Newcastle upon Tyne
Holy Island, misty, mystical images, history and music. Lindisfarne, a Geordie folk band, an Island, a Tidal causeway, Saxon church, historic abbey ruins.... Here in Newcastle-upon- Tyne, it’s the Islands most potent and important icon that’s landed in the City’s delightful Laing Gallery. The Lindisfarne Gospels, well two of them, were on display.
Lindisfarne, located just off Northern Northumberland cold and wild coast, part of a ‘family’ of churches, and monasteries, Jarrow, and Monkswearmouth. Religion, the heart of these communities, was more than a church, a priest, and a cross. It was knowledge, information, ideas, and their dissemination, a world without printing, needed a library, scriptorium. Beyond an orator, books, hand copied, were the only source of knowledge. The Lindisfarne Gospels, two, as I mentioned, were on display. Blue Peter’s overview, of the illuminated texts, the bible stories, might have made this Boomer they think understood the creative process, the beauty, it didn’t. The reality is something more besides.
The display opens with a film of 7th Century Britain, at the edge of a collapsed Roman world, becoming a repository of Christian thought, ideas and practice. Ireland, Western Scotland, were fonts of Education, Science in Western Europe, and beyond. Nowhere more critical in this world was Lindisfarne, with its Gospels, and glories. What leaps out is the sheer dexterity, amazing skills, colours, and dedication. Colours are the most impressive, Reds, and Blues, Greens, and Yellows, bright as today’s printed pages, even after 1400 years of sometimes carefully managed degradation.
The exhibition recounts the development of a community, it’s connectedness to Europe and beyond, Islam, and India. There’s the account of Bede’s life, Cuthbert and Aiden, founding fathers of the community. Idyll first, then the raids, then a final cataclysmic Viking invasion, destroying the community. One the run, venerated bodies, people, priests, books, myths manage an itinerant survival, across the mountains and rivers of England’s contested border lands.
Dim lighting created a ‘there’ atmosphere, a deftly executed world building swept us up and inside and along. The priceless exhibits were behind glass, annotated; where, when, what was happening.
In the gloom what leapt out was, how did the colours survive? How did these books, vermilion and calf skin, survive the vagaries of climate and humidity changes. I wondered, how were the books written, here in Newcastle there’s really winter light for what six hours a day? When some single letters would have taken a day to compose? The incredible detail, scribbled in candle light, unimaginable in our ove-illuminated world was breathtaking. As were art effects, amazing miniatures, celtic patterned stone work and stained glass.
The Exhibition was, the Bibles, and much more, setting the context, the events, the forces, the whole sweep of ideas and art. In all highlighting a sense of survival. Ideas and skills that could have been lost, preserved. Treasured by a few hunted people. It was a delight to see, and imagine what life was like, 1400 years ago as it provides an insight into the survival of these books. I was left with a sense of gratitude for magnificent work’s survival.
These Books themselves are the liturgical equivalent of the more feted ‘old masters’ and must be judged and assessed as such. Colour, skill, composition, are all on the Bibles’ pages. Looking at these pages and reflecting on the time and skills these compositions took, it’s perhaps understandable there were so few, if any ‘classic’ paintings from these periods.
The exhibition closes here in Newcastle, this weekend, after 3 months and by all accounts each session was booked out. The Bibles themselves will be returned to the British Library, much to North East’s chagrin, for display in ‘That London’. If any of you are in London, get to the British Library and experience The Gospels glory. But better than the formal setting of a sterile display, check out the web, book a place, and visit the North Eastern Holy Island, Lindisfarne, (wrap up warm in winter), where it all happened. Experience the magic, mystique, and delights of the island, let its magical history come alive within its ruins, and within your heart.