasteries between 500-900; later in Ireland, to 1400 AD), and they share far too many similarities. It was also an incestuously small world.

A "safer" nomenclature would be to label these illuminated manuscripts as "insular." Ditto for the continental manuscript, also created in Celtic monasteries founded by Irish monks. (See "List of Hiberno-Saxon illuminated manuscripts" at bottom of page.)

And most 'scholars' writing of these things never delve beyond the current political border of a country when describing where an artifact was discovered, or attributed to, when labeling art. If it was made in St. Gallen, ergo it must be Swiss; or in Bobbio, it's Italian (Irish monasteries!)

The St. Gall Gospel Chi-Rho page, written by Irish monks ca. 750AD—from Irish Medieval History 
Irish manuscripts often display the first three letters, Chi-Rho-Iota, from the Greek ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, as a monogram. In the Latin Vulgate, it reads: "[Christi (XPI) autem generatio sic erat…  Note the distinctive long left leg on the Chi/X—also found in the Book of Kells, Book of Durrow, St. Gallen Gospel, MacDurnan Gospels, Book of Lindisfarne and many more. The long "i"pronunciation in Christ, is a result of Irish missionary work in England during the 7th - 8th c.—from Irish Medieval History 

Some slovenly writer described this manuscript as an amalgam of Anglo-Saxon, Irish and German art—WTF? I couldn't figure out how/why Germany—then it dawned on me, they were referring to manuscripts found in Germany, made by Irish monks. And archaeologists tend to be even sloppier. Sometimes I wonder if they know any history at all.

Eagle-eyed John the Evangelist Wiki 

Some background on Lindisfarne, founded in 632, according to the Annals of the 4 Masters; modern articles say 635 AD. It was also the age of writing fancy Vitae to one's patron saints.

The three Lindisfarne bishops who followed the Irish founder, St. Aiden of Iona (590-651), were all Irish-born: St. Finan, St. Colmán, St. Tuda—43 years later, Eata, apparently he was not saintly fodder, but he was St. Aiden's student, and the first native Northumbrian bishop (678-685); then St. Cuthbert (though born in Scotland, he was also from the Cult of St. Columba school).

From what I can tell, St. Eadberht was the second ever Northumbrian bishop—he put up lead walls and a lead roof on the thatched oak church, I bet many monks were very grateful.

And then we get to oor man, St. Eadfrith (also a fine Northumbrian, b.?, who was bishop from 688-98) who was possibly the artist and scribe...the manuscripts are attributed to him, but they could've also been commissioned by him.

A little backstory: Things were not all hunky-dory between the Saxons and the Irish just because Christianity gained a tiny toehold, and the Lindisfarne monastery was established, ca. 635. Oswald of Northumbria, a king living in exile since 616, vowed to bring Christianity to pagan Northumbria. In 634, when he gained the crown of Northumbria, he invited St. Columba's monks to establish a monastery.

But things were still pretty woolly. In 683, the Saxons raided Magh Breg in ireland and took hostages. In 684, Eadfrith's contemporary, St. Adamnán (624-704), St. Columba's distant cousin and Abbot of Iona (679-704)... 
...went to Saxon Land, to request a restoration of the prisoners which the North Saxons had carried off from Magh Breagh the year before mentioned. He obtained a restoration of them, after having performed wonders and miracles before the hosts; and they afterwards gave him great honour and respect, together with a full restoration of everything he asked of them. —Annals of the 4 Masters
 (These were the apocalyptic plague years. After nearly all the children and animals died, I imagine any kind of miracles were welcome—including Columban monks walking across the Irish Sea to Scotland, it was that cold. But at least the cold snap must've killed off the plague fleas.)

Portrait of the artist benched as Matthew the Evangelist —Wiki

A century after Lindisfarne was abandoned because of repeated viking raids, a colophon was added to the Lindisfarne Gospels by a self-serving scribe and provost, Aldred the Glossator, who penned Anglo-Saxon glosses under the Latin text, between 950 and 970, and then he graffitied on the text that Eadfrith was the scribe and artist responsible for the work—some 150-70 years later... Lead-poisoning aside, there must've been some librarian apoplexy in the wings. Stories do change. There was also a viking raid or two in the way as well.
it is only from Aldred’s inscription that we presume Eadfrith created the manuscript and another monk, Billfrith, its original binding. Margaret Walker, The Lindisfarne Gospels: A Living ManuscriptUniversity of Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of Culture and the Arts
But the illuminated mss. was probably a commission produced in honor of St. Cuthbert (634-687). It was probably made ca. 700, most scholars suggest 715, but Eadfrith died in 721—presumably while still in office, of old age as did most bishops—with their boots on (it was a very good gig). If so, then he probably didn't scribe the manuscripts himself, as he also commissioned three books on the Life of Saint Cuthbert as well. Calligraphy and advanced old age don't mix well—too many hand tremors, not to mention a profound loss of eyesight.

Carpet page: possibly based on early Coptic manuscripts depicting Islamic prayer rugs. Can you see the embedded cross?—Wiki

The next bishop, (last) St. Æthelwold of Lindisfarne (721- 740), took the raw manuscripts that St. Eadfrith had prepared (note the word "raw"), had them bound and gilded, and commissioned a jewel-encrusted gold cover made by St. Billfrith (ca. 8th c.), which the Dane-vikings literally ripped iff, of course.

The Lindisfarne Gospels had to wait until 1852 to get another decent cover.  But that's another story. And this is the end of my story.

Gospel of St. Luke—Wiki 

The Old English name, Lindisfarena, was not recorded until 793, probably from the Irish (lin/d-pool/stream); the 9th c. Welsh Historia Brittonum, records Lindisfarne as Medcaut; the term Holy isle/Insula Sacra was commonly used until the 11th century, and is alternatively used to this day. Cumbria, northern Umbria, Lothian and the Kingdom of Strathclyde formed the diocese of Lindisfarne.

DISCLAIMER: My sources, alas, are from Wiki—yes, not very scholarly, you might sniff—but that's merely my jumping-off point. Call it an opinion piece, if you must. Besides, there are always myriad references listed at the bottom of the pages if you want to do your own fact-checking. And the images are in public domain! I try and fill in the missing links, but I often view 20-30 pages before i settle in with an idea, so sometimes it's hard to go back and reconstruct all the links.

This is my first blog draft (I figure I must go through 20 mini drafts before a piece even reaches this stage...and still it isn't done). I can only write through the process, purl-blind; I can't get distance to see what it needs until I get to this stage. I envy those writers who make neat little outlines and plug in the info. My mind is far too convoluted, tied up in Celtic knots, as it were. Sometimes I think I take thes things on in order to learn what I need/want about a particular subject, but the path is never straightforward.


PDF link: Margaret Walker, The Lindisfarne Gospels: A Living ManuscriptUniversity of Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of Culture and the Arts
Lindisfarne Gospels
St Cuthbert Gospel
Book of Kells
Aidan of Lindisfarne
St. Adamnán of Iona
Adamnán: Life of St. Columba
 St. Cuthbert

No comments: