The Lindisfarne Gospels: ‘everyone should see this show at least once’

This is a ‘landmark’ exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle

The Lindisfarne Gospels
The Lindisfarne Gospels retell the gospels in Latin on 518 pages of calfskin vellum
(Image credit: Laing Art Gallery)

The Lindisfarne Gospels are “a masterpiece of early medieval European book painting”, said Laura Freeman in The Times. Created in the early 700s by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne island in Northumbria, they retell the gospels in Latin on 518 pages of calfskin vellum. As many as 130 calves “would have been sacrificed” to make the book; only the finest skins were used.

Artistically, the gospels are “glorious”.Gorgeous motifs and illustrations accompany the text. Each gospel starts with a symbolic picture of the author: lion for Mark, ox for Luke, and so on. Its pages are “woven with knots, steps, plaits, fretwork, laces and labyrinths that lead you on a dizzying dance”.

It is a miracle that they have survived: in 793, the Vikings sacked Lindisfarne, somehow sparing the Gospels; during the dissolution of the monasteries, they were “looted” and taken to London, where they now live in the British Library. This “landmark” exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle is a rare opportunity to see them back in the northeast. “The Lindisfarne Gospels are more than a work of art, they are a matter of national pride: the Parthenon marbles of the North.”

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“What an artist Eadfrith was,” said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. One page here “resembles an eastern rug”, its design incorporating “a many-layered pattern in delicate yet acid-sharp green, pink and gold”. He treats words as treasures, accompanying them with “coiling serpents, tail-eating monsters and latticed interwoven shapes”; though the book can only be displayed one double page at a time, a digital display provides an overview of its contents.

Other exhibits from the era are delightful, speaking of the “terrors and marvels” of a lost world: one fragment of a monument discovered near the River Tees shows “dogs and birds chewing their own bodies”. However, the show provides little in terms of historical context: we learn little about Lindisfarne itself, less still about early Christianity.

The show’s final room contains contemporary art, supposedly demonstrating how the Gospels remain relevant to the modern world, said Lucy Davies in The Daily Telegraph. Sadly, most of the works don’t “add up to anything”. Better is an adjoining display by Scottish artist Ruth Ewan, who has gathered together the treasured possessions of people from the northeast – “shells foraged from the sea, tailor’s shears, a wooden ironing board that saved a life in a bombing raid”.

Overall, the show is an involving experience which should not be missed. “Everyone should see the Lindisfarne Gospels at least once.”

Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle (laingartgallery.org.uk). Until 3 December

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