Frames /sing


Lindisfarne: The Rise of Illuminative Script

põs anaginóskeis;: How Do you Read?

Incarnation and Genealogy in the Linsdisfarne Gospels’ Matthew Incipit Page

The direction that this analysis takes is towards the Lindisfarne Gospels, and towards ultimate question of their mystery. I will leave aside the direct question as to the reasons why, after centuries of non-aestheticized sacred texts, here, in the hollows of insular monasticism, at a veritable edge of Western Civilization, there in particular arose such a fantastical relationship to the letter, to the graphic reality of the inscribed thing. What I will take up are the individual modes of expression, as they are found in one exemplar page of this Gospel, so as to unveil the very mechanism of conceptual expression, in hopes that something of the “why” might be seen in the “how” and the “what”. That is, from the Incipit page of the Gospel of Matthew, in examining its typographical character relationships to rune language, its various lexical conflations found within the fonts of such characters, and then its compositional expressions of the whole, as a subject matter, I will seek to show that the artists behind this creation sought to not only record, but enact an eternal truth; and in enacting it to provide a suitable object for meditation, saying something not only about man, language, and history, but also, necessarily, about God.

Best it is to first introduce the Matthew page from the Lindisfarne document (above), it containing the first verse from that Gospel. It reads, in translation: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, the son of Abraham;” and in Latin Vulgate: “liber generationis Iesu Christi filii David filii Abraham“. The thesis which drives this paper will be that the conceptual content of events that is described in text, will be performed by text, and its typographical, lexical and compositional expression. If my thesis is correct, the book, the material evidential record of Jesus’ line of descent into this world, will be exemplified by the very words and how they are displayed. That is the incarnation of Christ as God, come from its human braid of ancestry, will be made to appear. The reasons for this will be hypothesized about later. As one can see, even given the text content itself without any adornment the exact words on page prove a bit of a visual puzzle. One has to mentally strain to pick up each due letter; one has to recognized that some Latin forms have been replaced by Greek lettering – without using the Greek word; one must see that for instance “Liber” is part of a fanciful curvilinear vortex of forms, or that “S” that ends “generationis” has become a nearly a boxed “x”.

What is it that the monkly hand is doing?, we are forced to ask. That which in most texts should be made most clear, is being made, here, obscure. The sacred text, which is in most cases one would expect to be transparent, here, needs to be itself engaged.

I would like to add to this puzzle the first layer of analysis, that which answers the question, leaving aside for just a moment, the contorted “Liber” at the top, just why are the letters of the main part of the page made in such a boxed fashion, with strong crossing diagonals, bent-back end-pieces, so that each letter diverges from its expected Latin form, but converges on a kind of typeface. If perhaps we unlock the aesthetic and conceptual reasons for their form considering that they are the least divergent perhaps we will have clue to the other expressive deformations.

If one considers the historical circumstances of the painting of this document one understands that Christianity has come to position itself in relation to a druidic and pagan past. There is in a certain sense both a completion of, and a break from a pre-Christian polytheism and animism of clans wherein nature itself was populated by natural forces and spirits. This forms the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic genealogy, if you will, of Northumbrian Christian beliefs, a past which has grown into a Christian present. If we saw a page made for the mediation on Christ’s genealogical antecedents, one would not be surprised to see Anglo-Saxon figurations present to express the historical developments of the people. That is, just as Jesus came from the Jews, we, a Christian we, have come from pagan times.

If you compare the block lettering of the middle text of the first verse, with the forms of Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet, I think you will see an immediate, base typographic similarity:

Present are the same essential rectilinear forms, the cross-patterned verticals, and even the repetition of particle letters (much as Greek letters were used, but without transliterative meaning). Exemplary of this pattern making, found here in the very aesthetic center of the block composing the “s” in the Latin word “generationis” is the runic letter dagaz (meaning “day”), accomplished by the double-backed ends of the Roman “s” and the symmetrical and close placements of the “I’s”.

That the meaning of the rune itself has bearing on the meaning of the word generationis could only have added to the meditative form of the text. Such connections are more than tenuous. As one can see from the alphabet table above there an additional co-incidence between the Christological letter Chi found in the bottom of the block text and the Anglo-Saxon letter gebõ, meaning “gift”. Greek Christ as Anglo-Saxon gift. This takes us to an underlying thought which steers this analysis: the form of the presented word was not meant solely as a transparency, but as a rich condensation which would serve as vehicle for the deeper understanding and experience of the message of the text.

But as it stands, this is only a loose conjecture, one that simply draws a comparison. Is there any evidence that Christian writers or artists would even deign to mix the runic alphabet of pagan times with the new and Christian present? Is it not that Christianity was attempting to break free from, rather than embrace, this history? It so happens that we do have at least one good piece of evidence that the mixing of runic forms with Christian subjects was meaningful. It comes in the form of the so called “Franks Casket”, come from approximately the same century (seventh), and likely same region, Northumbria (Schapiro, 37), and it depicts not only subjects from Roman mythology and Roman history, but also the Adoration of the Magi. It does so, bordered in runes:

We shall return to the Franks Casket for further evidence, but it suffices to say how that as a working hypothesis the runic quality of the internal block text typeface may be expressing something of the genealogy of Christian Britannia, just as the text is telling the reader about the Jewish genealogy of Christ, each of them expressed in some typographical variation (a runic font past, and a Latin to Greek mixing of letter). What remains to be seen is if this typographic exemplification is bolstered by a lexical conflation.

What I mean by lexical conflation is that a single typographic form can be read as being multiple words. This can occur either in one language – for instance how the form “bear” can mean both the animal and the to carry a burden in English – but more importantly, (depending on how the individual letters are visually deciphered, for instance if a “y” can also be read as a “p”),  a single word can form different words,  in different languages. It is my contention that part of the role played by the fantastic forms of lettering employed by the craftsman, was to enable the word-forms to represent multiple words, and thus multiple meanings, and so in this way, depict and enact the very incarnating processes of the eternal God becoming man this portion of the Gospel seeks to record. That is to say, much as how this particular word-form exists in a finite way, what it represents and calls to mind in a plethora of words, meanings and genealogical matter is the historic reduction of the Infinite to the finite itself. This is part of the meditational structure of the Lindisfarne Incipit pages.

The best way to proceed would be simply to present the occasions of a hypothesized lexical conflation, in a series. Because these are contemplation devices, the substantive effect of multiple readings of a single form will lie with the reader. That is, beneath a primary word in the text, one person might find the presence of a secondary or a third word likely, and another not. It is the very rubic nature of these forms that can defy assertabilty of their fact.

The first of these concerns a mere lexical multiplication of meanings, as can be found in the initial word “Liber”. This word, by size, color, form and placement, set off from the rest of the text, allows itself to float independently from the context. A reader of course would know very well that it meant, “the book” but given its compositional status, the word itself would be able to take on object status, conveying its own truth. What becomes noticeable when we take “Liber” out of its context is that not only does it mean “book” in Latin, if we allow the last vowel to lengthen, it also means “A man free of”. And given this meaning, the phrase “Liber generationis” would mean “A man free from generations”.

What is remarkable about this secondary reading is that it gives the secret understanding of what the incarnation itself was. As the text tells us and enacts for us (the incarnation of a God into the finitude of generations) the result of this is a man, in fact any Christian man, who is free from (de)generations. The infinite becomes finite, so that the finite (man) can no longer be finite.

The secondary thing one notices in the form of “Liber” is that the -er is set out from the Lib. One sees that in our second reading, the grammatical root/ending distinction becomes enforced. The base of the word is freed up from the -er to express itself, as it does aesthetically, coiling in a rich core of graphic signification. If we set up the one lexo-graphic unit and attempt to uncode what it would represent we must free up our mind to the kinds of associations possible for it to evoke.

Though we are already predisposed to seeing the L-i-b of liber book in the form, really it is not apparently there in any obvious manner. The “I” is quite distended, and crosses over the bass of the “L”, and the “L” runs into the over-round “B”. In ruminating over the “root” of Jesus’ genealogy several Anglo-Saxon words impose themselves here, over this one aesthetic form, none of them strictly being less present than “lib”. The first of these is an invocation, given that “lib” is severed from the -er. The Anglo-Saxon word for “Life” is “libban” and it is hard to imagine that such a meaning would not be present in these isolated graphic elements. Further, given the way that letters are forced to be found in letters, in this form not only is “Lib” found but “Lyb” in that the L and the I combine to form the “y” .

Lyb in Anglo-Saxon means “poison”. In presenting the origins of Christ’s past we have the graphic conflation of Anglo-Saxon words for “poison” and for “life” placed upon the Latin word for “book”, but “book” translated back from the Latin also can mean “birch tree” (in an interesting confluence of meanings, the Anglo-Saxon word for “book” boc can also mean “birch tree”). All of these invite us to return to the origin of the genealogy of Christ, that of the tree of Eden, the tree of genealogies, and even the tree upon which he was crucified. This is even further insured in the Biblical equivalence of this line from Matthew with the same incipient line from Genesis 5:1: “hic est liber generationis Adam in die qua creavit Deus hominem ad similitudinem Dei fecit illum” [this is the book of the generations of Adam, when God created man, and made him in the likeness of God, (RSV)]. Christ is the new Adam, he who will in generations from sin make man a liber, a free man.

The presence of the tree of knowledge (birch/book, boc, liber), of poison and life, of Anglo-Saxon and Latin all condense into this remarkable aesthetic form. Yet for the contemplating monk there is more to be seen in this kerneled image. At the heart of it is the very name of Christ, read in the Chi-Rho abbreviation “Xρe”:

This internalized Christ insignia is repeated down below in the “XPI” abbreviation in the last line of the block text, acting out the very unfolding of history, the notion that Christ was there in the beginning, buried at the heart of the tree of knowledge, which following the fall unfolded itself in the lineage of Jews, beginning with Abraham and the first formal covenant. And there is further lexical-typographic conflation lower in the text, wherein the divine is found within a name, as in the line “Christi filii David”. “David” is twisted – the lower form of the “D” is expanded to represent an “O”, and the “A” and “V” tossed into an obscurity- so to form the word “Dio” Latin for God, making the line read the double meaning, “…of Christ, son of David” and “of Christ, son of God”.

This again cements a reading of multiplicities of typographic condensation, enacting the very message of the text, performing the incarnation itself, but in such a way that all of its elements become nested for a means and process of meditative reading.

As we pull back from the text, and examine the totality of the presentation, one more graphic element strikes us and remains to be explained if we are to enter into an analysis of the composition as a whole. The top of the reported L is crowned with what seems to be a decorous serpent head, whose eyes and nostrils flare in a symmetrical focus upon the reader. Considering the entirety of meanings found in this portion of the text it seems clear that this is the serpent in the Tree. In fact the entire Lib/Lyb form of the upper left half composes a source diagonal of time and meaning, stemming from the serpent event in the Garden.

Time begins with this serpent figure woven out of letters, in the Tree, and works itself down through rune-like fonts in the generations of Abraham and David, until the arrival of the liber, the free man of Christ. It can be seen that the composition itself forms the very matrix of a history, a history of Man, and a history of Britannia.

So the first compositional element to be discussed is this movement from wide, curvilinear forms to the upper left, to increasingly condensed letter forms as they travel down to the lower right hand corner. Meyer Schapiro when discussing the energizing and dramatizing capacities of insular script, how each letter was often experienced as an individual and signifying person, takes up just this sort of condensation of figures. Again, it is from the Franks Casket, this time from the cover lid:

This kind of progression from a large to tiniest element appears often in medieval representations and especially in images with a hierarchical ordering of the figures…the same unit of ornament appears in different magnitude on the same field. The device permits a greater flexibility than that allowed by classical ornament (37)

We can see that the shrinking of figures denotes their approach to death, falling under the press of battle. Something of the same is being communicated as the letters of words are being forced to cram themselves into the smaller and smaller space of finitude, giving us the strong sense of Christ having to squeeze himself into this world, into a specific time and place. But there is conceptual complexity, a folding back on itself, given in this depiction of incarnational time, for as the text of the page ends down to the lower right corner symbolizing the progression of time towards Christ’s incarnation, it is narratively going backwards in time, from Christ Jesus, to David, to Abraham. The overall involution presents the paradox of a historicized eternal vision. As history unfolds, it seems to return to its initial kernel state. It goes backwards and forwards at the same time.

This same union of antagonisms can possibly be seen in the very construction of the frame within which the text is contained. In terms of signification the Serpent-body Lib/Lyd extends in decorated form to compose the entire border of world history.

Here the time of the genealogy of man is depicted as enclosing world history. The world belongs to the garden serpent, and to Satan who he represents. But as the words work themselves down from the upper left, into smaller and smaller manifestations, in the figured name of Abraham they finally break through this frame. The covenant of God made with the Jews becomes fulfilled in the person of Christ, breaking the stranglehold of the serpent expressed in the descent of sin. In just this way this initial page of the gospel of Matthew, in its variety of condensations and conflations of meaning as it tells of the very descent of a man, performs an ascendancy. And even one might argue that it puts again a trace of his name “Ihu” in the very compositional form of the frame which will hold him. The very serpent/tree lettering, come from a magical Celtic past, is seen to flower in the person of Jesus, coming out of that pagan richness.

The individual pieces of evidence provided here can each be dismissed as reaching for meanings that are not truly there, but the whole of them I think are too significant to remain determinately unseen. The greatest strength of such a reading is that it moves to an answer of the question, Why did the monks of insular manuscripts suddenly start treating text as if it were a material, signifying and performing thing? While much of this answer may lie within the exact nature of how religious artifacts were magically conceived in the Celtic past when considering the remarkable stages and forms of condensation accomplished by the artist of this one page, there is the singular sense that a page of this gospel was not merely to be read but was meant to be contemplated, as a thing in itself. There, before whomever watched it, a play of meanings and significations drawn across languages, heritages, and theological concepts manifested itself. A reader saw something of what was implied in the phrase “the genealogy of Christ”. All that a genealogy of a God requires is pulled in and somehow exemplified. And the reader as well, the particular history of his place in time are also engaged. The reading of the text becomes an epiphanic realization the longer you look at and consider it, how the infinite itself, could have become finite, how a “book” became a “free man”.

Works Cited

The Latin Vulgate Bible. . Accessed May 7, 2008.

Schapiro, Meyer. The Language of Forms: Lectures on Insular Manuscript Art. Piermont Morgan Library. July 19, 2006.


4 responses to “Lindisfarne: The Rise of Illuminative Script

  1. will johnston March 19, 2010 at 10:39 pm


    it looks like you are heading in a similar direction with all this that i am right now, the interface of ‘pagan shamanic’ and ‘christian saint’ traditions as revealed by aesthetics, pointing to a common understanding by both, despite later attempts to quash this knowledge by the instutional church. the bayeux tapestry also has some excellent examples of this, ie. the scene of ‘harold’ with clearly pagan iconography on two sheilds and the presence of dragon heralds/banners.

    you may also be interested in checking out and exploring a bit, particularly on the uses of sacred geometry in sacred art. the illuminators of the book of kells, like their druid predecessors, (or were the ‘monks’ just druids in disguise?) were clearly quite proficient in this knowledge.

    let me know if you’re up for more communication.

    best wishes,


  2. kvond March 19, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    Hi Will,

    I appreciate the sense of correspondence between our views, but from what you say I don’t think we are heading in the same direction. For me it is about a historical resolution of past and present, and the unique ability to SYNTHESIZE traditions (which may or may not be excluded). Part of this is a philosophical point, that of the materiality of the letter, the performance of script, the substantiality of the abstraction. For the monks at Lindisfarne, they were, in my view, acting out the incarnation of Xp themselves, in their illustrated action. While there are points of correspondence between this and sacred geometry, I sense that there is great divergence as well, at least as far as I can tell. It is not the case of a lost or buried or essential truth. But thank you for reading the article, I enjoyed writing it and its research a great deal.

  3. Tricia Segar September 11, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    I devoured your article. I am an art teacher for a small Christian school in Spartanburg South Carolina. This Tuesday I will be doing a power-point art appreciation/ art history class for a combined elementary session and then during the day doing a hands on lesson in Celtic calligraphy for each individual class. I was thrilled at your suggestions and everything in my heart cried, This is right on! I copied a degaz rune symbol into a slide along side of the s in generations. I explained to the children how that the monk artists used the art to ‘reinforce’ the message they copied. Last week in our lesson on papyrus and early making of the codex, they learned that most people in those days could not read. This is a perfect follow up as the symbolic nature of the design of the letters themselves spoke even to the illiterate man. I then made a symbol sentence for them to decode so that we could talk about the significance of graphic arts to communicate a message. Thank you for all of the incredible thought that this took to pull together. I hope that it has strengthened your own faith in the God of history and truth who moved in wondrous ways to preserve his Word for every generation. For me, I met Jesus Christ as an eleven year old girl when I discovered that it was not my communion, my baptism or church attendance that would get me to heaven. I simply needed to accept him and receive his free gift! Loved the part about chi and the gift!!!

    • kvond September 11, 2010 at 2:08 pm

      Very glad that the article inspired you to think about these questions and histories, and that it helped with your own teaching materials. I appreciate the good words.

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