To mark the Feast of St Matthew here is the illumination from the 8th century British manuscript (the original is in the British Library). There are profound lessons here for those who wish to pray, and for those who wish to paint…or both. This simple painting, which is over 1200 years old and was created by an obscure monk working on a bleak island of the northeast coast of England in the North Sea can tell us so much. It reveals truths about St Matthew, and from its style we can discern things about the whole history of Christian art. These are lessons that budding artists can apply today, even if we want to paint in completely different styles such as the baroque.
To be able to see these things in the painting we will look first at the historical context. This little painting even tells us about the history of Britain! Art historians – (and the font of all knowledge, Wikipedia of course!) – will describe the style of this art as ‘insular’ or ‘hiberno-saxon’. This refers to the Celtic style of art and literature of the Christians who remained in the British Isles and Ireland after the retreat of the Romans. It is viewed as ‘insular’ in two ways – first more literally as it belongs to the islands of Britain and Ireland; and secondly because it is often viewed as a style that is distinct from others of this period. There is a third reason particular to this gospel, in that Lindisfarne, the site of an abbey, is an remote island off the coast of Northumberland in northeast England. The artist of this painting was a monk called Eadfrith and he later became the abbot of Lindisfarne Abbey.
The British islanders who remained after the retreat of Roman troops in the 5th century were culturally Roman and so wrote in Latin. Gradually over the following centuries they were overwhelmed by the incursions of German and Nordic tribes. Even in the 8th century, there were pockets of Latin culture left and most of the Lindisfarne Gospel is written in Latin. In this page ‘Mattheus’ is in Latin and he is referred to as a saint with the word ‘Hagios’ (Greek). Matthew is depicted writing his gospel with the figure of the winged man, the symbol of Matthew, standing on his shoulder (imago hominus – the image of a man). (Read More)