THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

12 July 2017

The Lindisfarne Gospels in the Treasures Gallery

As regular readers of this Blog will know, the display of the Lindisfarne Gospels follows a conservation programme recommended by an international committee of experts. When it is out in the Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, we turn a page every three months, in order to show visitors a different view of it, and to limit the amount of light on any one opening. In the spring, we displayed one of the book’s wonderful canon tables, but from this month you can see the beginning of the summary for the Gospel of John. 

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Decorated word ‘Johannes’ (John) with the word ‘evangelista’ (evangelist) below, from Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 203v

The Lindisfarne Gospels is one of the most well-known of all English manuscripts, renowned both for the intricacy and beauty of its decoration, and for its importance as the earliest surviving example of the Gospels in English. The Gospels was written by one scribe, who was probably also responsible for the remarkable initials throughout the volume.  According to an inscription added at the end of the manuscript in the late 10th century, that scribe and artist was a monk called Eadfrith, who served as bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721. 

The man who added the inscription, Aldred, the provost at Chester-le-Street just north of Durham, also added Old English words above the Latin text. Throughout the text is divided into two columns, with Aldred’s Old English translation above each Latin word in small letters.

In the opening now on display in the gallery, visitors can see the decorated word is ‘Iohannes’ (John), and just below it, the word ‘evangelista’ (evangelist), which is translated by the English word ‘godspellere’ directly above it. On the opposite page, the opening words of a summary of John’s Gospel ‘In the beginning’ are so highly decorated that they can be difficult to make out: ‘In Prin[cipio]’ with the last part of the word on the next line (The ‘P’ looks a bit like a modern ‘B’).

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Decorated words ‘In Prin[cipio]’ (In the beginning), opening words of John’s Gospel, from Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 204r

If you can’t make it to London to see this display, check it out online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. You can use the terrific zoom feature to really analyse the text and the wonderful initials.

The manuscript is also included as the second entry in a recent publication featuring some of the most beautiful Bibles in the Library’s collections, The Art of the Bible (Thames and Hudson and the British Library, 2016).

Kathleen Doyle

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