A History of Art in England (2): Illuminated Manuscripts (i)

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It was in the monastery of Lindisfarne, on Holy Island, that through the 7th and 8th centuries the “first important English school of painting” flourished, says John Rothenstein: a “short-lived Nothumbrian art [in which] Byzantine and Irish-Celtic elements were fused with the native Saxon” – a style, or period, called “Insular Art” (ie. Island Art).

Richardson I, Thomas Miles, 1784-1848; Lindisfarne Priory, Northumberland

Lindisfarne Priory, Northumberland (c.1837)
Thomas Miles Richardson I (1784–1848)
Laing Art Gallery see artuk.org

And it is at the monastery that the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated manuscript held now in the British Library collection was made.

Such manuscripts were usually made by a teams of scriptors and pictors – scribes and colourists – monks who would work in the monastery’s “studio” or scriptorium.

As the British Library notes: “Writing and painting sacred texts were seen by monks as acts of meditation, during which the scribe might glimpse the divine. It was a high calling but very hard work.” The Lindisfarne Gospels was, however, almost certainly made by a single artist called Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne 698-721, and would have taken five to ten years to complete.

The British Library website enables us to look page by page at the Gospels, for example the three pages of St Luke – the Byzantine icon-like image of the saint (here with his symbol of the calf); the Oriental ‘carpet’ page, and the ‘incipit’ page which, with its decorated lettering interlaced with Celtic spiral work, commences the text.

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An excellent book I discovered @SouthendLibrary is Janet Backhouse’s “The Illuminated Page” [British Library, 1997] in which, noting how Christianity is a book-based religion, and that the Christian missionaries all carried, shared and gifted books back and forth across Europe – the Bible, the Gospels, books of prayers and hymns and so on – she writes that the books inspired decoration as sign of devotion on the one hand and, on the other, as visual inspiration to the people they hoped to convert.

Brangwyn, Frank, 1867-1956; St Aidan, Bishop of North Cumbria, AD 635 Training Boys at Lindisfarne

St Aidan, Bishop of North Cumbria, AD 635 Training Boys at Lindisfarne (c.1920)
Frank Brangwyn (1867–1956)
Christ’s Hospital, see artuk.org

Backhouse is quoted on Wikipedia in relation to the Lindisfarne Gospels’ colouring:

 “There is a huge range of individual pigments used in the manuscript. The colours are derived from animal, vegetable and mineral sources. While some colours were obtained from local sources, others were imported from the Mediterranean, and rare pigments such as lapis lazuli would have come from the Himalayas. Gold is used in only a couple of small details. The medium used to bind the colours was primarily egg white, with fish glue perhaps used in a few places”.

Backhouse emphasizes that “all Eadfrith’s colours are applied with great skill and accuracy, but… we have no means of knowing exactly what implements he used”.

I’m reminded here of Victoria Finlay’s “Colour: Travels through the Paintbox” [Sceptre 2002] in which she travels the world in search of colour pigments, their origins and how they were traded and transported across continents. On p.12, she references “the first ‘how to’ book of paint-making” the Mappae Clavicula “which included a veritable hotchpotch of recipes for pigments and inks for illuminated manuscripts…”
The Mappae Clavicula – translated variously as ‘keys to painting’ – seems to be a collage of texts or recipes for colour making, some of which reach back to ancient Alexandria, translated and transported around Europe. The earliest copy was apparently in the Benedictine Monastery at Reichenau, Germany in the 9th century.

What is certain is that, as well as people travelling and migrating, painting techniques and manuals as well as raw materials were shared and traded across Europe and beyond. There is a fascinating essay from the British Library: Anglo-Saxon England and Europe, which notes these exchanges – of people, manuscripts and also letters:

Books imported from the Mediterranean would have constituted the original core for many of the earliest libraries in Anglo-Saxon England. These manuscripts provided models for the text, decoration and script of those books subsequently produced in Anglo-Saxon England.

One of the greatest examples is the Wearmouth-Jarrow Bible, a manuscript known as the Codex Amiatinus especially as it includes an image of a scriptor at work (the Prophet Ezra):

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The British Library asks us to imagine what it would have been like to undertake such eye-straining, back-breaking art work in Lindisfarne “in a hut on an island in the North Sea”.

Equally I wonder what it would have been like to see these illuminated manuscripts, glowing with red, greens, ochres and gold in the candle-light.

For the monks and religious leaders this would have been close-up and a regular aspect of the religious life. But imagine seeing through the eyes of the would-be converts or those in the pews.

Books would have been so rare outside the monasteries and churches so to witness the flashes of bright colours, a rainbow of brilliance, as a page was turned, must have been extraordinary, visionary, of another world entirely.


A History of Art in England (2)

If you are enjoying this series of ‘Rambles with Rothenstein’ and are able to occasional ‘donate’, I am extremely grateful. Many thanks in advance!



About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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