Countdown begins for Lindisfarne Gospels to go on display in the North East

15 September 2021

Gospel of St John

Image: Crop Incipit to Gospel of John, Lindisfarne Gospels, c. 700 (Cotton MS Nero D IV) (c) British Library Board

Carpet page for Gospel of St John

Image: Carpet page for Gospel of John, Lindisfarne Gospels, c. 700 (Cotton MS Nero D IV) (c) British Library Board

One of the world’s greatest treasures will go on display in Newcastle exactly a year from today. The much-anticipated return to the North East of the Lindisfarne Gospels has been given added excitement with the announcement that it will be on public display at Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery from 17 September to 3 December 2022. 

This will be the first time the ancient book, the most spectacular manuscript to survive from Anglo-Saxon England, has been displayed in the city since 2000 and its first showing in the region since the major exhibition in Durham in 2013. 

The Lindisfarne Gospels will feature in an exhibition about its meaning in the world today and exploring its relationship with themes of personal, regional and national identity.  There will also be a variety of public, community and school events across the North East to celebrate the landmark loan from the British Library, as well as a high profile artist commission to reimagine the Gospels for a 21st-century audience. 

It’s also been revealed for the first time today exactly which page the manuscript will be open at during its stay in Newcastle – Gospel of John, ff. 210v-211. The cross-carpet page and major initial introducing St John's Gospel are the last major decoration in the manuscript – they demonstrate all the different elements of its creator’s decorative vocabulary within a single final tour de force.  

Today’s announcement comes 1,300 years after the death in 721 of the monk named Eadfrith, who became the Bishop of Lindisfarne in 698 and is believed to have created the Gospels in the scriptorium of the monastery at Lindisfarne. The beautiful, illuminated manuscript was  written in Latin and combines Celtic, Germanic and Mediterranean elements in its decoration. The Lindisfarne Gospels was originally adorned with a metalwork cover or case, reportedly made by Billfrith the Anchorite (a hermit). There is no record of when this cover was separated from the book. The current jewelled, metalwork bookbinding was made for the Gospels in 1853. 

What makes the Gospels even more fascinating, is the 10th-century word-for-word translation of the Latin text into Old English by Aldred, Provost of the monastic community of St Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street. This is the oldest known translation of the Gospels into English. Aldred inserted his text between the lines of Eadfrith’s original around 250 years after the manuscript was first made.  

The four Gospels recount the life and teachings of Christ, according to the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We do not know exactly how the Lindisfarne Gospels was intended to be used in the early Middle Ages. It may have been used for commemoration, sometimes displayed, and occasionally used in major services, but its excellent condition, given its great age, reflects centuries of care and relatively limited handling.  

In AD 635, the Irish missionary, Aidan, founded a monastery on ‘a small outcrop of the land’ at Lindisfarne, subsequently also known as Holy Island. St Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne, died in 687, and a pilgrimage-centre dedicated to him developed in the following years. The veneration of the saint’s shrine inspired increasing numbers of pilgrims to travel to the island. 

It is believed that it may have taken between five and ten years to create the 518-page Gospel-book. It was written on parchment made from calf-skin and decorated using a relatively restricted number of pigments, made from a variety of vegetable and mineral sources, which were skilfully combined to create a wide palette of colours. A tiny amount of gold was also used in the decoration. 

As a consequence of Viking raids, the monastic community left Lindisfarne around 875, taking Cuthbert’s relics with them. The community eventually settled at Chester-le-Street in 883, where it remained until 995, when further Danish raids prompted it to move first to Ripon and then finally to Durham.  

It is likely that the Lindisfarne Gospels was taken to Durham from Chester-le-Street. Historical records document the existence of various Gospel-books at Durham in the Middle Ages, and the Lindisfarne Gospels may be one of those listed, but it is impossible to be certain. The next conclusive evidence of the location of the Gospels after the tenth century is not until 1605 when an inscription records that they were in the possession of Robert Bowyer, clerk of the parliaments and keeper of the records in the Tower of London. The Gospels subsequently came into the possession of Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631), whose heir gave his library to the nation in 1702. It became a founding collection of the British Museum in 1753 and was transferred to the British Library upon its creation in 1973. 

Upon its return to the North East from 17 September 2022, the Laing’s exhibition will focus on the Gospel’s meaning in today’s world and how its themes link to personal, regional and national pride and identity. Working with the British Library and artists, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums art curators will explore how the book can bring people together today by inspiring thinking about who we are and where we come from, around identity, creativity, learning and sense of place. 

Julie Milne, Chief Curator of Art Galleries, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, said:  

“We are delighted to be working towards the presentation of the Lindisfarne Gospels in Newcastle in 2022 and have now reached the landmark of only one year to go! We will be announcing further significant news in the coming months about both the exhibition and the associated programme.” 

Xerxes Mazda, Head of Collections and Curation at the British Library, said:  

“The Lindisfarne Gospels is one of the greatest treasures in the Library’s care and we are looking forward to displaying the manuscript in the North East once again next year. The Gospels is renowned for the intricacy and beauty of its decoration and we are excited to see how it is reimagined for a twenty-first century audience.”