Wooler Local History Society

The Lindisfarne Gospels: Their Making and Meaning, was delivered by Ross Wilkinson, a member of the Learning and Access Team of Durham University Library, at the November meeting of Wooler Local History Society.

Mr Wilkinson, who brought a facsimile of the gospels with him, displayed an enthusiastic and profound knowledge of the book, which delighted everyone.

He began by explaining that his team, since September 2012, had delivered workshops to over 25,000 learners of all ages.

Whilst the gospels were on display at Durham last year, an engagement programme of workshops, family activities and lectures involved a further 13,500 people.

The gospels, kept in The British Museum, are constantly giving up more of their secrets about their creation to researchers.

What we know is that they were written between 650 and 715AD, by one monk called Eadfrith. He would have taken 10 to 20 years to carry out the task. Although he was the only scribe, several other monks undertook the illustrated folios. At that time, Northumbria was the hub, of all Christendom, for the writing of books. Written on vellum, it is estimated that 300 -400 calves would have been required for the vellum.

We were taken through slides of key pages, beginning with the carpet page of Jerome – like a prayer mat of Islam, but with a Coptic cross, and the words, You are humble before God.

We were shown the carpet, the portrait and the incipit pages for each of the four evangelists. Writing on these pages was in a mixture of Greek and Hebrew, and illumination incorporated symbols of the Celtic church and the Roman church as well as elements of Judaism and Islam. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are all portrayed with their own symbols, such as the eagle of St John (a link to heaven) and the lion of Mark.

It is to Aldred that the attribution of the gospels being written for Cuthbert is due. However, the only reference to Cuthbert, written 300 years after the saint’s death, is in Aldred’s Collophon, at the back of the book, stating, Eadfrith wrote this book for God and St Cuthbert.

He attributes the binding to Ethilvald and the cover to Billfrith, a jewel smith. The original cover is missing. We know it was elaborately decorated with gold, silver and gems, but was taken by Henry VIII’s men at the dissolution.

The cover had an all-important part to play with illiterate pilgrims to Durham, since it represented God’s Word when on display before Cuthbert’s tomb.

The gospels disappear at this time, only to re-appear as part of the Opening Collection at the British Museum in c1750. It was last checked out in 1908.

Now, it is rarely handled, save when a page is turned each year.

The next meeting of Wooler Local History Society will be on Wednesday, December 10, at 7.30pm at the Cheviot Centre when the talk will be Equal on the Turf – Our Horseracing Heritage by Charlie Brown.