In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Lindisfarne Gospels

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Exhibitions
  • Gospel Texts
  • Canon Tables
  • Capitulae Lectionem, Quasi-Capitularies and Liturgical Lections
  • Layout of Text Pages and Punctuation
  • Paleography
  • Technical Studies: Pigments, Vellum, and Parchment

Medieval Studies Lindisfarne Gospels
Carol A. Farr, Michelle P. Brown
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0048


The Lindisfarne Gospels is a large format, splendidly decorated manuscript presenting the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the first four books of the New Testament, introduced by canon tables, prefatory texts, a capitulary, carpet pages, evangelist portraits with symbols, and large decorated incipits. It is widely accepted, based on its 10th-century colophon, to have been made at the monastery on Lindisfarne (Holy Island) in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, during the episcopacy of Eadfrith (698–721). A national treasure of Great Britain, the manuscript is now kept at the British Library in London, where it is identified by its shelfmark, Cotton MS Nero D.IV. Nearly every aspect of the Lindisfarne Gospels is notable. Its scale, ambition, and quality of execution tell of the resources, power, and prestige of Christianity in early 8th-century Northumbria. Its gospel text is among the best and most complete of surviving early examples of the Vulgate version of the gospels. Its interlinear gloss, along with the colophon, was added in the 10th century in Old English, the earliest English translation of the gospels. The design of its elegant canon tables represents one of the earliest surviving Insular uses of arcade frames to organize the columns of indexing numbers (Eusebian sections). Its capitulary reveals links with continental gospel books and their liturgical use. Its script is an influential synthesis of earlier forms, from Ireland, Britain, and Italy, and the layout of its pages reflects a similar unification of earlier graphic styles, achieving great clarity and elegance. The carpet pages and decorated initials at the beginning of each gospel represent a turning point from earlier styles, as seen in the Book of Durrow, to the decoration appearing in manuscripts such as the Lichfield Gospels and the Book of Kells. A remarkable stylistic synthesis of Insular and Mediterranean styles can be seen in the evangelist portraits. Moreover, they are the earliest Insular examples in which portrait and symbol appear together, and they have unique or important features, such as an unexplained extra figure in the Matthew portrait, inscriptions in hybrid script, and a distinctive presentation of the figure of John. One of the foundation blocks of the study of Insular art, the Lindisfarne Gospels has also been an object of textual, linguistic, and paleographic studies since the 16th century.

General Overviews

Available overviews present the manuscript to readers at several levels. Backhouse 1992 remains among the best for general audiences, while Brown 2011 clearly defines by format the introductory sections of the text and aids the reader with spectacular illustrations and an array of didactic materials. For students, Neuman de Vegvar 1987 presents a fine introduction to the Northumbrian context. A survey of the Irish artistic context still useful for students is given in Henry 1965, and Henderson 1987 provides a stimulating survey of Insular manuscripts. These, along with the “brown” sections of Brown 2011, would all be appropriate for students through advanced levels. Indeed, Henry 1965, Neuman de Vegvar 1987, and Henderson 1987 are still cited regularly in specialized scholarship as they offer valuable insights. The commentary volumes of the two facsimiles, Kendrick, et al. 1960 and Brown 2003, are essential overviews for specialist scholars. Brown 2003 moreover is accessible to readers with more general backgrounds. Koehler 1972 is of great value to the specialist art historian or manuscripts scholar who can put Koehler’s notes into the bigger picture of early medieval manuscripts.

  • Backhouse, Janet. The Lindisfarne Gospels. Oxford: Phaidon, 1992.

    A short, heavily illustrated general survey covering the manuscript’s early and later history, text, script, construction, decoration, and artistic context. Has a dated but still useful bibliography. A good introduction to the manuscript. Originally published in 1981.

  • Brown, Michelle P. The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality and the Scribe. London: British Library, 2003.

    The commentary volume for the 2002 facsimile (Brown 2002, cited under Complete Facsimiles) published as an affordable free-standing study. Includes detailed studies on all aspects of the manuscript, with appendices presenting results of the Raman microscopy pigment analysis and a textual collation (on CD-ROM). Has become the standard reference. Also see Gospel Texts, Capitulae Lectionem, Quasi-Capitularies, and Liturgical Lections, and Decorated Initials and Display Script.

  • Brown, Michelle P. The Lindisfarne Gospels and the Early Medieval World. London: British Library, 2011.

    Integrates multiple aims: beautiful coffee table book, general introduction, and series of detailed studies citing much relevant bibliography and the author’s own views. The introductory-level texts are printed in black, with detailed analytical sections in brown. Includes Prittlewell and Staffordshire finds and a wealth of contextual material, maps, timelines, photographic details (erasures, underdrawings), and so on.

  • Henderson, George. “The Lindisfarne and Lichfield Gospels.” In From Durrow to Kells: The Insular Gospel-Books 650–800. By George Henderson, 171–184. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

    This chapter is an art historical study of the decoration, with interesting cross-media comparisons. Discusses questions associated with provenance and date along with the colophon and later history. Presents an influential analysis of the Matthew portrait.

  • Henry, Françoise. Irish Art in the Early Christian Period (to A.D. 800). 3d ed. London: Methuen, 1965.

    Useful, although dated, for the broader context, encompassing Irish art. Discussion of Lindisfarne Gospels gives alternative view for date (cf. Brown 2003), comparison of design techniques with construction drawings on Irish trial pieces (cf. Bruce-Mitford 1960, cited under Evangelist Portraits and Symbols), and analysis of relationship to the Lichfield Gospels.

  • Kendrick, Thomas D., T. Julian Brown, Rupert L. S. Bruce-Mitford, et al., eds. Evangeliorum Quattuor Codex Lindisfarnensis. Vol. 2, Commentariorum Libri Duo, Quorum Unus de Textu Evangeliorum Latino et Codicis Ornatione, Alter de Glossa Anglo-Saxonica. Olten, Switzerland: Urs Graf, 1960.

    At least two essays put forth compelling or controversial analyses and interpretations. T. Julian Brown’s palaeographic study is the foundation for that in Brown 2003. Bruce-Mitford’s study of the decoration presents influential analyses and, along with T. Julian Brown’s essay, proposes the controversial “Durham-Echternach calligrapher.”

  • Koehler, Wilhelm R. W. Buchmalerei des frühen Mittelalters. Fragmente und Entwürfe aus dem Nachlaß. Edited by Ernst Kitzinger and Florentine Mütherich. Munich: Prestel, 1972.

    Posthumously edited notes. Has full indices of manuscripts and extensive endnotes on the text, contextualizing the jotted-down ideas. Several sections treat Lindisfarne. A fresh but informed view, Koehler’s insight is still valuable. The book itself is of considerable historiographic interest.

  • Neuman de Vegvar, Carol L. The Northumbrian Renaissance: A Study in the Transmission of Style. Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 1987.

    Clearly written survey of 7th- and 8th-century Northumbrian visual art. Has a discussion of the Lindisfarne Gospels tracing its art style’s genesis to reveal its true, creative synthesis. Analyzes and evaluates theories on important questions concerning stylistic and iconographic sources. Puts the manuscript and scholarship on it in context.

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