Incipit from the Gospel of John, Lindisfarne Gospels, probably 710 to 725. Located in the British Library, London.
What is the most important thing about a book: the text or the pages it’s printed on? The content or the form? Ideas or matter?
Consider this labyrinthine page from a medieval illuminated manuscript. To anyone unfamiliar with eighth-century Celtic or Hiberno-Saxon art—and I imagine that includes most of us—it must look like an inscrutable jumble of colors, patterns, and weirdly distorted, yet maddeningly familiar letterforms. We might venture to judge the page on its aesthetic merits, but before long a certain frustration may set in: We want to know what it means. But having established the meaning, does the thing itself become irrelevant?
A Lavish Beginning
The meaning here is not especially difficult to elucidate. The strange letterforms are shaped according to the typographical conventions of the eighth century, with a good deal of artistic embellishment thrown in, but they are all letters of the Roman alphabet. The bizarre form that dominates the left side of the page, with its hypnotic interlace decoration, so identifiable with Celtic art, is in fact a ligature of three letters, INP: the “I” and the “P” have been fused with the left and right vertical strokes of the “N” to form two solid uprights, which are connected by the boldly zigzagged diagonal of the “N”; the “P” has a descending flourish that makes it look more like an “R” (or a “B”—but compare it with the actual letter “R” that follows immediately after).
Read on, and you may now make out the next few letters as INCIPIO. Thus we have “IN PRINCIPIO,” Latin for “In the beginning.” In fact, this and the rest of the text gives us the beginning of John’s Gospel, in Jerome’s translation: ” In principio erat verbum, et verbum erat apud D(eu)m, et D(eu)s . . . ” (The Deum and Deus are written as two-letter abbreviations, indicated by a small line, or “vinculum,” drawn above them, and the two ets are also ligatures, prototypical ampersands.) All the letters are “rubricated”—decorated with thousands of tiny red dots, recalling stippled Celtic metalwork, and the black and gold border of the INP ligature evokes enameled cloisonné. At the top of the page, also in gold, is a Chi-Rho monogram, followed by the words ” Iohannis aquila“—the “eagle of John,” a reference to the Evangelist’s symbolic attribute; just beneath this, in red ink, is the phrase, Incipit evangelium secundum Johannem—roughly, “the beginning of the Gospel according to John.”
No Mere Fancy Book
This is an “Incipit” page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, a book of 258 vellum folios containing all four Gospels (each with its own splendidly illuminated Incipit, as well as a “carpet page” of densely interwoven cross motifs and full-page portrait of the Evangelist and his attribute), the Eusebian Canons (an early standardized chapter division of the Gospels), prefaces, and other supporting material, all bound in a jeweled and gilded cover (now lost). Together with the famous Book of Kells, it stands at the pinnacle of medieval Celtic art; it has been called “the most elaborate book ever made.”
A monk named Eadfrith, who served as bishop of Lindisfarne Abbey from 698 until his death in 721, was the artist and scribe, according to an endnote or colophon added to the volume around 970. This attribution cannot be verified, but the work has a stylistic unity that bears out the idea of its coming from a single hand. He probably worked on it through the last decade of his life; two other monks crafted the binding and the cover, and the author of the colophon, a monk named Aldred, took it upon himself to add an interlinear gloss of the Latin text into Old English, an act of literary vandalism visible on every page (the very small black writing between each line of Latin) that constitutes the earliest version of the Gospels in a language approaching modern English.
Here then are meaningful texts indeed: What can be more significant than the Word of God, rendered into any language? But this book has value well beyond the text it contains. For art historians, it would be a unique and priceless treasure even if it were filled with elaborate gibberish. But for Eadfrith and the community he belonged to, it was a powerfully symbolic object in its own right, meant to be seen as much—if not more—than it was meant to be read.
At a mundane level, the book was a visible display of the Abbey’s wealth and influence. For the people of that distant outpost of Christianity, standing far from Rome on a tiny island just off the northeast coast of England, whose community was not even a hundred years old in Eadfrith’s day, yet already so vigorous as to be capable of sending missionaries back into Europe, the ability to produce such a sumptuous volume was evidence that the Celtic church had “arrived” and could contribute to the strength and spread of Christianity.
Certainly, the resources needed to produce an artifact like the Lindisfarne Gospels would have been considerable: The vellum alone would have been worth a small fortune, to say nothing of the cost of imported inks and pigments. And while most of the populace were illiterate, they nonetheless appreciated that books represented culture and learning. Indeed, books were revered among the Celts as sacred, mystical articles, to be housed in portable “book-shrines” and elevated or carried in procession like icons or relics, the mere sight of which could work miracles. St. John’s Gospel was considered especially powerful: Cures were attributed to laying a copy on the patient’s body, and those inclined to superstition wore its Incipit text around their necks as a charm.
One Work, Many Influences
The Lindisfarne Gospels were dedicated specifically to the honor of St. Cuthbert, a beloved former bishop of the Abbey, who had died in 687. His charming personality, holy life, and evangelical work among the people of the Kingdom of Northumbria had brought him great renown and popularity, and when it was discovered a few years after his death that his remains were incorrupt, his saintly status was confirmed. Cuthbert was a unifying figure: Although he had grown up following the Celtic liturgical customs planted in northern England by Irish missionaries (including St. Aiden, the founder of Lindisfarne Abbey), when the Synod of Whitby (664) determined that the Northumbrian church should observe Roman practices, he gracefully implemented its decisions against a bitterly divided Northumbrian royal house. In time, Cuthbert came to represent both the cultural identity of the northern English people and their religious unity with Europe and the universal Church.
So when Cuthbert’s eventual successor Eadfrith began his great work, it was fitting that he allowed Italian, Germanic, and Byzantine elements to influence his native Celtic aesthetic. Scholars have argued, for example, that Eadfrith copied the calendar of feast days in his Gospels from a Bible brought over to England from Naples. Many of his letterforms betray their origins as German runes, while his portraits of the Evangelists are descended from Byzantine icons. It is thought that the carpet pages were inspired by Coptic designs and Islamic prayer rugs actually in use at Lindisfarne. His is a truly multicultural, “catholic” work that reveals how surprisingly interconnected the medieval world really was.
The Shape of Ideas
Eadfrith’s artistic genius is visible on every page, even the “ordinary” ones mostly covered with his neat lines of uncial script (characterized by somewhat rounded capital letters and found especially in Greek and Latin manuscripts of the fourth to the eighth century). What is especially remarkable about the Incipit pages, however, is how Eadfrith transforms word into image. Except for a few abstracted animal and human heads hidden among the tracery like a medieval Where’s Waldo? (look carefully!), all the imagery on this page is composed of non-representational letters and decorative patterns. Modern conceptual artists also make purely textual pieces, but they never turn the letters they use into aesthetic objects, because for them the abstract ideas they represent take absolute precedence over their physical impression. As an artist-typographer, Eadfrith was clearly in love with the shapes of letters. He invites us to inspect each one, not only for what it stands for, but for what it is—a visual form, a being, a thing of beauty that reveals God in exactly the same way an icon does. Eadfrith paints words on the skins of animals to create a book-icon: This is the word made flesh indeed.
Eadfrith devoted years of his life, working between his daily prayers and episcopal duties, to make what was in effect an artificial relic of St. Cuthbert—which was treated as such. First in 793, and increasingly often toward the end of the ninth century, Lindisfarne was attacked by Vikings; during such times, the Gospels were actually hidden in Cuthbert’s casket. In 878, when the monks decided to abandon the abbey for the safety of Ireland, they reverently took with them Cuthbert’s relics—and Eadfrith’s—and the precious Gospels. The story is told that as they were crossing the Irish sea, a great storm rose up that drove their ship back to the Northumbrian coast, but not before the Gospels had been washed overboard. Cuthbert appeared in a vision to one of the dejected monks, however, and directed them to search for the book along the beach. On doing so, they found it, not much the worse for wear, four days later, preserved in its sturdy book-shrine.
The refugees and their treasures led a wandering existence for many years after this. There is something humorous and outlandish in the vision of these harried monks traipsing around the moors and highlands of a hostile countryside with their sacred relics and precious volumes in tow, like the Israelites and their Ark, looking for a permanent home. Over the next several centuries, Cuthbert’s relics and the Gospels were shuttled about among various temporary residences, returning briefly to Lindisfarne, but mostly residing in Durham. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1536, the Gospels fell into private hands. Their last owner donated them to the British Museum in 1753, where this now fragile and storied book remains—a matter of some regret to certain Celtic Christian traditionalists, who urge its restoration to the “Holy Island,” as Lindisfarne is known, as evidence of a native, non-Roman Catholic Christianity, suppressed by the Whitby Synod.
So, which is more important, content or form? In the Internet age, content is everything, and free-floating “e-text” is better than libraries of real books. Online exhibits of the Lindisfarne Gospels allow you to “turn the pages” with your mouse—certainly a marvelous thing—but no intangible representation could ever have the sacred aura, earthy history, and smells of the actual volume. No matter what the words say, the incarnated reality of this book, or perhaps any book, is irreplaceable.