Monday, March 18, 2013

Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts -- Online

I'm always on the lookout for wonderful online resources that enrich our lives, particularly in the artistic or historic sense. I found two marvelous resources to share with you.

I have a fascination with illuminated manuscripts. On my first visit to London, I was crushed to find out that the Lindisfarne Gospels, a must-see on my trip, was off display at the British Library. A polite sign invited me to return in the fall, when it would be back on display. I wasn't going to be in London in the fall! Aaarrrgh!
So on my second trip to London four years later, a visit less than 24 hours in duration, I hightailed it for the library to feast my eyes. I admit I gazed (probably longer than necessary) upon the revered pages, marveling at the detail, the care, and the beauty of this amazing work.
Here is some information from the British Library website about this manuscript:

The Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the most magnificent manuscripts of the early Middle Ages, was written and decorated at the end of the 7th century by the monk Eadfrith, who became Bishop of Lindisfarne in 698 and died in 721. Its original leather binding, long since lost, was made by Ethelwald, who succeeded Eadfrith as bishop, and was decorated with jewels and precious metals later in the 8th century by Billfrith the Anchorite. The Latin text of the Gospels is translated word by word in an Old English gloss, the earliest surviving example of the Gospel text in any form of the English language, it was added between the lines in the mid 10th century by Aldred, Provost of Chester-le-Street. Today the manuscript is once again bound in silver and jewels, in covers made in 1852 at the expense of Edward Maltby, Bishop of Durham. The design is based on motifs drawn from the decoration of the manuscript itself.

On the off-chance you are not planning to be in London any time soon, you, too, can feast your eyes on this gorgeous work of art (and history and art history) by visiting the British Library's website and its amazing "Turn the Pages" online gallery. This gallery utilizes Adobe Shockwave, so you'll need to download that free application beforehand. But it is SO worth it. "Turn the Pages" features a Magnify function for an up-close look at the details. Another fabulous element is the Audio option, which offers interesting information on the manuscript. Or you can click the Text option to read the same information. Not every page of the manuscript is part of the "Turn the Pages" gallery, but the cross-carpet and opening pages of each gospel are on view.
However, if you don't have Shockwave, you can also view the pages here. For a quick view of the art pages only (no text), Wikimedia Commons offers these nine images.
For more information on the Lindisfarne Gospels, visit the British Library website and run a search for "Lindisfarne Gospels" to hit the motherlode. Here is a quick link to a bit of background. Also, Wikipedia offers an informative entry.
And, in case you ARE planning a visit to London this summer, don't look for the Gospels at the British Library; they'll be at Palace Green Library in Durham, to be displayed alongside the St. Cuthbert Gospel. So plan a jaunt to Durham. I've been there, and it is worth the trip. The cathedral alone (the final resting place of the Venerable Bede) is worth the trip.

I was beyond excited to learn that Trinity College Library Dublin now has the Book of Kells available for viewing online. While all pages are uploaded, there are no scholarly comments as of yet. Here's an excerpt from the library's website on the Book of Kells exhibition:

The Book of Kells (Trinity College Dublin MS 58) is celebrated for its lavish decoration. The manuscript contains the four Gospels in Latin based on a Vulgate text, written on vellum (prepared calfskin), in a bold and expert version of the script known as "insular majuscule". 
The place of origin of the Book of Kells is generally attributed to the scriptorium of the monastery founded around 561 by St Colum Cille on Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland. In 806, following a Viking raid on the island which left 68 of the community dead, the Columban monks took refuge in a new monastery at Kells, County Meath. It must have been close to the year 800 that the Book of Kells was written, although there is no way of knowing if the book was produced wholly at Iona or at Kells, or partially at each location. 
It has been on display in the Old Library at Trinity College Dublin from the mid 19th century, and attracts over 500,000 visitors a year. Since 1953 it has been bound in four volumes. Two volumes are on public view, one opened to display a major decorated page, and one to show two pages of script. The volumes are changed at regular intervals.

For some quick views of pages from the Book of Kells, check out this Wikimedia Commons page of images. And for a thorough (and excessively glowing, IMHO) exposition, read this article from Wikipedia.

Since I have no firm plans to visit Dublin, the online exhibit of the Book of Kells is really a blessing. It's not quite the same as viewing the real thing in person, but it's the next best thing. I look forward to the addition of scholarly explanations added to the website!


Online resources for museum pieces are invaluable for history study and art study. Not only do they give us access to items thousands of miles away, they also give us means to compare similar objects. For example, a worthwhile project for older students would be to compare the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells. How are they similar? How do they differ? Why were they created? Do their disparate ages have something to do with any differences? Do their respective histories have any bearing on their condition today? These are just a few areas of inquiry that pop to my mind (before I've had my coffee).

Of course, seeing these priceless artifacts in person is the peak experience. I imagine the hands that have touches the pages, now protected under glass and low lighting. Hands that worked quietly and surely, hands that smoothed pages before a sacred service, hands that seized roughly in a desperate effort to flee from raiders, hands that worked to restore the ravages of age. . . . 

Perhaps an online study will whet your family's appetite to plan a trip!

1 comment:

  1. My daughter was fascinated by the online Lindisfarne Gospels, which we saw when we visited Lindisfarne this past summer. Thanks for the reminder that we could visit them from home as well! Very interesting to know about the Book of Kells.

    I spent a very happy year doing Ph.D research in the Bibliotheque Nationale, copying out a medieval manuscript. A bookbinder friend in her eighties said to me, "The older I get, the more I come to appreciate vellum!" It really has lasted marvellously well, along with those amazing paints of lapis lazuli, gold leaf, and so on...


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