I was quiet yesterday - maybe because I had a day off, which I spent illustrating a new idea (it's in illustrations) and going to see the Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham.
Now my views on religion are complex - I'm a lifelong atheist and have a real problem with organised religion, but I would also say that I'm quite a spiritual person; and I wonder abut how you can interrogate a moral code without a frame of reference about death? Coupled with this there's the small issues that these gospels represent the union of political and social forces of the time; there's the longevity of the document; and the fact that they are staggeringly beautiful.
The figure stuff you might have seen - the Saints in all their symbolic splendour, but the truly gob-smacking stuff is the patterning. Not only in the lead letters, but also title pages that trace a geometry of line that interweaves in a way that follows the forms of nature in waves, bark and the flow of the wind through leaves. The butterfly of line forms knots, which twist and turn - doubling back, teasing the eye with mis-direction before revealing themselves momentarily eager for you to follow. These lines are chameleons too, with vibrant colours that ebb and flow during the pursuit - playful and majestic.
All this was well and good, until I had a technological epiphany - the monk wot did this, did it to size, and the style of the gospels suggests that each line was coloured in!!! No overlaying or underlaying of the ink, no drawing big and reducing to size, just exquisite little strokes from the edge of a feather quill, watched over in meticulous detail.
At this point I sat down, in awe of the patience and dedication of the scribe, but also fascinated by the way in which graphic representation of the forces around us was vital to a sense of engaging and understanding those forces. After all the Bible is, at least, a philosophical text - it attempts to give us stories and parables that we can use to guide ourselves through life. So, too, the illustration of the gospels pulses with a sense of the vibrancy and randomness that reveals a complex order akin to a bee's waggle dance.
These illustrations point to a sense of order that drew its inspiration from an isolated community that lived in daily proximity with the vagaries, contrasts and comforts of nature. We can say this way of life was translated through the exploits of Christ, but in a more secular time it is possible to see that world reflected in the knots and lines of the embellishment - weaving cultures into Art.
I found myself mesmerised by the detail and precision of the work; work crafted over a thousand years ago; work that will remain closed for another two hundred years to preserve its painstaking care for the future. The images, surrounded by artefacts from the time of writing, held in an environmentally sealed atmosphere, asked me what in them I called Art? And, exiting through the gift shop, I tasted the umami of an answer, as I realised that though the decoration of the gospels did not capture the likeness of the world they came from, they did savour the aroma.
Food for thought, eh?