Saint Eadfrith and the Lindisfarne Gospels
- To remember the life and work of a significant Christian artist and craftsman.
- To think about making the best use of one's personal talents.
- To wonder at what it means to be 'creative'.
- To consider the meaning and use of different Christian signs and symbols, especially the cross.
- To investigate the importance of gospel stories about Jesus for Christians.
- To investigate the importance of stories about saints for some Christians.
- To note the similarities and differences between the use of 'sacred designs' in Christianity and other faiths.
- To stimulate creative writing.
- To study, copy and play with some of the different motifs and patterns used in the Gospels (using a variety of pigments and tools), including different styles of calligraphy.
- To experiment with mark-making using different household materials and improvised tools.
- To incorporate some of these ideas in a designed drawing or model of a 'standing cross'.
- To consider the different cultural influences that constitute the modern UK.
- To explore what original artefacts might reveal about life in Anglo-Saxon England.
Eadfrith (?-721) was Bishop of Lindisfarne in the years 698 to 721, and his tenure marked the creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Many historians believe he was both the scribe and illustrator of the Gospels, as the manuscript seems to be the work of one man, and it was likely created prior to Eadfrith becoming bishop. However, others believe he just commissioned the work, along with others such as Bede's Life of Saint Cuthbert (completed 720). The Gospels show a remarkable diversity of influences:
- The language is Latin, the common speech of European scholars, derived from Ancient Rome. This is annotated with a later Old English translation.
- The lettering is in the northern European Gothic style.
- The illustrations and patterns are unmistakeably Celtic, similar to the Irish-Gaelic Book of Kells.
- The 'carpet page' designs are strikingly similar to patterns found in Christian religious designs of the Eastern Mediterranean region from the same period.
- The materials used come from a range of sources, many created on site.
The Lindisfarne Gospels provide concrete evidence of a cross-cultural fusion of ideas and trade networking across Europe - an important point for our own age.
There are some excellent resources available on the Lindisfarne Gospels - for example, those from the British Library and British Museum.
The original Gospels manuscript is often on display in the British Library and the British Library website includes a digital version enabling anyone to 'turn the pages’ and take a closer look using a magnifying tool.
A short tour of the Gospels is also available on the British Library's website as a kind of illustrated lecture.
The British Library's education page takes you to a menu containing a series of assemblies about the Gospels, with useful background information, as well as downloads of designs for bookmarks and cards.
Ask your pupils:
- Who likes making things?
Discuss the different things we are proud to have made and what we like about them. Explain that this is called being 'creative' and that everybody is creative in some way. Sometimes we make things just for fun. Sometimes we make things that do a job. And sometimes we can make things for their own sake - because we simply want to create something amazing and beautiful.
Show this page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, without explaining what it is, and get your pupils to talk in pairs about what they see. (For best effect, when looking at digital images of the Gospels, ensure that your classroom has enough curtains/blinds for a reasonable level of blackout and a strong enough projector to display the images well.)
- Can they notice five interesting things about it?
- What do they think it is?
After a short time, feed back their observations and theories - expect someone to say it's a Muslim prayer mat or a carpet. Tease them by saying that the original is only the size of a piece of A4 paper. Explain that this is actually a decorated page from a handmade Bible, called the Lindisfarne Gospels, which is about 1300 years old. Ask those pupils who talked about making things, how long it took them to do it. Then explain that each page of the Gospels took Eadfrith about two months to create. If they mention the birds - there are 559 in all - explain that Eadfrith lived and worked on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne where there are a lot of seabirds.
Next, show the first page of Matthew's gospel from the Lindisfarne Gospels (slide 8 of the British Library online image viewer), which looks like this:
The British Library, Cotton MS Nero D IV, f027
It was written in Latin and begins by listing Jesus' ancestors. Again, get them talking about what they see: the two large 'snakes' are a very 'Celtic' or Irish pattern. Note also the uncoloured letters - why might they have been left like that? By mistake... or because the artist couldn't do any more... or might it be deliberate?
1. All subjects
Recap on key information. Use Worksheet 1: Eadfrith and the Lindisfarne Gospels (older children) or Worksheet 2: Things we notice and ask (younger or older children), depending on pupil age and ability. Worksheet 2 asks for annotated responses, which might be useful contributions for a 'wondering' wall display - this approach adapts an idea devised by Lat Blakelock of RE Today.
2. RE - reflections
a. To investigate the importance of gospel stories about Jesus for Christians
Explain that a gospel recounts the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, written by those who knew him. There are four of these in the New Testament section of a Christian Bible, thought to be written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who were some of Jesus' disciples. In the Lindisfarne Gospels, each gospel begins with a picture of the man who is thought to have written it, followed by a 'carpet' page of patterns, then a page that shows the (highly decorated) first few words of the gospel.
'Gospel' means 'good news'. For Christians, Jesus was God's 'good news' to the world. He was born about 2000 years ago in a small town in an unimportant part of the Roman Empire. At the age of 30, after a long period of thinking and praying in the desert, he began his mission. For three years, he travelled the land of Judaea, teaching about the Kingdom of God, performing amazing deeds and gathering large crowds of followers. However, he also had powerful enemies who put him to death, but his friends say God brought him back to life again - to prove that he was right, and to open up a whole new way of knowing God. The four gospels of the Christian Bible tell this story in different ways, like the witnesses in a trial who all have to be interviewed so that the police can work out what happened.
Christians treat the gospels as the most important parts of the Bible - it's usually the first part of the Bible they ever get to read. Because of this, the gospels have been translated into almost every language in the world so that people can read them for themselves.
Set the pupils the following task, in pairs:
- Recount and then list the most important things they know about the life of Jesus (a useful assessment activity in itself).
Read a short gospel account from the life of Jesus - for example, Jesus meets Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), Jesus and Jairus' daughter (Mark 5:35-43), The feeding of the 5000 (John 6:5-15). Afterwards, explain what this story tells us about Jesus.
- What is the most interesting/puzzling/surprising part of the story?
- What's the most interesting question we can ask about it?
Draw a quick cartoon sketch of the most important moment in the story, using 'stick figures' for the different characters. In thought bubbles, show what they might all be thinking at that point.
b. To investigate the importance of stories about saints for Christians
The Lindisfarne gospels were created in thankful memory of Saint Cuthbert, a famous bishop and abbot who died near Lindisfarne and was later buried there. In the Bible, all Christians are called saints, but some people say that a saint is someone whose life especially reveals something important about God. There are many stories of saints performing miracles but also of simply being good people who care for others. (For material to explore this further with your pupils, see the following Barnabas in Schools ideas.)
Worksheet 3: What is a saint? provides the basis for some simple research about a few of our national saints, and an extension asks the pupils to consider what they would like to be remembered for. There are a lot of good websites for researching the lives of saints - see, for example, illuminatedink.com/saint_symbols.
c. Growing your personal talents
Share the parable of the talents found in Matthew 25:14-30. Explain that, in Bible times, a talent was worth several thousand pounds.
- Why do your pupils think the three servants had such different responses to the challenge set them?
Point out that, in English, a talent can also mean 'an ability'. If you're 'talented', that means you're good at doing something - designing and making things, organising people, solving problems, serving and helping other people, understanding how things work, explaining yourself clearly, finding out information, raising plants or animals, looking after small children... all sorts of things!
- What talents do you think Eadfrith needed to create the Lindisfarne Gospels by hand?
- Do you think he was just born with these skills, or do you think he had to practise and get better?
In pairs, set the pupils the task of discussing and listing each others' talents - aim for five talents on every list. Point out that this doesn't necessarily mean what they are best at, compared to others, but rather what they are good at. And they may have talents they are not yet aware of - that's what coming to school and growing up are all about - to help us discover what we're good at!
Explain that some talents can be very useful as we grow older. For example, a person who enjoys playing with others might be good at working with others; if you like drawing, you could be good at designing or making things; if you're good at solving problems in school, you might use that to solve even bigger problems 'out there' one day. But how do we develop our talents?
Set the task of drawing a plant pot at the bottom of a piece of paper and then add a growing plant. Label the plant with your skill or talent. Next, draw a watering can, the sun and a box marked 'Fertiliser' and label these with the things you will need to do to develop your natural talent further. Now turn your plant into a tree, adding flowers or fruit, and label them with the things your talent could turn into. At the top, add this quote from the parable in Matthew 25:11: Good work! said the Master. You did your job well. From now on, let's work together!
As an alternative task, see Worksheet 4: Reach up! Reach in! Reach out!
d. Signs and symbols
Ask the class what a symbol is, drawing or displaying the obvious 'road sign' examples. Establish that a symbol is a sign that carries an important message without words - it can say something very powerful. Symbols can be very important for people: they are often used as a sign of deep faith - being displayed in the home or place of worship for believers, or even worn.
Display the 'carpet page' for Matthew's gospel (slide 7 of the British Library online image viewer), which looks like this:
The British Library, Cotton MS Nero D IV, f026v
Ask your pupils if they can see any Christian symbols, especially the following:
- The cross, remembering how Jesus was executed.
- Chalices, or cups, as outlines - the sort used for drinking wine, but also used by Christians at Holy Communion or Mass.
- Five chalices to indicate the five wounds of Christ to his hands, feet and side.
- White circles indicating the bread, or 'host', used at Holy Communion or Mass.
Explain that all these symbols together are connected to the Christian celebration of Holy Communion or Mass, during which the minister will show the bread and wine as symbols of the body and blood of Jesus that were broken and poured out at the first Easter. At the Last Supper, Jesus asked his friends to remember him with bread and wine - Christians have done this ever since. Christianity, like other faiths, uses a wide range of signs and symbols to convey complicated ideas.
Next, show this page, the first page of St Matthew from the Gospels. Note the lack of colouring in two letters, while others are fully illuminated. This might be accidental, but it might also convey humility on the part of the artist, because only God can make something completely perfect - a similar idea to the designs used for Amish quilts or Muslim prayer mats, which have a deliberate imperfection. At the time this page was made, many Christians also used prayer mats in church worship, kneeling to face an easterly direction - towards Jerusalem.
Provide the class with a variety of other examples of Christian symbols and their meaning - see, for example, christiansymbols.net or en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_symbolism or fisheaters.com/symbols.html. Then set the task of creating a piece of artwork on a Christian theme, using early Christian symbols such as the Chi-ro, Alpha and Omega, fish, anchor or the Holy Spirit (shown as a wild goose, a dove or fire), using repeating patterns in the style of Eadfrith's repeating chalices outlines, or EF Escher. This could be done using traditional potato printing (or similar technology) or cut-and-paste techniques in IT.
3. Literacy - creative writing
a. The gospels tell their own story
Research the history of the Lindisfarne Gospels (their creation and subsequent story) and retell this as an autobiographical story or poem, from the point of view of the Gospels themselves - ‘I was created like this. There was once a monk called Eadfrith... .'
4. Art - Eadfrith's work on the Lindisfarne Gospels
a. Create a colour-wash sampler
Experimenting with colour is a useful warm-up activity.
Using one colour of paint, some white and some black (and lots of water!), how many different shades can you create, starting with the white, then gradually adding more of the colour and then finally the black? (Eadfrith used at least 45 different colours for illuminating the Gospels.) As you go, create a series of gradually darkening strips across a thin rectangle of paper. Develop this technique to create a larger 'sunrise over the sea' effect painting (start from the sun on the horizon then work out in 'waves'), which can be used for mounting other smaller pieces of work.
b. Making paint and ink
Show one of the illuminated pages from the Lindisfarne Gospels. Eadfrith used a variety of materials to make his own ink and paint, especially from plants and minerals - for example, vinegar poured on copper produced verdigris, a brilliant green. Eadfrith would grind his colours to a fine powder and then mix them with the white of an egg before applying them to the page. His ink was a mixture of soot, glue, soft honey and water. He wrote with either a thick reed or a goose-quill feather.
Set your pupils the task (after you've tried it out for yourself) of writing or drawing with self-created ink, paint or pens. Food colouring, crushed charcoal or normal ink will do if you have nothing else; some fruit and vegetables such as blackberries or blueberries have quite a strong colour in their juice. Aim to get all your class to at least write their own names for display. (Note how quickly these pigments fade in sunlight - a useful point for a science investigation.)
Investigate different styles of lettering from the period and the Gospels, and set the pupils the challenge of writing their own name in that style, then a Bible verse or prayer (for example, The Lord's Prayer, Matthew 6:9-13) that you think would have been important to Eadfrith. Eadfrith used faint guidelines to guide his pen - a useful point for your pupils.
Eadfrith used four main types of decoration:
- birds and dogs, often with very long necks, and all sorts of added details;
- straight-line patterns, often in a series of steps;
- curved-line patterns (often called Celtic or Irish), with spirals;
- interlace: long curving lines that go over and under the others.
He also used lots of small dots as a guide - on one page, there are 10,600 dots.
Set the pupils the task of studying some pages from the Lindisfarne Gospels, either online or high-quality photocopies, to look for any of the above, and encourage them to copy any particularly attractive decoration into a sketchbook. These sketches should be later 'worked up' on plain, spotty or squared paper and used to create larger pieces of artwork by projecting images on to pieces of white frieze paper so the correct proportion is maintained. A variety of paints could be used for the larger version, but experiment with shiny coloured paper, foil or sequins to achieve the 'inlay' effect familiar in Celtic art. (Eadfrith hardly used any gold leaf.)
Note: It is thought that Eadfrith used some kind of 'tracing' technique to transfer his designs from his sketches to the parchment possibly using a backlit 'horn table'. This is similar to tracing a drawing on to an overlaying piece of plain paper by placing both on a window and using the natural 'backlight' to penetrate both pieces of paper and show what needs tracing.
d. Mary Fleeson
Study the 'Celtic' artwork of Mary Fleeson, a modern artist who references the Lindisfarne Gospels and similar Celtic imagery to illustrate passages of scripture and other devotional material. Use this as a stimulus for pupil work. Mary's work can be seen and purchased at lindisfarne-scriptorium.co.uk.
5. PSHE/Citizenship/Circle Time
a. Joy - exploring the things that give us pleasure
Show one of the pages from the Lindisfarne Gospels, remarking on how Eadfrith must have really enjoyed his work, to do it so well. Talk about two activities you personally enjoy doing in and out of school, explaining why. (Keep this to 5 minutes or less and appropriate to the age group!) Ask the pupils to think about all the things they enjoy doing, both in school and out of school. We're all different, but our 'enthusiasms' reveal something very important about us. They show how our minds work. It could be that we like challenges, discovering something new, being creative or doing things with other people. As we get older, some of these enthusiasms might even turn into something bigger - an important life skill, a hobby or even a job!
Write the title 'My enthusiams' on the class board and then divide the board into two parts headed 'At home' and 'In school'. Next, set the pupils the task of drawing/listing at least two or three things they really enjoy doing and why. Get them to discuss these with talking partners. Ask some (willing) pupils to reveal their enthusiasms. Explain that these enthusiasms are very important - if we discover something we enjoy doing, then we shouldn't forget it. Perhaps this is something we need to practise getting better at, because it could be very important for us when we're older.
There was once a famous athlete, a runner named Eric Liddell, who won a gold medal in the Olympics. When he was asked why he enjoyed training so much, he replied,‘Because when I am running, I can feel God's pleasure in me!'
Let's be quiet, shut our eyes and think of something we really enjoy doing - something that makes us feel warm inside. When does it happen? In the silence... imagine doing it now... just where you are... and thank God for it.
b. Persevering - some things take longer
Act as if you are trying to do something on your computer, and when it doesn't work, play act at being really cross about it, saying, 'I wanted you to work now, not NEXT WEEK!'
Explain that we all like things to happen instantly, as and when we need them to. What does the word 'instant' mean? Together, list those things that can be done instantly, and those that can't. Do you notice any similarities among the items on each list?
Explain that some activities aren't instant. Eadfrith probably took about two months to complete each decorated page of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Also, a lot of the things we can use or buy quickly nowadays are only there because someone else has spent a lot of time making them.
Ask the pupils to think of something they've made in school that they are really proud of. Get them to talk about it with a partner.
- What did they like about it?
- How long did it take them to create?
Ask them to feedback ideas. Explain that it normally takes a lot of time and effort to create anything worthwhile. Trees don't grow overnight, pictures aren't painted in a flash and we don't learn a new skill like playing the recorder quickly. It takes time and patience. If you get frustrated and impatient, then you may not succeed.
Set your class the task of learning and practising a new skill, such as balancing a ruler on its end on the tip of your finger. Give subtle hints for success: for example, standing still in a space, keeping your eye on the top of the ruler - and concentrating!
Ask for feedback with some demonstrations. Did they keep their patience when they were practising, or did they lose it?
'Rome wasn't built in a day.' What do you think this famous proverb means? Le's be quiet, shut our eyes and think of something we get impatient about. When does it happen? How do we feel when it happens? In the silence, ask God for help with it.
c. The Lindisfarne Gospels as a symbol of social cohesion
Display the St Matthew page. After discussing what your class notice in it, explain the range of cultural influences that informed its design:
- The curving spirals and knot patterns are Irish Gaelic in origin.
- The lettering is Gothic, derived from 'Saxon' northern Europe.
- The text is Latin, the language of the Roman Empire.
- The original text was Aramaic, from Palestine.
- The materials used include red cochinilla, a dye created from squashing the larvae of a beetle found in western Mediterranean cactus.
- Some of the 'carpet pages' share remarkable similarities to Arabic prayer mats. It is thought that Christian monks of the time were influenced by others living in North Africa and Arabia, at roughly the time when Islam began.
So, we could say that the Gospels are an early symbol of a multicultural Britain, just as the Union Flag was meant to represent the coming together of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Use this idea to create a new design for the modern Union Flag, incorporating text and languages from as many different world languages as possible in the different sections, to represent the different cultures living in the UK. Be sure to include something from the Lindisfarne Gospels as part of the design.
Beware the 'halo effect'! Pupils who are more able in Literacy or Numeracy may not be the ones who are more able in RE, PSHE, Citizenship or Art. Most of the activities listed here could be organised with pupils working as mixed-ability pairs or groups who respect each other's judgement.
7. Plenary: Discussion points
- What do you think Eadfrith would like about your school or classroom? What questions would he have? Could you answer him clearly?
- Of all the books he knew, Eadfrith wanted to make a beautiful copy of the gospels of Jesus Christ. If you had the time and the talent, what beautiful book would you want to copy out?