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A Universe in a Grain

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

Bishop Eadfrith (✝ 721) is considered to be the artist who gave to the world perhaps the most remarkable work of book-art ever executed, the Lindisfarne Gospels.


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lindes2A man sits hunched over a long oak table, his eyes peering at a flat square of stretched and treated sheepskin before him.  Scattered over the table are small pots of colors, the whites of eggs, and some glue rendered from the bones of fish.  There are also quills of all sizes, and reeds, some sharpened to an almost invisible point.  And herbs, berries, petals, stones crushed to powder, tiny flakes of gold and silver, and the oily soot from lamps — lampblack. 

"Master," says a boy coming into the room, "the tide is out and the merchant is on his way.  He says to tell you that the mountains have given up their jewels.  What does he mean?" 

Only at low tide can a man cross on foot from the coast to the holy island. 

"Ah, that is good news, good news indeed!" cries the artist looking up from his work and smiling.  He is speckled with colors upon his fingers and wrists and even his face, and though most of it he can wash away at nightfall, he will take a little of it happily to the grave with him.  "It means that the lapis has come from India.  Now will my Virgin wear her finest blue." 

"What is India?" says the boy, now leaning over the sheepskin.  What he sees there is astonishing.  Birds, branches, leaves, strange animals, interlacing shapes, in russet, saffron, rose, cornflower, wheaten, so involved, so woven in and among one another in such a bewildering tracery of graceful curves, it seemed that if you straightened them out from a single page you could string them out two miles from the island to the shore and back again. 

"India is a land on the other side of the world," says the man.  "The mountains bear a rock called lapis lazuli, as blue as the twilight before the dawn, with sometimes a kiss of clear green in it.  I have been waiting a whole year for that color."   

"Will it be heavy, this rock?" asks the boy. 

"Heavy?" says Bishop Eadfrith.  "No, not heavy.  You could hold it in your hand."

Do not despise the small

"Master," asks the boy, "it seems a far distance to travel for something I could hold.  Wouldn't some crushed violets have done as well?" 

Eadfrith was picking out a flourish of red dots that even under a microscope, which of course he did not have, would appear like — a flourish of red dots.  "'No, not at all, my boy.  The violets are dull.  The lapis is filled with light." 

"Does God care for things so small?"

"Does he care for you and me?  We are to him less than one of these red dots is to us."

"Then how?" said the boy, now leaning upon the table and laying his head close to the master's, studying each tiny stroke of the pen, "can God dwell within us?"

"He dwelt in the womb of the Virgin and was no bigger, than the tip of this quill."

"I cannot understand that, Master."

Eadfrith continued to work with a patience that seemed outside of time itself.  The boy too absorbed the patience so that whether the answer came in a moment or an hour, he could not tell.

"You are too small to understand it and so am I." 

"Master," said the boy, "'are the words of God also small, the words that you write on the page?"

"Every jot and tittle," said  the master 

Christ our light

The boy cocked his head and looked back from the page.  "These are letters," he said, "I see it!  All these birds and blades of grass and twigs and funny animals make up letters.  But I don't understand.  What is an X and a P?" 

The bishop laughed.  "Oh, those are Greek letters.  The Greeks, they lived far away also, sometimes on islands just like our Lindisfarne.  The letter is called a chi," he said, pronouncing it like key, "and the other is a rho.  They are the first two letters of the name of honor borne by our Lord Christos.  That means He Who Has Been Anointed." 

"Because he was a king? 

"King and priest and Son of God."

"Have you also been anointed, Master?"'

"Yes, I have been anointed bishop."  He then turned to a reed with a flat tip, and dipped it into the fish glue with the lightest touch, then applied it to a flake of gold not a thousandth the part of a snowflake.  He smiled, but did not take his eyes from the work.  "And you have been anointed." 

"I am a bishop?"  

"You are a Christian.  You are a little Christ.  All Christians are."

"But how can Christ who is the Son of God be in me?"

"'How indeed," said the bishop. 

They bring good tidings

The boy gazed upon the manuscript as the bishop worked.  They stayed so for a long time like a father and son in a workshop.

"It is beautiful, Master," said the boy.

What Danish king on his throne, surrounded by thanes with their swords adorned in worm-forms and monster-forms, will not gaze in wonder at this book for the King of kings?

"I am happy that it pleases you." 

"Why do we make the first page so beautiful?"

"I do not understand your question, my son," said Eadfrith.

"I mean that the words are the words, whether they are decorated or not." 

"Ah yes, the words are the words."  Eadfrith smiled and thought about an argument he had had with a sort of vagabond monk from the East, who wanted to rub out every image of Christ or Mary he could find.  The man's order had driven him out, and now he wandered around the world like Satan, looking for jobs to spoil. 

"Imagine you are bringing good news to a village, that the Danes have been wrecked on the sea, and the people's houses and farms will not be burned down, and their womenfolk and children will be safe.  Would you bring that news with a frown?" 

"No!" said the boy laughing. 

"Would you dress in black," said Eadfrith, turning from his work with a mock-grimace and mumble your news like this," and he did a wonderful impersonation of a tragedian, groaning. 

"I would dress in red and gold, and I'd come in dancing!" said the boy.

 "So we dress the Good News in red and gold, and come in dancing," said the bishop. 

The very stones do speak

Suddenly there was a bustle at the door, and in came a big bearded man with a sack over his shoulder.  "Greetings, my lord!" he said.  "All they from Saba and who knows where shall come bearing gifts."  He put the sack on the floor and loosened the strings, while the boy leaped from his bench and peered inside. 

"Oswald my friend, God has brought you back to us safe and sound!" The bishop embraced him, ink and all. 

"I have the deep blue ladis, and a kind that I have never seen," said Oswald and brought out of the sack what looked like a mass of light green shafts of ice frozen together, their edges and corners glinting.  "Will you be able to make use of this, my lord of the quill and the reed?"

"Praise be to God," said Eadfrith.  "Two years have I worked on my Gospels and now I see the completion drawing near."  Then he turned to the boy.  "Son, these precious stones come from a pagan land and we will crush the stones and use their light to bring light to the pagans themselves." 

"Even the Danes?"

"The Danes most of all.  What Danish king on his throne, surrounded by thanes with their swords adorned in worm-forms and monster-forms, will not gaze in wonder at this book for the King of kings?  Even if he doesn't understand the words, the very stones will speak to him — the glory of the world that God has made, and the beauty of the Word that shines in it."

Why hide the light under a basket?

Bishop Eadfrith (✝ 721) is considered to be the artist who gave to the world perhaps the most remarkable work of book-art ever executed, the Lindisfarne Gospels.  The book itself, now in the British Museum, survived an attack by the Danes and being lost in the sea for several days; it is something of a miracle that we still have it.  It is perhaps a greater miracle that it was made in the first place.  We could learn much from the man whose love brought it to the light. 

Christians should take the lead in all of the arts because we have the consummate artist to imitate and a subject for our part that cannot be surpassed: the God made Man, to raise small and sinful man to the house of God.  And why should we be hesitant to call upon the arts in the work of bringing the Good News to an old and weary world?  Glorious things of thee are spoken, O Sion, city of our God.

dividertop

Acknowledgement

Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: A Universe in a Grain." Magnificat (January, 2018).

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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