173 – Illuminating

Eadfrith, Chi-Rho page, The Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero DIV, f. 29r), c. 700. British Library London.

Today I’m going to look at one page of one book. It is, surely, one of the most spectacular pages of what is – according to every account you read – one of the most spectacular survivals from Anglo-Saxon England. However, England is not an accurate geographical designation, as the manuscript was the product of the kingdom of Northumberland, the largest kingdom in the British Isles at the time. Spreading North from the River Humber (how had I never realised that before?) it reached well into what is now undoubtedly Scotland. On Monday 10 October at 6pm I will flick through the whole book – or rather, turn the pages carefully (and virtually, in virtual white gloves) in a talk entitled The Lindisfarne Gospels. I will focus on the book itself before putting it into the context of the exhibition mounted by the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, but will discuss the Gospels as thoroughly as I can (given the time available) as, whenever you get to see it, you only ever see one opening, so it is hard to understand how everything fits together. For that matter, it is not entirely obvious exactly what is in it: it’s not just the Gospels! In the following weeks I will turn to Lucian Freud, Paul Cézanne (or Cezanne, as Tate would have it) and Eva Gonzalès (with a French accent, rather than a Spanish one…). Details can be found via these links, or as ever (together with details of an in-person repeat of the Freud), in the diary.

I suspect that, for most of us, the initial impact of this page is pretty much the same experienced by much of the congregation who may have had a distant view of it during religious ceremonies when it was first produced: bright, colourful, intricate – magical even – but ultimately, incomprehensible. And even if they had a chance to get closer, for the illiterate it would not have revealed its secrets. There are no pictures here to explain what is going on, but rather a celebration of the word itself, and, in this case, of the word made flesh: it is a celebration of the birth of Jesus himself, even if, to the uninitiated, that is by no means clear. However, the richness of the decoration, its elaborate sophistication and vibrant colours, not to mention the space it occupies on a single page, tell us how important the initiated knew this was. They also knew that the image, not to mentions the devotion, skill and time required to make it, would be one way to impress the illiterate with its significance: sometimes words are not enough.

The inscription at the top of the page says ‘incipit evangelium secundum mattheus‘ – which literally translates as ‘begins the gospel according to Matthew’. Almost all the letters are there, although in evangelium the ‘l’ and ‘i’ are combined and similarly, in secundum, so are the ‘u’ and ‘m’. However, the illumination seems to have got in the way of mattheus, so a small squiggle is added over the ‘u’, to imply an abbreviation, and there are also a couple of dots: the ‘s’ is implied. Above this inscription more words are written in smaller, darker letters. The first two read onginneð godspell – ‘begins the gospel’, in Old English, rather than Latin. A truly remarkable thing about the Lindisfarne Gospels is that, centuries after the book was first created, somebody wrote all over it. It isn’t the only manuscript this happened to. The entire volume (well, almost the entire volume) was translated into Old English, and the translation was added to the pages. I may have suggested that sometimes words are not enough, but sometimes words that people understand are valuable. In this case, they are also significant: this is the very first surviving version of the bible in English (even if it is Old). So – the book has been defaced, but we know a lot more about it as a result (more about that on Monday). The word onginneð is not so very far from ‘beginneth’ (‘ð‘ is effectively ‘th’) nor is godspell that far from ‘gospel’. Back in 1971 it was even used as the name for a musical based – albeit loosely – on the evangelium secundum mattheus. The ‘spell‘ is related to magic (the other ‘spell’, as in spelling a word, has a different etymology), and also to ‘spiel’, which is now slang parlance for a glib recitation, apparently recited often, showing a practiced stance or belief. The incantations of priests were often likened to magic spells, given that they were related to raising the dead, turning water into wine and the like. However, the curious thing about this inscription – which is not even the most visually striking element on the page – is that it is wrong. This is not the beginning of the gospel according to Matthew. It is chapter 1, admittedly, but verse 18: ‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.’ As the text was written in Latin, though, it would be as well to quote the Vulgate (St Jerome’s translation of the bible), of which this happens to be one of the purest versions:

Christi autem generatio sic erat: cum esset desponsata mater ejus Maria Joseph, antequam convenirent inventa est in utero habens de Spiritu Sancto.

Notice that ‘Christ’ comes first, as, for Christians, Christ surely should. And now look at this.

What we see, on the largest scale, is the word ‘Christ’ written in Greek, but represented with only the first three letters, chi, rho, and iota – or Χρι (the full word ‘Christos’ would be Χριστός). This abbreviation was effectively standard practice, and the combination of just the first two letters, chi and rho, was one of the earliest symbols of Christianity. It was adopted even before the cross, which was such a humiliating form of execution that, in the early days, it was deemed unsuitable for celebration. Like mattheus, therefore, this is an abbreviation, and, in the same way, I think there is a hint about that: you could read the elaboration of forms at the top right of the chi and above the rho as equivalent to the ‘squiggle’ above the ‘u’ in mattheu – a sign for an elision, or abbreviation, which would be used for centuries.

It is, therefore, the word Christ which is the most important thing on this page, vibrant with colour and apparently moving forms, wheels within wheels, stylised, elongated birds, writhing and threaded together, and knotwork. The whole form is surrounded by a series of small red dots, as if it were glowing. This is not, maybe, the beginning of the gospel of Matthew, but it is the first time in the bible, after the list of his ancestors, that Jesus appears. It is where he is born, the first mention of the incarnation – god made flesh. As such, as well as being called the Chi rho page, this is also sometimes referred to as the Incarnation page, and it was a fairly common feature of the most elaborately illuminated manuscripts. According to the gospel according to John, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ Here, in the gospel according to Matthew, we see the Word for the first time, and we see it as a word. It was clear to the early Christians that the Light of the World came into the world at this point, and that this was worth celebrating: let Salvation begin!

The letters underneath Χριστός make up the following one and a half words of the Vulgate: ‘autem gene’(‘ratio’is on the following line). The ‘u’ and ‘t’ are combined, as are the ‘e’ and ‘m’. After this, the ‘g’ is looped round the ‘e’, and the ‘n’ and ‘e’ also combined. This abbreviation may simply help to fit the words in, although it also adds to the almost magical nature of the text – as if this were an incantation to summon the birth of Jesus, the words transformed beyond their mundane import. The way in which they have been written shows what a brilliant visual sense Eadfrith, believed to be both scribe and illuminator of the gospels, had. Like most of the work, they were sketched out in lead point (a bit like starting with a light drawing using a modern-day pencil), and then outlined with red dots. They have an obvious presence on the page, but interrupt the background tone and colour of the vellum as little as possible. This allows Χριστός to ring out loud and clear at the top of the page: when shown to the congregation (or even, when opened in front of the officiating priest) the impact would be clear: Christ is here, visible, among us, the most important thing.

Without considering their impact on the whole page, these (partial) words, ‘autem gene’ might seem incomplete, as all the others here are filled in with black, and heightened with yellow, pink and green infills. The whole text is contained by the elaborate tail of the chi to the left, and a green-bordered frame which comes down from the top right of the page, wraps along the bottom and continues up on the left.

The second line of text continues after the ‘gene’with ‘ratio sic erat cum’. In the King James Version, this would be the end of the word ‘birth’, followed by ‘…in this wise. When…’. Although I said that all of the letters (after the first line) were filled in black, the letter ‘c’ of ‘cum’ is not. It’s not clear why – it might just be a mistake! Eadfrith, scribe and illuminator, was Bishop of Lindisfarne from around 698 until his death in 721, and some people think that his work on the volume was not complete at his death. The British Library wisely refuses to be too specific. Between the text and the illumination the gospels would have taken at least five years to complete, and possibly as much as ten – so the given date of the manuscript as ‘c. 700’ can only really be counted as the date it might have been started.

The final lines on this page are ‘esset desponsata mater ejus Maria Joseph’, or ‘…as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph’, leaving the second half of the verse to the next page – or rather, the next side. Manuscripts, have ‘leaves’ rather than ‘pages’. This is leaf 29, or folio 29, and we are looking at the ‘front’ side of it, the recto (so this is f. 29r). The rest of the verse is on the ‘back’ of this folio, or folio 29 verso (f. 29v). Despite the technicalities, I think the amount of the verse that is included might explain why Eadfrith went to the pains of abbreviating the ‘autem gene’. It was, I think, quite simply, to get this much onto this one page. As a result we have all of the Holy Family present at Jesus’s birth: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. And notice that Joseph only just makes it – the green frame has had to be thinned, and even broken, to accommodate the letter ‘h’. Or he might have done that to emphasize Joseph’s name, or even to imply a continuation of the verse onto the verso. But I suspect it is, practically, to fit it all in. Poor Joseph: always squashed into corners. But at least he’s there. Above the word ‘mater‘ is written ‘moder’ – the Old English form of ‘mother’ – but the rest of the translation has been squashed into the margin.

We’ve got to the end of the page, but before we go, let’s have a look back at the top – and get a little bit closer. You can all do this, in the comfort of you own homes, which is just as well, as the British Library doesn’t lend to private individuals. However, part of their remit, as a national institution, is to make their collection available as widely as possible, and they are attempting to digitize as much of their collection as they can. The Lindisfarne Gospels can be accessed if you click on this link. I’ll leave you to read it all cover to cover before the talk on Monday! But not before this:

It is truly astonishing.  The intricacy, the complexity and the sheer attention to detail – the time taken to write just one word – speaks of a faith and devotion so profound that it is hard to measure. And within this one detail we also have all of the common decorative techniques. On the left are the red dots, an influence from Ireland, and in the cross of the chi, we see a writhing mass of birds, biting their own elongated necks which are looped around and threaded through the equally elongated tails and the knotted legs of their fellows. Between the chi and the edge of the rho on the right are spiralling circular forms, often described as pin wheels, which would seem to derive from the La Tène culture, one branch of the broader Celtic tradition, as is the knotwork in the rho itself. It is open to debate as to whether these forms of decoration have symbolic significance within a Christian context. Most obviously, many of the pin wheels have threefold symmetry, and, at the heart of the word ‘Christ’, this must surely be an allusion to the Holy Trinity, with God present in Christ and Christ as a part of God. The knotwork could be interpreted as a reference to eternity – each is an endless loop – but also to the journey of the soul on a defined, if complex path. In some way this imagery must also function in like a mandala, encouraging contemplation and meditation. This is perhaps clearer with the manuscript’s glorious carpet pages, each a variation on the shape of the cross, but I will look at them – and, indeed, at all of the fully illuminated leaves – on Monday. All that, and many more remarkable details, too, not to mention the overriding structure. And, despite what I said above, you really don’t need to read it all before then!

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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