Eadfrith’s gospel book

In the closing years of the seventh century, behind the walls of the priory of Lindisfarne, a monk named Eadfrith created a masterpiece. He wrote and ‘painted’ a gospel book (a book of the four gospels of the new testament, Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John). Such books had been produced before, and would be produced again. But nothing like Eadfrith’s gospel book has ever been seen.

Lindisfarne is a tidal island on the eastern shore of England, just south of the Scottish border. Saint Aiden, an Irish monk, founded a priory there sometime in the first third of the seventh century. No doubt he was taken by the remote aspect of the island, which is approachable only during low tide. The Venerable Bede describes the island’s church as built “of hewn oak, thatched with reeds after the Irish manner. … But Eadbert, a later Bishop of Lindisfarne, removed the thatch, and covered both roof and walls with sheets of lead.”1.Bede, Ecclesiastical History, ch.25, p.186. Eadbert was bishop while Eadfrith was a monk, and so it is doubtful if Eadfrith toiled under any roof grander than thatch. No doubt it was damp, cold, and dark.

Which really makes Eadfrith’s achievement all the more remarkable. The book is just over thirteen inches by a little under ten inches, and into that rectangle of parchment are packed mind-numbingly complex and abstract geometrical patterns. I have looked at the pages in life size (Janet Backhouse has written a book large enough to full-size reproductions), and there are lines that are a millimeter wide, separated by an equal distance. Every line is executed with complete confidence. There is no evidence of hesitation or error, not a smudge to be seen.

I encourage everyone to go the British Museum’s Lindisfarne website (it can take a little while to load). You can view every page, in bright color and high resolution, and zoom and rotate to your heart’s content. Eadfrith’s artistry and craftsmanship verge on the unbelievable. One of my favorites is the illustration of St Matthew, shown writing his own book, while an odd little man with curly hair peers out at him from behind a curtain.

Matthew and two friends

But what do the professionals say? The question of authorship, and specifically if there were more than one, has always interested scholars. Internal evidence points to a single creator, “the same pigments are used throughout, and there are no obvious breaks between the writing itself and the extensive documentation.”2.Nees, Early Medieval Art, p.158.

One topic is the relationship between traditional (sometimes termed ‘barbaric’) and Christian art. Eadfrith drew deeply from both traditions. “Fantastic animals intricately interlaced, abstract knot-patterns, spiral, fret and step ornaments, in short the whole stock of barbaric designs, has been poured out over these pages as a decoration of the sacred text.”3.Kitzinger, Early Medieval Art, p.38. The evolution of this syncretion is not clear. “Such a fascinating and wonderful way of decorating a book cannot have sprung from nothing, but the earlier stages of the development are murky.”4.Nees, p.158.

There is plenty of ornamental jewelry, such as from the early seventh century burial at Sutton Hoo, that look a lot like Eadfrith’s abstract geometric patterns. “Books like… Lindisfarne have been seen as a kind of hybrid between this rather simple Insular book tradition and the remarkable Insular prestige metalwork tradition.”5.Ibid, p.159.

The Great Buckle from Sutton Hoo

I like that idea, that Eadfrith saw the fantastical yet disciplined patterns in the metalwork, and decided to incorporate some of that into his designs. Perhaps he was a metalworker himself, for his designs show a surety and confidence that comes with years of practice. Or genius, I suppose. Just look at the second initial page of St Matthew (page 13 in the British Museum site) – a design like that certainly didn’t spring from any tradition, that is all Eadfrith.

But, unlike the almost purely abstract designs in the metalwork, Eadfrith also created full page illustrations of the saints. These are remarkable in their own way, as they again incorporate elements from both traditions. In contrast to early Christian art, which was primarily figurative, Eadfrith mingled figures with ornament. “With his frankly abstract and unnaturalistic approach to his subject the Northern painter succeeds almost at the first attempt in creating that true image of a saint, wholly superhuman, wholly imperturbable, at which artists of the South had aimed for so many centuries.”6.Kitzinger, p.39.

The saints are portrayed with an ethereal air, an effect which is heightened by the stools on which they sit, which are drawn flat, like the borders of a page. Their robes are multi-colored and highly stylized. The effect is like looking at a spirit, fully present, but disembodied.

But all of this commentary is only surface, questions of continuity and structure. What was Eadfrith trying to say? The only answer I have found deserves to be quoted in full.

There is a difference between the ornamental patterns and the geometrical shapes as such, which related to cosmology and the science of numerology. However, the basic ornamental patterns, such as the interlace and spirals, were not affected by these meanings and remain far more ambiguous. If one wishes to regard the as magic signs, one can point to the many heathen equivalents that were absorbed by the Christian world. It is true that there is hardly any direct mention in the texts of the power to avert evil inherent in certain artistic shapes, but the doctrine of demons was a fundamental concept in the many encyclopedic works on the nature of the world. The geometrical patterns or diagrams of the macrocosmic structure refer to them. Within their forms, the ornamental shapes could be understood as allusions to the microcosmic structure. Allegorical cosmic geometry, labyrinthine combinations, and heathen-demonological meaning were mixed in varying ways. In the minds of the learned painter-monks they were probably inseparable, judging from the texts.7.Hollander, Early Medieval Art, p.29.

I am, frankly, still unpacking everything in that paragraph. But it is just weird enough to be totally convincing, assuming I can figure it out.8.For starters, Wikipedia has an article on Numerology and the Church Fathers. I think Eadfrith would approve.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, ch.25, p.186.
2. Nees, Early Medieval Art, p.158.
3. Kitzinger, Early Medieval Art, p.38.
4. Nees, p.158.
5. Ibid, p.159.
6. Kitzinger, p.39.
7. Hollander, Early Medieval Art, p.29.
8. For starters, Wikipedia has an article on Numerology and the Church Fathers.

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