West Surrey Area
Museums & Art Galleries
Iona, Lindisfarne and the Glory of the North
of the lecture given by Patricia Wright
on February 27th 2013
When we consider the rugged terrain that the early
Celtic evangelists covered, it is a miracle that they spread their
belief so far, and achieved such outstanding works of art and religion.
Patricia Wright, undoubtedly a master of detail, gave us a fascinating
overview of these early stirrings of Christianity: a new religion which
brought a cultural awakening to the British Isles.
There are many
half-remembered names: Patrick, Palladius, Ninian,
Columba, Augustine, Aidan, Bede, Caedmon, Hilda, Wilfrid and Cuthbert,
but where do they fit in?
The Romans had first brought Christianity to Southern Scotland, but it
was only two centuries later in the 430s that Patrick and Palladius
evangelised Ireland, along with Ninian in Scotland. The Irish
evangelists, who had no written language, were amazed to realise that
they could, in Latin, communicate with their God, and so they
travelled, as sole interpreters of this new civilisation, to Rome,
where they acquired knowledge of Latin, which subsequently allowed for
the Gospels to be set down in books and spread through the Christian
In 560, St Columba left Ireland in a coracle-like boat, with little
food for survival, to settle with his monks on Iona. He was a
charismatic envoy, hot-tempered and having a voice “like the trumpet of
God”. It was he who faced an unknown monster whom he quelled with
his shouting – Patricia describes this as the first recorded sighting
of the Loch Ness monster!
Aidan of Lindisfarne
Gradually the beliefs spread south into Northumbria, despite the
endemic fighting. By the mid seventh century, Aidan from Iona
established Lindisfarne, and from there many tiny churches (of four or
five monks) developed. Initially the Irish had preached in the
open air, in front of a cross they brought with them, but now the first
stone buildings, looking like beehives, appeared.
The Lindisfarne Gospels
Lindisfarne became the hub of literacy for Christians
not only in
Britain but all over Europe. Paintings, metalwork, carvings and
books are found far and wide bearing marks of the Celtic gift.
Originally, the designs bore no human figures, but they were
incorporated later, to illustrate the humanity of Christ. Each
page of the Gospels produced by the monks had to carry a mistake, for
only God is perfect.
"Carpet Page" from the Lindisfarne Gospels
As churches were constructed by monks who were sent to Europe to learn
the lost skills of mortar and glass production, local craftsmen were
trained, and villages were encouraged in husbandry to support these
skills, and thus civilisation was raised gradually from subsistence
The first British poet, Caedmon, was discovered by the abbess Hilda.
Originally a cowherd, he entertained the monks with verse stories, and
so Hilda persuaded him to become a monk, to spread the Gospels.
But all this ended with the arrival of the Vikings, who sacked and
pillaged the churches, monasteries and villages. The monks fled far and
wide, carrying whatever treasures they could, including Cuthbert’s
body, relics, and books such as the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Our warm thanks to Patricia for filling our imaginations with the
events of these long-gone centuries.