Word made flesh

In the beginning was the Word. But the Word, in the fifth and sixth letters of “Principio” (In principio verbum…), has been wittily made flesh. With a blond mane and quizzical face, a man’s head sprouts from the ascending curve of the “C”. It rests against the flat upright of the “I” on this opening page – the “Incipit” – of St John’s Gospel. Apart from the four highly characterized portraits of the Evangelists that precede their texts, the Lindisfarne Gospels few such purely naturalistic depictions. There is another exception: on the Incipit page of St Luke, a greedy cat with a page-long torso devours the stylized birds that twist and writhe across the book’s lavish leaves.

Serpent-like birds apart, abstract ornament explodes through the Gospels in a regimented riot of form and colour. Interlaced patterns of dots, grids, curves, spirals, knots and lattices transform each stupendously decorated page into a mystical fretwork; a rapture of geometry. It blazes through a dazzling palette of colors mixed from mostly local pigments, with the sporadic spritz of gold leaf. The “carpet pages” that preface each gospel do resemble intricately knotted textiles, while the jazzily syncopated rhythms of the ornamental letters inscribe the goldsmith’s art of post-Roman Europe – Celtic, Saxon, Byzantine, Scandinavian – onto densely inked surfaces.

The Lindisfarne Gospels were designed, lettered and painted on 259 vellum leaves (518 sides) in the monastery of Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, just off the coast of Northumbria around the year 700. They illustrate St Jerome’s Vulgate (Latin) translation from the New Testament’s koine Greek. The text copied and embellished on Lindisfarne probably came from southern Italy: the scriptorium had wide European connections. Those links fed an eclectic style that fuses Irish, Anglo-Saxon and Mediterranean techniques. A single scribe-illustrator seems to have crafted, or at least overseen, the entire work: Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne. Scholars take the head that peeks out of “Principio” to be Christ. But could Eadfrith have added a pictorial signature to his masterpiece?

The Gospels served to glorify the Northumbrian cleric-saint Cuthbert (who died in 687), and the recently converted Christian kingdom whose power and piety he came to symbolize. They survived Viking raids, Anglo-Saxon rivalries, Norman conquest and Reformation. Around 950 they acquired a faint, tiny interlinear translation into Northumbrian Old English by a priest called Aldred. By 1613 the book formed part of Sir Robert Cotton’s manuscript collection. In the eighteenth century, now publicly owned, “Cotton MS Nero D IV” entered the British Museum and (in 1973) the British Library.

Now the Gospels have returned to their region of origin as the centerpiece of an exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. They have revisited the northeast before: Newcastle in 2000; Durham in 2013. But how best to display an ancient and fragile codex when only one spread can ever be open to public view? Besides, the British Library website already offers, without crowds or opening hours, a high-definition digital experience of the Gospels either complete (www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=cotton_ms_nero_d_iv) or as a selection of spectacular highlights (www.bl.uk/collection-items/lindisfarne-gospels).

In 1935 Walter Benjamin famously claimed (in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”) that unique artworks forfeit their sacred “aura” as technology disseminates their image. Yet modern exhibition rituals have arguably enhanced the cultic value of multiply reproduced objects – more so when they reside far from home and (as with medieval manuscripts) can only be glimpsed one fragment at a time. At the Laing the chief curator, Julie Milne, and her team have embraced this sacral dimension of the Gospels’ “homecoming”. Yes, they may be available on every smartphone. Here, however, we share the restored magic – the aura – of the real thing.

So the visitor approaches the holy book as on a pilgrimage towards a shrine. An introductory room surrounds us with an audiovisual evocation of Lindisfarne itself: the surge of waves, the cry of gulls, the boats that tied (as the commentary explains) this storm-battered speck in the North Sea to a continent of faith and learning. As the “inner sanctum” nears we negotiate a low-lit selection of sacred objects from the time: Anglo-Saxon sculpted crosses, smaller eighth- and nine-century gospels, jewellery, an early copy of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written at the great Wearmouth-Jarrow monastery by Eadfrith’s contemporary Bede. The Gospels themselves lie open on the “carpet page” and Incipit of St John: ff.210v-211r. But their story has not finished yet.

A third room widens their context. It gathers a mixed selection of works that explore spirituality in art, from Renaissance saints and Romantic landscapes to modern abstract compositions with mystic or numinous intent. After the medieval hush and awe of the book itself, our attention fans out into Biblical scenes, cloudscapes, photographic prints, Symbolist runes, the austere geometries of monochrome abstraction. Constable, Dürer and Hilma af Klint jostle with Markéta Luskačová’s photo records of Slovakian pilgrimage or the haunting silkscreen self-portraits (of the artist as heal spiritualer) made by Khadija Saye – who died in Grenfell Tower.

Perhaps the curators have spread their net too wide. Still, this visual sprawl and hubbub has a goal. We have experienced the Gospels not as some pure emanation of local culture, but as a gathering point for crafts, visions and traditions that stretched from Iona to Byzantium. There was, we learn, nothing insular about Holy Island in 700. Now they take their place within a global congregation of broad-brush spirituality that spans Guido Reni’s ecstatic “St Catherine” (1605-8) and the disorienting black-on-black meditation of Idris Khan’s “The Pain of Others: No. 2” (2017).

Downstairs in the Laing the focus changes once more. The artist Ruth Ewan has led a project entitled These Are Our Treasures. It responds to the cultic aura of the Gospels with a collection of cherished family keepsakes and heirlooms lent by local people. If the sacred object becomes domesticated, the effect is not bathetic. We have been shown that the Gospels’ florid, festive calligraphy had its roots in toil, skill, trade and strife. Here, memory struggle and belief crystallize in a child’s doll, a union card, a wedding dress, a cross-stitched flower, a fossil collection, a set of Jane Austen novels. Inner meaning assumes tangible form. The Word is made flesh again.

Boyd Tokin was awarded the 2020 Benson Medal of the Royal Society of Literature

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