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What are “illuminated manuscripts”?

They are works of unbelievable beauty and artistry, mementos of an age of faith.

An “illuminated manuscript” refers most broadly to a written work—usually a bible, set of Gospels, or other sacred book—that has been decorated with ornate letters, borders, or illustrations. Illuminated manuscripts were produced from the early Middle Ages into the Renaissance, with the art form declining after the introduction of printing.

One of the most stunning and famous examples of an illuminated manuscript is the Lindisfarne Gospels, which date from the early 8th century. This text was created at the monastery of Lindisfarne, a community founded by the Irish monk St. Aidan in the 7th century. Lying just off the coast of northeastern England, Lindisfarne is also called “Holy Island,” and can be visited to this day.

The particular style of illumination found in the Lindisfarne Gospels is called Hiberno-Saxon art, or Insular art, a breathtaking style that flourished in the British Isles just after the Roman period and combines Celtic and Anglo-Saxon elements.

Insular art is particularly known for its “interlace” decorations (think Celtic knotwork). There is no finer example than the initial pages of the Gospels in the Lindisfarne text. See the picture below of the Chi-Rho at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. Zoom in and examine the fine interlacing, the vibrant colors, the detailed animals hiding in the letters.

It’s humbling to think about what went into the creation of these Gospels. Imagine the monastic artist at work in his cold stone monastery in the wilds of northern England, patiently mixing his paints, sketching the designs, applying the colors with a careful hand, perhaps spilling the paint and having to start over. Such effort demands a level of dedication to the work of God that the modern world, with all its egocentric emphasis on convenience and instant gratification, can hardly understand.

Strangely enough, the Lindisfarne Gospels and others like them—such as the 9th century Book of Kells—are products of an era that was long referred to—erroneously—as the “Dark Ages.” In truth, these years were rich and bright in faith, in art, in devotion, and in diligence! We should rebrand them as “the Illuminated Ages.”

Get your own memento of the Illuminated Ages with a Book of Kells Green Trinity Knot Necklace, a beautiful piece of Celtic artwork reminiscent of its namesake. A wonderful Christmas gift! Order yours today!

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