The Celtic Revival: Celtic Christian Culture (7)
Eadfrith, Bishop of the Lindisfarne Church, originally wrote this book, for God and for Saint Cuthbert – jointly – and for all the saints whose relics are in the Island…
- Aldred, colophon to The Lindisfarne Gospels (10th century)
The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork…
The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul;
The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
- Psalm 19.1, 7-9
The God of creation surrounds and confronts us daily with glimpses of glory, flashes of insight, and vistas of awe and wonder, making Himself known in created things, and calling the world to seek Him in His Word and Son (Acts 17.22-28). The same is true for works of culture, which can also bear witness to the Lord (Acts 14.17). The Word of God in creation and culture drives us to seek God in the Scriptures, so that these two books of divine revelation – Scripture and creation – can help us grow in the knowledge of the Lord, which is eternal life (Jn. 17.3).
Celtic Christians embraced this “two books” theory of divine revelation. The book of Scripture is the primary text of revelation, in which God provides, in clear and sufficient terms, all that is necessary for human beings to know Him and His salvation. Celtic Christians were devoted to the Bible. They read, studied, taught, copied, and disseminated the Scriptures wherever their missions took them during the period of the Celtic Revival (ca. 430-800 AD).
The book of creation also declares the glory of God, as Psalm 19 insists. His handiwork throughout creation and culture speaks of His beauty, goodness, wisdom, generosity, power, immensity, imminence, and truth in unmistakable ways. When we, grounded in the light of God’s Word, seek additional light to help us know, love, and serve Him better, we may expect the book of creation and culture to yield important insights (Ps. 36.9).
The revelation of God in creation sends us to the revelation of God in Scripture, that we might discern the glory of God Who grants us glimpses of Himself in the things He has made. The Scriptures teach us how to “read” the book of creation and culture, which in turn, as we read it, enhances our appreciation of God’s self-disclosure in the Bible.
We are not surprised that Celtic Christians would discover means of combining these two books – Scripture and creation – into one, which is precisely what we see in the illuminated gospel manuscripts that were created during this period. The Book of Kells, the Durrow Gospels, and the Lindisfarne Gospels are the most beautiful and complete of these amazing works of art. Each includes all four gospels in a script invented by Celtic scribes (insular majuscule), and each is adorned with lavish illustrations, including abundant images of plants and animals.
The Book of Kells is associated with Colum Cille (mid-6th century), although scholars tend to date it later than his day. It appears to be the work of various scribes and artists, though the tradition lingers that Colum himself wrote and embellished it. The Book of Durrow is earlier and less extravagant than the Book of Kells, but just as beautiful in its own right. It too was the product of teams of scribes and artists, drawing on a wide heritage of cultural forms and traditions to produce a unique liturgical artifact for the Christian community of Durrow.
The Lindisfarne Gospels, written near the beginning of the 8th century, are unique among these manuscripts, in that, as Aldred tells us in his colophon to the text, both the text and art are the work of one man, Eadfrith. (Aldred, 250 years after Eadfrith, added an Anglo-Saxon gloss of the gospels in the spaces between the lines of Eadfrith’s text.) Eadfrith had become Bishop of Lindisfarne toward the end of the 7th century, and apparently wanted to create a work of art that would glorify God and honor Cuthbert – late Bishop of Lindisfarne – and the many saints of Scotland whose relics were enshrined there. That such a work could be accomplished by one man is a feat almost unparalleled in the history of Christian art.
These manuscripts feature a careful and consistent, beautiful script, with many exaggerated and decked-out letters in appropriate places, as at the beginning of a gospel. The pages are adorned with geomorphic and zoomorphic forms symbolizing creation. Birds, fish, triskeles, interlocking chains, beasts of various kinds, and a variety of flora weave and wend their way, in exaggerated forms, throughout these gospel books. Portraits of Christ and of the four evangelists are included, along with elaborate “carpet pages” of illustration without text. These lasting treasures give the impression that Celtic scribes and artists were seeking to create works of art that would incorporate both books of divine revelation into one.
And in this they pose a challenge for us: while we may not have daily access to lavish illuminated manuscripts, both books of revelation await us each day. We must learn to read them both. Start with the Bible, then let it lead you into each day, alert to the divine Presence in some work of creation or culture. What you experience of God there will enhance your reading and study of His revelation in Scripture.
The illustrated gospel books of the Celtic Revival were meant to encourage worship and enhance love for God. Seeking God and contemplating Him in the divine books of Scripture and creation can do the same for us.
1. Apart from Psalm 19, can you think of other passages of Scripture that speak of creation and culture as a “book” of divine revelation?
2. How can seeing the Lord in creation and culture help to encourage and enrich your reading of His Word?
Psalm 19.1-4, 7, 8 (St. Christopher: Beneath the Cross of Jesus)
The heav’ns declare God’s glory, the skies His work proclaim!
From day to day and night by night they shout His glorious Name!
No speech, no words, no voice is heard, yet all across the earth
the lines of His all-present Word make known His holy worth.
The Law of God is perfect, His testimony sure;
the simple man God’s wisdom learns, the soul receives its cure.
God’s Word is right, and His command is pure, and truth imparts;
He makes our eyes to understand; with joy He fills our hearts.
Lord, I want to know You from both books of revelation, so today…
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All Psalms for singing from The Ailbe Psalter. Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Backhouse, p. 7