Eadfrith, according to a 10th-century inscription, was a monk and Bishop of Lindisfarne on Northumbria’s Holy Island, who wrote out and illuminated the entire gospels singlehandedly, to create the exquisite book at the heart of this exhibition. He worked for 10 years around AD700, “for God and St Cuthbert [a Lindisfarne bishop] and generally for all the holy folk who are on the island.”
What an artist Eadfrith was. Being a book, its vellum pages still bound together after 1,300 years, the Lindisfarne Gospels can only be displayed a double-page spread at a time. They’ve selected a banger. To the left is a “carpet” page, so named because it resembles an eastern rug – but you could equally well call it a Jackson Pollock page, with its abstract coils and knots; a many-layered pattern in delicate yet acid-sharp green, pink and gold.
To the right is the opening of the Gospel of St John: “In the beginning was the Word.” But Eadfrith is so entranced by pattern he makes the Word appear a glorious object, a treasure, rather than a functional tool of communication. The letter N is even turned on its side like a Z to fit the opulent design.
The survival of this book is a true miracle. In AD793, Viking raiders sacked Lindisfarne, yet its gospels were spared looting. Archaeological discoveries are often hyped as the “British Pompeii” yet this pristine monastic time capsule may actually deserve such comparisons.
It is rightly cherished by north-east England, and every seven years or so the British Library loans one of its greatest treasures to what was, in Eadfrith’s day, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. Last time it was exhibited at Durham Cathedral. Now it comes to the much more 21st-century setting of central Newcastle, heralded by art commissions that supposedly show its relevance to the contemporary world, and Tyneside in particular. But the gulf of time between Eadfrith and us turns out to be too vast for that to work.
This illuminated manuscript was created about 1,300 years ago. Making it cool is a tall order. Jeremy Deller’s film The Deliverers appears slyly to acknowledge this. It starts with the venerable volume being prepared for its journey from the British Library, then after a conversation between two books in Old English there’s a vortex of colours, a nightclub beat, and the boxed volume lands on a pub table in Newcastle where a group of young folk are enjoying a drink. They take the box to the Laing Gallery and open it to release a magic glow.
It is either a glossy trailer or a piss-take. Either way it doesn’t help us understand the Lindisfarne Gospels. At least it shows the volume, though, unlike Ruth Ewan’s massively irrelevant installation of possessions that local people treasure.
A manuscript made in AD700 doesn’t speak our language, and not just because it’s in Latin. It belongs to another world. Getting something out of it has to mean imaginatively entering that world. Instead of dragging these mysterious pages into our time it is we who must make the journey.
When the exhibition gets down to that, it comes to life. You are surrounded by coiling serpents, tail-eating monsters and latticed interwoven shapes from an utterly mysterious age. The meaty part of the show unleashes these delights as it provides visual context for the Lindisfarne Gospels. It’s a striking encounter with a cultural world accepting Christianity yet still filled with dragons. One piece of a stone cross from Scotland has entwined patterns on one side and strange, disjointed figures on the other. Another fragmentary monument, erected in Croft-on-Tees in the ninth century, shows dogs and birds chewing their own bodies.
Among these terrors and marvels, Christianity offered a clear message. The cross in early medieval art is not the bloodstained, sacrificial image of Christ’s agony it would later become. It is a triumphant sign. These stone crosses once stood boldly in the landscape. And in manuscripts, the cross becomes an abstract totem: on a page of the Otho-Corpus Gospels, also created in about AD700, an eagle symbolising St John is surrounded by green-blue crosses, floating in space. It was made in either Northumbria or Iona, the Hebridean island settled by Irish monks where the Book of Kells was probably created.
Unfortunately, although this exhibition has some beautiful art, it does not try to tell the story of Iona, nor for that matter its Northumbrian analogue Lindisfarne, in much depth. The room of wonders is just that, a collection of lovely early medieval treasures whose thread of argument soon loses itself in all those tangled designs. For instance, there’s an early manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People - but nothing to take us into the epic story of the coming of Christianity this Anglo-Saxon masterpiece tells.
It’s apparent the Laing wants to keep its history light and accessible. But the British Museum has been proving for years that you don’t have to oversimplify history to make it popular. Here, you end up wanting more detail: more about the Anglo-Saxons, early Christian art, manuscripts … so much more. It’s interesting yet unsatisfying. Still, the primary school kids I shared my early view with were noisily engaged.
• This article was amended on 16 September 2022. An earlier version incorrectly described St Cuthbert as Lindisfarne’s “founder”.
Lindisfarne Gospels is at Laing Gallery, Newcastle, from 17 September to 3 December