By the hand of Eadfrith

16th February 1996 at 00:00
THE LINDISFARNE GOSPELS. Video Pounds 12.95. Turpin Distribution Services Ltd. Blackhorse Road, Letchworth. Herts SG6 1HN. Age range: 11-plus

On the island of Lindisfarne, off the north-east coast of England, 1,300 years ago, a monk called Eadfrith, later to become Bishop of Lindisfarne, embarked on the long task of creating one of the most beautiful objects ever wrought by human hands.

The Lindisfarne Gospels is a big hand-written and illuminated book of vellum pages, written in honour of God and St Cuthbert, containing the four gospels of the New Testament. It is an awesome thing, speaking across 13 centuries with a message of devotion, craftsmanship and pride. Eadfrith's handwriting style, and the manner of his illumination and illustration still inspire artists and calligraphers today. Of this kind of immortality, at least, he is assured.

If the book is miraculous in the best sense, then there is also something wondrous in the fact that it has survived for so long. In 753, when Lindisfarne was sacked by the Vikings, the book was carried to Durham. There it remained until Henry VIII and the dissolution, when it was taken to London and, sadly, divested of its richly ornamented binding. In Victorian times a new and very beautiful silver binding was made, every detail of which is taken from illustrations in the book itself.

The Lindisfarne Gospels can be seen in the British Library. What the visitor longs to do, though, is to leaf through the 258 calf-skin (130 calves) pages and examine it in detail. For obvious reasons, this is not possible. The video, however, is a good substitute for first-hand experience, adding a great deal of fascinating background material about the times in which the book was written.

Evocatively framed by atmospheric scenes shot at Holy Island - as Lindisfarne is now known - the video shows many original pages with a lot of close-up detail while a voice-over commentary tells the story of what it calls "a labour of piety and love". We are told how Eadfrith worked with "a pen cut from a reed or a bird's feather" and we see the "prickings" by which he measured his line spacings. We learn too that his blue colouring is lapis lazuli from (in 698ad remember) the foothills of the Himalayas. There is also a great deal of information about the life of St Cuthbert.

The video succeeds in being both a source of information about the Lindisfarne Gospels and a celebration of their beauty and symbolism. It would be very suitable as a resource for secondary-school work in art or religious education, or to support a local study of Holy Island at any level.

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