The Making of the Lindisfarne Gospels

Update: We repeated the Lindisfarne Gospels event in August 2014 and got some much better pictures. You can see them on our Facebook Page here. (Don’t forget to like the page.)

In the summer of 2013 I was asked by Russ Scott of Traders, Invaders and Raiders to collaborate on an event he was putting on for English Heritage. This resulted in the biggest, and most enjoyable, project so far for SV Educational Services. To coincide with the display of the Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham this summer, the event was entitled The Making of the Gospels and was to be held at Lindisfarne Priory itself. We were also working with Wordsmith Crafts and Visiting Vikings, all of whom are superb and experienced historical interpreters.


Lindisfarne Priory - Where the Lindisfarne Gospels were made

Lindisfarne Priory

The Lindisfarne Gospels were made between 715 and 721AD. Unusually they are the work of just one person, Bishop Eadfrith. Normally a book like this would have been made by a team of scribes and artists, but Bishop Eadfrith took on this massive work all by himself including, as far as we can tell, the making of all his own tools, inks and pigments.

Overall, our brief was to provide a series of displays that showed the processes that went into making an illuminated manuscript. Russ put together a team that included Wordsmith Crafts, who gave displays on bookbinding and embossing; Visiting Vikings, who gave displays on parchment making and calligraphy; myself doing pigments and inks, and Traders Invaders and Raiders, who had an ink making activity (supplied by me) and a colouring activity featuring pages from the gospels from a teachers pack kindly supplied by Durham University Museums.


Display of pigments used in the Lindisfarne Gospels

Pigments Display

My brief was to come up with displays showing how the inks and pigments were made that were used on the Lindisfarne Gospels. This turned out to me more challenging than I thought, as it turns out that some of the pigments used in the Gospels are not the usual ones found in old illuminated manuscripts, and recent research has shown that the most famous manuscript pigment, Lapis lazuli, was not used at all. Indeed, it did not make an appearance in British manuscripts until much later than originally thought.

Lindisfarne Gospels 3

Making Verdigris

As part of my research I had a go at making some of the pigments myself. I was able to make Verdigris, a lovely turquoise/green colour, by exposing clean copper plates to the vapours of acetic acid. I made carbon black by grinding charcoal to a fine powder although lamp black, the soot from burning oil lamps, would have been used originally as it makes a much finer powder. I also attempted to make Minium, or red lead oxide (Pb3O4) by roasting Letharge (PbO). This resulted in moderate success, although my pigment was more orange than red, due to heavy contamination from unreacted Letharge.

Lindisfarne Gospels 4

Making Minium

While making the Minium I learned a lot about how clever the original monks must have been. Using just a cat food tin and a blowtorch it took me several attempts to get a successful reaction. The first two times I ended up with pure lead, as I heated the Letharge too much and smelted it. One of those attempts ended up with molten lead running out of a hole burned through the bottom of the tin. I managed to get the correct temperature, approximately 480 deg C, by monitoring the red glow of the tin over the flame. A dull red was about right. If it got too bright an orange I would end up with lead. The traditional way to make Minium is to roast Letharge for several hours in a furnace, not exactly the setup I have access to. The whole process took me three days, as I made mistakes, and had to keep changing the gas bottle on the blowtorch and mixing the lead oxides to get the unreacted powder in contact with the air. Plus, of course, sleep got in the way of the fun I was having. Of course I took appropriate precautions throughout the process as lead compounds are very poisonous.

One of the most important colours in the Gospels is blue. It was originally thought, from a visual examination(1) in 1960, that the blue was made with the mineral Lazurite, from Lapis lazuli. But later research(2) in 2003 showed that the blue colours in the Gospels are all made using Indigo, a blue dye from the Woad plant. The same research, which used a technique called Raman Spectroscopy, also tested several other manuscripts, and showed that the earliest manuscript from Britain using Lazurite dated from 920AD, two hundred years after the manufacture of the Lindisfarne Gospels.


The main pigments identified in the Lindisfarne Gospels, that I had samples of for showing are shown below. I also had samples of Malachite (green) and Cinnabar (red) to show, but these were not used on the Gospels. I also explained that many of the greens were made using Vergaut, which is a mixture of Orpiment and Indigo.


Some Pigments and Materials used to Make old Manuscripts


I had also made a jar of Glair, a binding agent used to make the Gospels pigments. It is made from egg white. Basically, you whisk the egg white until it forms peaks, like when you are making meringue. You then leave it for several hours (I left it overnight) until all the fluid collects at the bottom and you are left with a crusty white scum on top. The liquid is the glair, and is still used by many artists today.

After explaining about the pigments, how they were made and used, I also had an activity where people could crush up some red ochre and make their own brown pigment by mixing it with some glair. Then they could use a brush to write or draw with it and take it away.


At my display the public received a lot of information, and most of them were amazed at the amount of scientific knowledge needed to be able to make and use pigments successfully and safely. One of the biggest eye openers for many of them was that many of the pigments are poisonous. The Minium contains lead (Pb3O4), the Orpiment is an arsenic compound (As2S3), and Cinnabar contains mercury (HgS). And, of course, I doubt that anyone came to Lindisfarne expecting to receive a chemistry lesson. I warned them that they had better be listening, as the next station was the colouring activity, where they would be expected to be able to name the pigments that made the colours they were using!


Writing the Lindisfarne Gospels With a Feather Quill

Writing With a Feather Quill

The other thing that I was asked to provide was a writing activity. I decided it would be good for the visitors to be able to make their own authentic ink, known as Iron Gall ink, then write with it using a feather quill. After much research I decided to use a very simple ink recipe using rainwater. To make iron gall ink you need to use Oak Galls, which can be collected from oak trees in the autumn, Green Vitriol (Iron II sulphate to you and me), and a little Gum Arabic. There are many recipes on the internet, so it is not difficult to make. For the activity I supplied display samples of oak galls, gum Arabic and green vitriol crystals (home-made again), plus ready-made solutions of oak gall and vitriol/gum mixture. The public could mix a little of each solution together, which would instantly turn black. They could then write with it straight away.


For completeness I also set up a display showing how the feather quills, which are the flight feathers from goose wings, need to be cured before use, so they are hard enough to be cut into pens. I also had some reeds and made a couple of reed pens for use or display, which were also used by the monks. One thing that I found out researching for this event is that Bishop Eadfrith must have been one hell of a chemist, even if he didn’t realise it himself.


The first day of the event went very well. It seems people had come from all over. One lady had come all the way from Lincoln (over 200 miles) especially for this event. The feedback we got was amazing and, I must admit, we were all feeling very proud of ourselves. The next morning, we decided, we would get photographs of all our activities to show what we had done.


The next morning, however, arrived very wet and windy so we weren’t able to get our photographs. We were supposed to open at 10:30am. However, about 9:30 the weather turned very bad with gales and driving rain. This resulted in three of the tents getting blown down, with much of the equipment being blown around the Priory and ruined by the rain. We were all totally soaked within a few minutes. While we were desperately struggling to get our tents back up and repair our ruined displays, the English Heritage staff turned up saying they had a queue of people waiting to come in and wanting to know when we would be ready. We said we hoped we would be ready soon and, seeing the mayhem, they wisely left us to get on with it. They also had their own problems, as the main entrance at the front of the Priory had also flooded.


By opening time, however, it was clear that we were not going to be ready. The ground had quickly become completely waterlogged, which meant that it would not hold our tent pegs, so the tents would not stay up in the very strong winds. It was impossible for us to show our displays and do our activities. After some negotiation with the manager of the Priory visitor centre it was decided that we would move what we could into the visitor centre and do a much reduced display indoors. This meant a lot of work, loading our equipment into our vans, driving round then unloading and setting up inside the already crowded visitor centre, plus ensuring that our tents and remaining equipment would still be there in one piece when we got back. Russ did a fantastic job organising us and, basically, prevented the day from being a total disaster. Although, it was past midday by the time we were ready to go.


Again, even though we had only a fraction of the materials available to us the previous day, the visitors were very impressed with what we were able to do. I left behind my grinding and painting activity and concentrated on just explaining about the pigments. I was placed in the entrance lobby and kept attracting such large crowds that often I had to stop to allow people in and out of the building. The English Heritage staff were also excellent, keeping us supplied with cups of tea and mopping up all the puddles we had left everywhere.


At the end of the weekend we were all extremely tired. We had been planning to stay overnight and leave the next morning. Mainly this was because we only had an hour after finishing before the tide closed the causeway off the island. It’s amazing, though, how the prospect of a cold, wet, miserable night in a sodden tent can motivate you. On a normal day packing up would usually take a couple of hours, or more. That evening we all worked harder than ever and got everything packed (in my case thrown) into our vehicles and were off the island just in time.


1.   Roosen-Runge H and Werner AEA. In Evangeliorum Quattuor Codex Lindisfarnensis, Kendrick TD (ed.). Vol. 2, Urs Graf Verlag, Olten and Lausanne, 1960, pp. 263–272.


2.   Brown, K.L., and Clark, R.J.H., ‘The Lindisfarne Gospels and two other 8th century Anglo-Saxon/Insular manuscripts: pigment identification by Raman microscopy’, Journal of Raman Spectroscopy 35 (2004) 4-12.


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