08 May 2017


Part 1 of 8 of the Lecture Gold out of Egypt, which I first delivered on 20 April 2017 at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

Good evening. Happy Easter to you all.

I say this assuming that you acknowledge this past Sunday to have been the feast of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Were I delivering this talk in seventh-century Northumberland, I might not have assumed this, for the calculation of the date of Easter was then a controversy. Discord between two groups of missionaries over it threatened the survival of Christianity within the newly and incompletely converted kingdom. The first mission came from Ireland by way of Scotland; it had established the monastery at Lindisfarne and followed the practices of St. Columba. The newer mission was sent from Rome by St. Gregory the Great; its monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow were only forty miles from Lindisfarne.

In principle, both missions celebrated the Resurrection on the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Vernal Equinox, as the Council of Nicæa had mandated. This method of calculation is beautifully simple; it involves the sun, the moon and the seven-day week: the three means of telling time established by God at the Creation of the World. In a fallen world, however, things are seldom beautifully simple; what is correctly reckoned to be the first Sunday, or the first Full Moon, or the Vernal Equinox was disputed.

In AD 664, King Oswy of Northumberland convoked a synod at Whitby to settle the matter. Colman, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, argued:
The Easter that I keep I received from my elders, who sent me hither as bishop; all our forefathers, men beloved of God, are known to have kept it after the same manner. This may not seem to any contemptible or worthy to be rejected.
Wilfrid of York, speaking for the Roman mission, said:
The Easter that we observe we saw celebrated by all at Rome, where the blessed apostles Peter and Paul lived, taught, suffered and were buried. We saw the same done in Italy and in France when we traveled through those countries for pilgrimage and prayer. We found that Easter was celebrated at one and the same time in Africa, Asia, Egypt, Greece and all the world, wherever the Church of Christ is spread abroad, through the various nations and tongues, except only among these. Do you think that their small number, in a corner of the remotest island, is to be preferred before the Catholic Church of Christ throughout the world? Though Columba was a holy man and powerful in miracles, yet should he be preferred before the most blessed prince of the Apostles?
King Oswy, reasoning that it was St. Peter rather than St. Columba who held the keys to Heaven, ruled in Wilfrid’s favor. Colman returned to Ireland; the monks remaining at Lindisfarne accepted the royal decision.

Both Colman and Wilfrid are venerated as saints. The arguments that they presented more than thirteen centuries ago yet resound. Their disagreement was not merely over whether Easter should be celebrated this week or the next; it was over the root and the sway of religious tradition; over whether an outlying tradition should be conformed, and to what, and by what authority. Both claimed to uphold ancient custom; Wilfrid added to his argument the weight of universality and consensus, and the authority of St. Peter.


One of the greatest works of Christian art was made in this very setting of seventh-century Northumberland: an Evangelary written and illustrated at Lindisfarne just a few decades after the Synod of Whitby. Its pages contain some of the finest drawings ever made. Its scribe was the Saxon monk Eadfrith, who later became the Bishop of Lindisfarne. In matters of ornamental and calligraphic design, his work has never been surpassed.



Seeing a reproduction of a page from the Lindisfarne Gospels when I was about fourteen years old was a pivotal event in my artistic development. The impression was similar to that made on a 12th-century writer who studied a similar manuscript: You will make out intricacies so subtle and delicate, so exact and compact, so full of knots and links, with colors so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this was the work of an angel, and not of a man. I tried for years to interpret this style; it took about fourteen before I was able to make what I consider a successful imitation.

Now, long after that, it is part of my artistic repertory; I can draw these patterns freehand. The Lindisfarne Gospels no longer seems to me like a thing that fell out of heaven. But I am just as fascinated to consider it as a thing made by men, to consider just how many different men, from how many different nations, were needed for such a work of art to be possible.

Consider the page from the Lindisfarne Gospels that displays the eighteenth verse of the Gospel of St. Matthew. The author is a Hebrew who probably wrote in Greek. The words are the Latin translation made by St. Jerome: Christi autem generatio sic erat cum esset desponsata mater eius Maria Ioseph. The first, Christi, is abbreviated as Chi-Rho-Iota; the letters are Greek, not Latin. Greek Christian scribes have always abbreviated certain holy names, or nomina sacra; Eadfrith did the same in this Latin manuscript.

He wrote the small letters in Insular Majuscule, a striking script invented by Irish monks. It derives ultimately from the uncial script invented by Christian scribes in Egypt who used curving Greek penstrokes to write Latin letters. Uncial was the first peculiarly Christian handwriting; the faithful throughout the Latin-speaking world adopted it to distinguish holy manuscripts from pagan literature.

The display capital letters of the Lindisfarne Gospels have an unmistakable resemblance to Germanic runes. Runes were known at Lindisfarne; they were even used to carve the nomina sacra on the reliquary casket of St. Cuthbert. Patterns of knots, spirals and keys; and interlaces of elongated beasts and birds decorate the manuscript. These are motifs from Celtic and Germanic art that predate the Christian missions.

The pages depicting the four Evangelists, however, resemble mosaics from Rome or Byzantium or Antioch. Eadfrith likely based their composition on pictures in an illustrated manuscript brought by missionaries from one of the Mediterranean urban centers of early Christianity.

It was through small, portable objects such as books that iconography spread; a missionary, obviously, cannot carry a basilica decorated with mosaics with him into the wilderness. He can carry a great many books containing a great many pictures. In the monastic art of Northern Europe, fascinating combinations of Hellenistic, Syrian and Byzantine tradition are encountered. The influences can be distinguished as late as the twelfth century, and vary from monastery to monastery. This is because their libraries held books from all over the Christian world, which served as models for the resident artists.

Cruciformally arranged ornament fills five pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Art historians call these carpet pages; one, Volkmar Gantzhorn, has proposed that they were inspired by actual carpets woven in Christian Armenia. Carpet pages appeared in Northumbro-Irish manuscripts about the time that Theodore of Tarsus arrived at Canterbury to become its archbishop in AD 669. Perhaps he carried, either in his memory or in his baggage, the tradition of the Oriental carpet as far as Lindisfarne.

Other scholars see in the carpet pages an imitation of Coptic art; several intriguing early medieval documents mention Egyptian monks living in Ireland. A Psalter from this time, lined with Egyptian papyrus, was pulled intact from an Irish bog eleven years ago.

The Lindisfarne Gospels is thus a work of sacred art to which Germanic, Celtic, Roman, Greek, Hebrew and possibly Armenian or Coptic Christians contributed. It pages illustrate the universality invoked by St. Wilfrid, whose words would have been fresh in the memory of the monks at Lindisfarne; here, at one and the same time, is the art of Africa, Asia, Egypt, Greece and all the world, wherever the Church of Christ is spread abroad, through the various nations and tongues. It was never more beautifully made than in a corner of the remotest island.


Works quoted or referenced:

Christopher De Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts, (London: Phaidon Press, 1994).

Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, translated by LC Jane, (London: JM Dent, 1910).

Janet Backhouse, The Lindisfarne Gospels, (London: Phaidon, 1981).

Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hiberniæ, quoted in The Book of Kells: Selected Plates in Full Color, (New York: Dover Publications, 1982).

Marc Drogin, Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique, (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1989).

Emile Mâle, Religious Art in France: The Twelfth Century, translated by Marthiel Matthews, (Princeton University Press, 1978).

Volkmar Gantzhorn, The Christian Oriental Carpet, (Tübingen: Taschen, 1991).