Three of the Greatest Works of Western Calligraphy, available to view online (click each title for the link)
See the real thing at: The British Library, London
One of the most famous illuminated manuscripts in the world. Created over the period of several years by a single scribe, Eadrith, around 700CE, at the monastery in Lindisfarne.
Image 1: An initial page from the Gospel of Matthew, featuring a famous, elaborately illuminated Chi-Ro (XP - abbreviation for “Christ”). The page reads “xp autem generatio sic erat…” - Now the birth of Jesus Christ was of this kind. It’s the story of Christmas!
Image 2: Looking up illuminated manuscripts on Wikipedia, the only images included are generally of the illuminations. If, like me, you’re into calligraphy, you want to see the actual writing! Here’s the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. The script is insular majuscule, notable for wedge serifs (easy to pick out on top of b’s and d’s), elongated letters (a style associated with Irish calligraphy. Look at the terminal L, e’s and a’s, down the left column), and ligatures connecting letters.
The gloss (smaller writing above the main text) is an Old English translation, added in the 10th century. This is the oldest known translation of the gospels into English.
See the real thing at: Trinity College Library, Dublin
The Book of Kells, containing the gospels and prefatory writings, is known for its elaborate illuminations, including beautiful examples of Celtic knotwork (image 3). The illuminations show the influence of Byzantinium on European art.
Image 4 shows the use of a wide variety of different colors throughout the text.
The script is a late example of insular majuscule. The wedge serifs are even more prominent here.
See the real thing at: The British Museum, London
While the Book of Kells is often cited as the most beautiful manuscript in the world, for my money nothing beats the St. Cuthbert Gospel. This 7th century copy of the Gospel of John is the oldest surviving bound book in Europe.
The St. Cuthbert Gospel was made at Lindisfarne, late in the 7th century, shortly before work began on the Lindisfarne Gospels. Despite their similar histories, the two books could not be more different. Whereas the Lindisfarne Gospels are elaborately illuminated, the St. Cuthbert Gospel is almost completely free of additional decoration. Images 5 shows the enlarged capitals, some showing rubrication (rubrication is the process of writing part of a text in red), that serve as the only decorative elements in the St. Cuthbert Gospel.
The text is written in uncial script, the same script St. Jerome used (and helped develop) for the Vulgate bible. Of particular interest are the letters a and m (image 6), tall ascenders on L, d, and h, and unique F with descender (last line).
I can’t entirely explain why I find the St. Cuthbert Gospel so striking. I’m not sure if describing the writing as supremely elegant really explains anything, but dammit it is! The uniformity and regularity of the writing gives it an amazingly holistic quality (see full page in image 5) that surpasses anything Ive ever seen. I can’t say why I love it so much, but I could look at it forever.
I plan on doing a series of these. We’ll head over to continental Europe next time, and time travel across many more years. Let me know if you have any favorites for me to check out!
Finally, what do you think? Lindisfarne Gospels, with their elaborate illuminations, or the simplicity of the St. Cuthbert Gospel? Both?