Lindisfarne Gospel of Matthew
As All Saints’ Day approaches, I want to express a special gratitude this year for Eadfrith, a little known saintly bishop who lived and worked in the 7th and 8th centuries C.E. on Lindisfarne, a small island off the coast of northeast England, where a monastery had been founded in 635 C.E.
Eadfrith became Bishop of Lindisfarne not long after the Synod of Whitby (664 C.E.) had resolved (in Rome’s favor) the disputes between the Roman and the Celtic interpretations of the Christian faith. He served as Bishop from 698 to 721 C.E. And while we don’t know much about his life, it is attested that he was very devout, deeply loved the faith, and was most eager to make holy scripture available to those whom he served. There were, of course, very few copies of scripture at the time, as each copy had to be written out by hand on vellum prepared from the skin of sheep or calves. A number of monks kept busy copying what they could of holy writ (all in Latin at that time) and, at some point, Eadfrith himself decided to make a copy of the four gospels. It took 2-6 years of his life to accomplish this task, but he stayed with it, and happily we still have his work.*
For Eadfrith was not only a scribe. He was also a brilliant artist, a deeply imaginative artist, an artist informed by Celtic, Germanic, and Irish artistic styles. His illuminations throughout what has come to be known as The Lindisfarne Gospels are a dazzling weave of crosses and angels, of knots and curves, of a variety of creatures from the natural world and from the world of fantasy— winged calves and lions, snakes twisting into birds. In his art, it seems that Eadfrith wanted to affirm the deep, mystical sense the people of his time had of a world filled with mysteries from beyond. Of a world in which the temporal and the eternal were ever so closely knotted and intertwined. Of a world populated with mythical creatures who lived only in the imagination but who were as real to Eadfrith’s people as were the rabbits they hunted for food.
Below is one of the pages marking the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. Note the fantastical Χ Ρ (Greek letters for Christ, though the text itself is Latin). Eadfrith’s Χ Ρ has taken on the mythic shape of a bird with snake-like beak and wings. Such imagination! Such intricacy in all the other art of this page, as well, as many smaller Celtic symbols, so familiar to the people of his time, have been woven into the letters.
In addition to his highly decorative letters, Eadrith also painted a number of full-page images. Preceding each of the four Lindisfarne gospels is a representation of the gospel writer, each one vividly bright, with great attention to detail. The picture of Matthew is especially intriguing to me. Matthew is seen busily engaged in his writing, with the common symbol of Matthew as a winged man floating in the air above him. But then, peeking at Matthew from behind the curtain is another man, an inquisitive man who draws the viewer into the picture to see just what Matthew is up to. Such whimsy!
In addition to the pictures of each of the evangelists, there is also a “carpet” page at the beginning of each gospel. Prayer mats were frequently used in England at the time, and Eadfrith’s carpet pages are depictions of these. Each carpet page features a version(s) of the cross, along with tiny Celtic symbols woven through and around the crosses. The carpet pages invite the reader to take some time apart before beginning her reading, take time to imagine herself rolling out her own prayer carpet, kneeling on it, and there entering humbly into the sacred space the words of the gospel will give to her. At the top of this reflection is the carpet page at the beginning of St. Matthew. Here is the carpet page at the beginning of the Gospel of St. John:
So much to admire in this magnificent late 7th or early 8th century work. Such astounding artistry. Such meticulous care to detail of both word and image. I so enjoy perusing its pages. But even as I admire the amazing artistry of The Lindisfarne Gospels, I also sense Eadfrith inviting me, a woman living in the 21st century, to re-think my own reading of the gospels. I find Eadfrith inviting me:
- to approach the gospels with the kind of careful, detailed attentiveness that he demonstrated in his meticulous inscriptions;
- to use my imagination as I read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and let my mind be colored with playful, creative pictures of what the evangelists are describing;
- to be ever mindful of the complexity and wonder of the life around me—all of the natural life that I see and all of mystical, supernatural life that I cannot see, woven together as they are in Eadfrith’s knots and gracefully twisting creatures and designs;
- and finally, to approach my readings with the prayerful humility evoked by Eadfrith’s carpet pages.
So as we come this year to All Saints’ Day, I want to say thanks be to God for The Lindisfarne Gospels. Thanks be to God for the Christ of these gospels. Thanks be to God for imagination and colors and joy. Thanks be to God for all the saints. And a special thanks to God for Eadfrith and for his gifting us with his luminous faith and work.
*There is some dispute as to whether Eadfrith worked on The Lindisfarne Gospels before or after his tenure as Bishop. There is also some debate as to whether he commissioned this work or did it himself, although the consensus is that it is the work of his own hand. There is also disagreement as to the length of time if took to complete the gospels.
You can view The Lindisfarne Gospels at this website: