A few weeks ago I finally visited the exhibition put on by Durham University about the Lindisfarne Gospels. I was just in time – I went on the Friday, just two days before the exhibition closed its doors for the final time. That weekend it was fully booked – so I was very glad for my pre-booking!
The display of the gospels themselves was a fairly understated affair as expected. At the end of the day it’s only a book (an important book admittedly, and a beautiful one, but still just one simple artifact). There’s not too much to look at really. Two pages were on display and for preservation reasons couldn’t be turned. For those who thought about it, you could look at the underside and see the magnificent binding up close – which was quite something in itself.
I knew that this would be the case before I booked my ticket. It was still special to see such a glorious artifact from the early days of British Christianity. But what drew me more to the exhibition was the simple question of what it would actually be about? There is only so much actual history that could be presented about the Lindisfarne Gospels. What was the rest of the exhibition about?
The choice of focus was a good one – a look at how a book such as the Lindisfarne Gospels would have been made. The exhibition looked into the chemicals used to make the various coloured inks, how the paper was made, and looked a little more closely to the work of a scribe. Other manuscripts on display showed how corrections might be made to a manuscript, what errors might persist, and how many hands might be involved in its creation.
The other focus was of course about the history of the Lindisfarne monks and the reason why they made the gospel book as a means of glorifying their church as a reaction against the encroaching Roman tradition. The Lindisfarne Gospels were created at a time when two rival Christian groups rivaled each other for the British Isles. On the one hand was the Roman tradition brought in by St Augustine, and on the other was the Celtic tradition brought over from Ireland.
The exhibition was well worth the time and it was nice to see that the Cathedral (located next door to the exhibition) had also taken up the themes within its precincts adding much needed information about the contents within.