Paul Clements on the Lindisfarne Gospels – The Irish Times

Few who visit are unaffected by its deeply atmospheric nature and Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, on Northumberland’s rugged coast is filled with a spiritual magnetism. For those who choose to walk the causeway barefoot in a straight line following a line of poles, this is a serene place of pilgrimage – provided you have determined the correct tide times for a safe crossing.

Regularly, visitors and vehicles are rescued after becoming stuck on the tidal causeway. Coastguard teams and the coastal lifeboat are called upon to rescue motorists stranded at high tide who have climbed back up to the shelter of the refuge hut; often, depending on the level of salt water infiltration, their car is a write-off.

Lindisfarne has a fascinating religious, military, cultural and natural history. When the Kingdom of Northumbria was ruled by Oswald, he met Irish monks from Iona, including St Aidan, inviting them to settle on the island in 535 AD. They established a monastery on the Irish model, considered a wooden church, with huts and a large communal building. Aidan was the first inhabitant whose name is known but he was eclipsed by St Cuthbert, who became Prior of Lindisfarne and was buried there in 687. Famous for his piety and healing powers, his name is synonymous with the island.

Cuthbert’s cult inspired one of the most renowned books in the world – the ornately decorated Lindisfarne Gospels created at the priory and depicting a golden age of design, craftsmanship and literary innovation. The Gospels are thought to have been written around 715-720 when Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne then at the height of his powers, began working on sheets of cowhide vellum. Vellum comes from velin, an Old French word for a calf, and the book required the skins of over 100 calves.

Eadfrith produced the complex Latin transcription of an illuminated copy of the four Gospels dedicated to Saint Cuthbert who had been forced to flee the island in 793 following Viking raids. He used a script known as Island Capital, first developed in Ireland, which came to Lindisfarne with Aidan. The gospels then went to Durham Cathedral, built to house Cuthbert’s body, and in the 10th century a priest named Aldred added the oldest Anglo-Saxon translation between the lines of the Latin text.

Shaped when there was a thirst for knowledge at a time when the arts were flourishing, the book is a symbol of cultural identity with its distinctive iconography and the precision of its intricate design. Normally kept in the British Library in London, it has survived in near perfect condition for over 1,000 years. Now, for the first time in over seven years, it is temporarily returning to its roots, returning to the North East of England where it will be on display at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, until December 3. The idea behind this is to allow people outside of London to see the manuscript first hand. But only one section of this precious relic will be displayed over two pages, although a replica is permanently at the Lindisfarne Center on the island.

The Lindisfarne Gospels, which established the shape of modern books, have inspired artists throughout the centuries. A gallery exhibition on its significance today examines its relationship to themes of identity through events and workshops as well as film, light and sound installations. Paintings, drawings and photographs examine how art and spirituality have developed since the creation of the book.

St Cuthbert is said to have offered refuge to eider ducks on the nearby Farne Islands in the North Sea and this association survives under their traditional local names of ‘Cuthbert Duck’ and ‘Cuddy Duck’. But for today’s visiting birdwatchers, there is sadness attached to these small, uninhabited islands as they are currently off-limits to landing parties. In an attempt to reduce the spread of bird flu which has had a devastating effect on the seabird population, people have been asked not to visit the archipelago. The virus has killed at least 3,000 birds on the island group and had severe effects on roseate terns on Coquet Island.

Lindisfarne itself, however, remains a vibrant community open for business. Aside from the 13th century priory with its red sandstone walls, pillars and rainbow, there is plenty for antique dealers, historians, hikers and the simply curious to explore. Walk around the axe-shaped island through its pristine bays, shimmering sands and dunes and admire where land and sea meet a vast sky. Catch the right day, sip a glass of mead or Holy Island rum, and as you drink in the chiaroscuro of light around the Heugh or through the Crooked Lonnen, the stark beauty will live long in your memory. www.laingartgallery.org.uk

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