Category Archives: Art History

The Cross in Codex Usserianus Primus

The only surviving image in Codex Usserianus Primus is situated on folio 149v at the end of the Gospel of Luke (fig. 1).  The image is a cross set inside three frames of red and black ornament.  The cross is formed by an outline of black dots and filled with red color.  At the terminals, additional sets of curved dotted lines model the shape of the cross and give it a more three-dimensional appearance.

Figure 1 Codex Usserianus Primus, early 7th century, TCD MS 55, f. 149v © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.
Figure 1 Codex Usserianus Primus, early 7th century, TCD MS 55, f. 149v © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

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The Curious Figures of the Garland of Howth

Described by Francoise Henry and Geneviève Marsh-Michele as ‘disconcerting’ the illumination of folio 1r of the Garland of Howth presents particular iconographical puzzles.

The folio contains the opening letters of Matt. 1.18 ‘χρι autem gener’ (see previous post).1

The lettering of the χρι is formed by fine interlace strands at the top left of the page, with the subsequent letters, in rectilinear display script, organised within along the right side of the page. The remainder of the page is dominated by four figures contained within a cross-shaped framework – a seated figure with a book, a seated figure with a sword, and two angels above. Most scholars have concurred that the figure on the bottom left is ‘probably Matthew’, but have expressed uncertainty about the figure on the right, while Isabel Henderson has suggested that the figures represent David and Abraham below, and Isiah and the Angel above, so acting to illustrate the missing text of the genealogy of Christ that opens Matthew’s gospel.2

Figure 1a The Garland of Howth, 8th-9th century, TCD MS 56, f. 1r © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015. Figure 1b The Garland of Howth. Fol. 1r. Chromolithograph by Margaret Stokes c. 1866. Photo. C.M. Thomas
Figure 1a The Garland of Howth, 8th-9th century, TCD MS 56, f. 1r © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.
Figure 1b The Garland of Howth. Fol. 1r. Chromolithograph by Margaret Stokes c. 1866. Photo. C.M. Thomas

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Reading books in early Medieval Ireland

The material aspects of our project manuscripts can give us insight into the writing and reading culture of early medieval Ireland.  Size, script, organization, and wear all give indications of how they have been used and treated over the centuries.

Already we have seen that an indication of writing practice was illustrated in the quill that Matthew holds above an inkpot (fig. 1) in his portrait in the Book of Mulling (see previous post).

Figure 1 The Book of Mulling, 2nd half of 8th century, TCD MS 60, f. 12v © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.
Figure 1 The Book of Mulling, 2nd half of 8th century, TCD MS 60, f. 12v © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

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X Marks the Spot – the Monogram of Christ

One of the most spectacular displays of ornamented text in early Irish manuscripts is the Chi-Rho page in the Book of Kells (fig. 1).  These elaborately decorated initials are found not only in luxury volumes such as the Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels (fig. 2a), the Codex Aureus (fig. 2b) and the Lichfield Gospels (fig. 2c), but also in Irish pocket Gospels like our Book of Mulling (see previous post) and Book of Dimma (see previous post).

The Book of Kells, ca. 800, TCD MS 58, f. 14r © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.
The Book of Kells, ca. 800, TCD MS 58, f. 14r © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.
Figure 2a Lindisfarne Gospels, late 7th or early 8th c., f. 29, British Library, London (Cotton Nero D. IV). Source Figure 2b Codex Aureus, mid-8th c., f. 11, Royal Library, Stockholm (MS A. 135). Source. Figure 2c Lichfield Gospels (St. Chad Gospels), 2nd quarter of 8th c., f. 5, Cathedral Library, Lichfield. Photographed by kind permission of the Chapter of Lichfield Cathedral. Final photographic adjustments by Bill Endres.
Figure 2a Lindisfarne Gospels, late 7th or early 8th c., f. 29, British Library, London (Cotton Nero D. IV). Source
Figure 2b Codex Aureus, mid-8th c., f. 11, Royal Library, Stockholm (MS A. 135). Source.
Figure 2c Lichfield Gospels (St. Chad Gospels), 2nd quarter of 8th c., f. 5, Cathedral Library, Lichfield. Photographed by kind permission of the Chapter of Lichfield Cathedral. Final photographic adjustments by Bill Endres.

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Decorating the Canon Tables

As discussed in a previous post , canon tables were intended to be a functional component of a medieval Gospel manuscript.1 That is perhaps one reason for adding canon tables to an existing Gospel text, such as in the Book of Mulling.  While the Mulling Gospels were likely copied in the eighth century, the canon tables are thought to have been inserted in a later period. Beyond their usefulness as a concordance, canon tables also demonstrated the harmony of the Evangelists’ texts.2 In some cases, the agreement was expressed with the decoration framing the tables.

The design of canon tables could vary from manuscript to manuscript.  They could be quite plain, as seen in the Book of Mulling (fig. 1).  The Mulling canons are simply columns of numbers separated by red vertical lines.  Corresponding passages are listed in the same row and so the table resembles a modern spreadsheet.

Figure 1 Canon I, Book of Mulling, 8th century, TCD MS 60, f. 5r © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.
Figure 1 Canon I, Book of Mulling, 8th century, TCD MS 60, f. 5r © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

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Margaret Stokes: a Scholar from Howth

Margaret McNair Stokes (1832-1900) claims the attention of the Early Irish Manuscripts Project for the drawings she made of the paintings in the Garland of Howth (see previous post ).  These, along with many other illustrations that she produced of Irish painting and sculpture from the early Middle Ages provided scholars with detailed images of Irish material to which they may otherwise have had little or no access.  While she is increasingly recognized for her contributions to the study of medieval Irish manuscripts and monuments, her name is far less well-known than it deserves to be.

Fig. 1 Margaret Stokes. © Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.
Fig. 1 Margaret Stokes. © Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.

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The Wandering Word Conference

Last week, scholars and enthusiasts of Insular art and manuscripts gathered at the Trinity Long Room Hub for many stimulating papers and lively discussion at our conference – The Wandering Word: the travels of Insular manuscripts.

The event was off to an exciting start with papers from the Trinity College Dublin conservation team.  Susie Bioletti, Allyson Smith (see previous post) and Marco Di Bella (see previous post) presented the work they have been doing on our project manuscripts.  The application of scientific analysis to manuscripts continued in Bill Enders’ paper where he demonstrated the value of imaging manuscripts over time.  Bernard Meehan discussed the bindings of the Book of Mulling (see previous post), and how recent technologies have brought greater clarity to the more damaged pages of the manuscript.

Susie Bioletti and Alysson Smith speaking at The Wandering Word Conference on 5 May 2016.
Susie Bioletti and Allyson Smith speaking at The Wandering Word Conference on 5 May 2016.

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How the Four Evangelists became Gospel Writers and Acquired their Symbols

Numerous accounts of Christ’s life were written in the centuries following his death, yet only four became accepted as canonical, or authentic, by the institution of the Christian Church. 1 These Gospels were identified first by the second century Gallic Bishop Irenaeus.2

Nature confirmed that the number four was appropriate because, as Irenaeus observed, the Earth had four zones where people lived and there were also four winds. Irenaeus thus identified the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as the four pillars of the Church, the four authors of the true Gospels.

Fig. 1 Evangelists Symbols Page, f. 27v, Book of Kells, MS 58, © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

Irenaeus went on to compare the Evangelists with the mystical creatures who appeared at the beginning of John’s vision of the apocalypse.  The book of Revelation (4.7) records that surrounding Christ’s throne in heaven were beings that resembled a man, a lion, a calf, and an eagle (fig. 1).  John’s ‘living creatures’ were in turn a reference to the four cherubim holding aloft the throne of God in the vision of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel (1.4-11). The beings in Ezekiel’s vision had the features of all four creatures and four wings each as well.

[Book of Mulling, MS 60, Book of Durrow, MS 57 © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.]

The primacy of the Gospel texts by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John was solidified in the next few centuries after Irenaeus at various synods where their authenticity was agreed.  When Jerome made his significant translation of the Bible into Latin in the late fourth century, the Vulgate firmly established the texts of the four Evangelists as canonical.  It was also Jerome who gave the order in which the texts should appear.  In his Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Jerome associated each Evangelist with one of the living creatures: Matthew is the Man; Mark is the Lion; Luke is the Calf and John is the Eagle.

[Lindisfarne Gospels, Cotton MS Nero D IV, British Library. Source.]

Insular Gospel manuscripts introduce each account with representations of their authors.  This may be a portrait of the Evangelist, as we see in the Book of Mulling (fig. 2a), the mystical symbol of the Evangelist, as used in the Book of Durrow (fig.2b), or a combination of author and symbol as found in the Lindisfarne Gospels (figs.2c-d).

Fig. 4. John’s Evangelist Symbol, the Eagle in the Book of Dimma, late 8th century (TCD, MS 59, f. 104v) © The Library of Trinity College Dublin.

Pocket Gospels like our Book of Mulling and Book of Dimma were more likely to use an author portrait than an Evangelist symbol.  A notable exception is the image of an eagle in the preface to John’s Gospel in the Book of Dimma (fig. 3).  A more subtle reference to an Evangelist symbol may be found in the Garland of Howth on the folio with the opening words to Mark’s Gospel.  The heads of two lions, Mark’s symbol, are embedded in the ornament of the page (figs. 4a-b).

The Famous Mulling Drawing

One of the most intriguing features of the Book of Mulling is the well-known circular device drawn on its last page (TCD MS 60, f. 94v; fig. 1). Approximately contemporary with the rest of the manuscript, it consists of two concentric circles accompanied by crosses with captions and indications of directions in Irish including the four cardinal points.1

094v-MS60_17_LO
Fig. 1 The Book of Mulling, 2nd half of the 8th century, TCD MS 60, f. 94v © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

The eight crosses around the outer circle are arranged in four pairs, each combining the name of an evangelist with the name of a prophet: from the top, clockwise, ‘cross of Mark’, ‘cross of Jeremiah’, ‘Matthew’ and ‘Daniel’, ‘cross of John’ and ‘Ezechiel’, and ‘cross of Luke’ and ‘cross of [Isaiah]’ (see figs. 2a-b). The inscriptions accompanying the four crosses contained inside the circles are partly illegible but one can still read, from top to bottom, ‘cross of the Holy Spirit’, ‘… with gifts’, ‘…with angels from above’ and ‘Christ with his apostles’.2

Fig. 2a From H. J. Lawlor, 'Notes on Some Non-Biblical matter in the Book of Mulling', in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (1895), p. 37.
Fig. 2a From H. J. Lawlor, ‘Notes on Some Non-Biblical matter in the Book of Mulling’, in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (1895), p. 37.

Strong green copper staining particularly apparent on the first leaves of the volume indicates that the manuscript was kept for a long time in direct contact with its enclosing shrine (see previous post) without the protection of a binding. This explains why this last leaf (f. 94) is so discoloured and damaged: it got torn in various places and some parts of it were sewn back together (fig. 1). The poor state of the leaf makes the interpretation of the circular device even more arduous.

Hugh Lawlor, in 1895, saw it as a ‘map or plan of some sort’, pointing out the presence of cardinal points.3 He proposed, on the suggestion of Thomas Olden, that the diagram could actually represent the ecclesiastical site of St Mullins (Co. Carlow), with the crosses marking the location of monastic buildings or crosses, while the circles could ‘represent the Rath of St Molling [sic], within which were his ecclesiastical buildings; the concentric circles perhaps indicating a double or even triple rampart’.4 A few years later, he attempted to superimpose the diagram with a plan of the actual site, but he admitted that this was inconclusive: ‘It leaves Mr Olden’s suggestion nearly as it was before – a hypothesis highly plausible in itself, not indeed altogether free from difficulties […], but by no means improbable – yet still only a hypothesis: a theory which is not, perhaps cannot be, either proved or disproved.’5

Fig. 2b From L. Nees, ‘The Colophon Drawing in the Book of Mulling: a Supposed Irish Monastery Plan and the Tradition of Terminal Illustration in Early Medieval Manuscripts’, in Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies (CMCS) 5 (Summer 1983), p. 69.
Fig. 2b From L. Nees, ‘The Colophon Drawing in the Book of Mulling: a Supposed Irish Monastery Plan and the Tradition of Terminal Illustration in Early Medieval Manuscripts’, in Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies (CMCS) 5 (Summer 1983), p. 69.

In 1983, Larry Nees, while not rejecting entirely the plan hypothesis, added another layer of interpretation, arguing that it probably functioned closely with the preceding liturgical text (on the same page).6 He stressed that the pairing of evangelists and prophets had its roots in Carolingian art (see fig. 3) and that the scribe must have had at his disposal a Carolingian model when designing the circular device, which he considered as closer in function to a ‘colophon drawing’.

ParisBnFLatin1-Vivian-Bible
Fig. 4 Maiestas Domini, Vivian Bible, Tours, c. 845-846. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Lat. 1, f. 329v. Source.

The hypothesis of a Carolingian model would mean that this part of the manuscript could date to as late as the mid-9th century.

-Catherine Yvard, Research Fellow, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Trinity College Dublin

The Shrine of the Book of Dimma

This shrine was made in the 12th century to enclose the 8th-century Gospel Book known as the Book of Dimma (TCD MS 59; see previous post) but, like many book-shrines, it was significantly altered in subsequent centuries, in particular in the late Middle Ages and the 19th century.

It is made of bronze, silver and gilt silver, with blue glass beads, a few blue stone cabochons (lapis lazuli?) and some remains of niello inlay. It is a tight fit for the manuscript, which implies that there is no space for a wooden core, as was often the case for book-shrines. It is however possible that the box was originally larger, and reduced in the course of later refurbishments.

Dimma-Book-Shrine_Back_750
Fig. 1 Front of the shrine of the Book of Dimma, Ireland, 12th century and 1380-1407, 19 x 16.1 x 5 cm. TCD © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

The appearance of the front (fig. 1) is largely the result of a late-medieval refurbishment whose commissioner and craftsman are commemorated in the inscription in Lombardic script running along the framing strips (fig. 1a-d): Continue reading The Shrine of the Book of Dimma