Inside the mind of a writer www.scskillman.co.uk

Nothing much, you may think – because Eadfrith was a seventh century monk in a monastery on an island, and we live in the fast, materialistic, time-pressured world of 2016.

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sunset on Lindisfarne

I’ve just spent three days on Lindisfarne (otherwise known as Holy Island), just off the Northumberland coast, where Eadfrith sat in the monastery scriptorium and scribed and decorated the Lindisfarne Gospels every day for two years between  696 and 698 AD, in order to commemorate the elevation of St Cuthbert’s relics. 

So why is it that the book he created is so revered and has such a hold on our imagination now? – apart  from its age and the wonderful fact of its survival?

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Display in the Lindisfarne Heritage Centre, Holy Island

I believe it’s because of the dedication, the patient concentration and the painstaking artistry that breathes out from the pages, and because of what inspired its creation: love and devotion.

Eadfrith created it “for the glory of God and St Cuthbert”.

St Cuthbert himself inspired so much reverence because he was a holy man, at one time bishop of Lindisfarne, who died as a hermit in 687 on Inner Farne (which I recently visited), and around whose body many miracles occurred.

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Sculpture in St Mary’s Church Holy Island, showing the monks who carried Cuthbert’s body to escape from Viking raiders

The astonishing story of his body, which failed to decay for many years, records how he was carried for several decades by faithful monks around Northumberland, to escape Viking attack, before finally it was laid to rest in the spot over which Durham Cathedral was built. You can visit St Cuthbert’s Tomb in Durham Cathedral, a place which has a strong spiritual resonance and atmosphere of holiness.

The glorious book which is the Lindisfarne Gospels is a testament to patience, concentration, love and devotion. preface to St Mark's Gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels

For us now, to gaze at, or to work with, the patterns Eadfrith painted is a pathway to peace and joy – hence the popularity of Celtic colouring-in books for adults, partly because the act of colouring-in forces you to pay close attention and eliminate all distractions. Celtic designs based on the Lindisfarne gospels pop up everywhere20160829_112732 – here’s an image of my lovely metal bookmark displaying Eadfrith’s designs – notice particularly his ornamental birds (Lindisfarne has long been a paradise for birds, so Eadfrith had plenty of them to model his designs on).

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Detail from the Lindisfarne Gospels, in St Mary’s Church Holy Island

In creating the ornamental designs, Eadfrith needed to pay minute attention to the geometrical foundations and symmetry of the overall design – very little was left to chance or the “inspiration of the moment.”

The book he created is now revered not just for the beauty and skill within its pages, I believe, but because that beauty is a physical representation on this earth of a spiritual reality – goodness, peace, patience, holiness and love.

Eadfrith had to source, prepare, or make from scratch everything he used – the parchments of vellum; the pen from a thick reed or quill feather; the ink, from animal, vegetable and mineral raw materials, ground to a fine powder and then mixed with egg white. I have personal experience of something of this latter part of the process at least, because I did an icon-painting course a few years ago and we mixed artists’ pigment with egg-white to paint our own icons on pieces of wood we had ourselves prepared – see the photo here of my own icon of the Archangel Gabriel.20160829_123557

After Eadfrith had created the Gospels, he left the scriptorium and as far as we know he never painted or wrote anything else – not that I’m suggesting this is a model for creative writers of today!

I find his story awe-inspiring and uplifting because it gives me an image of a patient, devoted person sitting alone in a quiet place concentrating absolutely on a work of art, to the exclusion of all else. It makes me think of many others who have created great works in similar circumstances – those who have been perhaps in prison, like St Paul, or Cervantes who wrote Don Quixote, two amongst several examples: or those who have deliberately chosen to go apart into an isolated place like Eadfrith in the scriptorium, free of distractions.

To be free of distractions and able to fully concentrate and devote yourself to the task in hand is such a luxury now, such an ideal for writers and artists to aspire to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments on: "What does Eadfrith, artist-scribe of the Lindisfarne Gospels, have to teach creative writers and artists today?" (11)

  1. […] What does Eadfrith, artist-scribe of the Lindisfarne Gospels, have to teach creative writers and art… […]

  2. This is a place on my list to visit, so thank you for that very informative post, Sheila! My brother-in-law did a retreat there a few years ago, and he says it was magical. I think perhaps I should visit without young children in tow (they are too much of a distraction!). And yes, the dream of a real writers’ retreat is one that I hold on to, for when my children are older and I have the time to myself… 😉
    https://spookymrsgreen.com/2015/06/26/i-need-a-writing-retreat-hello-campnanowrimo/

    • Thank you for my comment and quite a few people have told me my post has inspired them to either visit for the first time or return to Lindisfarne sooner rather than later. The dreamlike, tranquil atmosphere of the island is so beautiful, when the day tourists have gone and the tide is in. For birdwatchers it’s a paradise too – we were just too late to see nesting puffins, we should have gone in July to catch the last part of their stay on the island.

  3. Wonderfully written, giving insights of a needed revival of giving of devotion and free of distraction so as to do and use the gifts given to the glory of God, as an act of worship. Thanks

  4. Wonderful and very informative piece about somewhere I have heard of but never knew much about.

    • Thank you. It was so inspiring – the island is only accessible by a causeway which is cut off by the tide twice a day. There is a wonderful rhythm of life there. All the businesses know exactly when their custom is going to arrive, and when they can relax! The island has an amazing double character. Sometime, when the tide’s out, you’d think you were in a tourist hub. Then when the tide’s in, the island is quiet, dreamy, peaceful… it just has a different character all together. I’m glad we were there for 3 nights, and didn’t just go as day tourists. I’d love to visit again,- and go on retreat there for a week.

  5. I was just listening to a programme all about him that was on Radio 4 this morning at 9am! Did you hear it?

    • No, sadly I didn’t, but I did catch the beginning of it, and then had to leave the house to travel to my part-time job. However I did think to myself Melvyn Bragg is the ideal person to explore the subject of Eadfrith! I will try to listen to the programme again later on the Radio 4 website.

  6. That is indeed inspiring Sheila. I’ve been there too, years ago, so it’s lovely to see these images again and remember how creativity has inspired and moved so many in so many ways.

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