Woven Words in the Lindisfarne Gospels
By Chiara Valle
PhD Dissertation, Johns Hopkins University, 2015
Abstract: This dissertation investigates the meanings and function of the five ornamental pages that decorate the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, Cotton Nero D.IV), a Gospel book produced in the British Isles, most likely in the Isle of Lindisfarne, around 720 CE.
Along with the ornament, the manuscript is embellished with portraits of the Evangelists and display scripts. Since the publication of a facsimile edition in 1960, the manuscript has been widely studied. A vast bibliography has explored the meanings of the miniatures, analyzing the ornament within the early medieval pictorial tradition of the Mediterranean basin.
The present research relies on these studies, and takes a slightly different perspective by examining the ways that the ornamental pages work within the book itself. Interpreting each carpet page in light of the preceding portrait and the following text, it explores the ways in which the written and figurative languages share means of construction with the ornamental pages and enhance their metamorphic nature. The carpet pages transform the geometric shapes into crosses, they blur the positive and the negative spaces, they reveal and hide crosses and geometric shapes.
This dissertation interprets the ornament not so much as a static image, but rather as a composition in motion that exists in tension between figurative and abstract, between mimicked materials and pure signs. The fluid and transformative character of the carpet pages prompts the beholder to assume an interpretative role, discerning new patterns and shapes each time he looks at the ornament.
As a whole, the dissertation demonstrates that ornament is a progressive element. The carpet pages activate the beholder’s senses and the paradoxes of perception: they mimic textiles and enamels that cannot be touched; they show crosses and forms that disappear in the background; the intricacy of the carpet pages makes the viewer’s eyes wander within the pictorial composition and act on its meanings each time the viewer looks at it. The obscurity of the carpet pages provides an obstacle even to the most educated eyes, and by hiding more than revealing the Word, it engages with the nature of an invisible divine.