The Early Irish Manuscripts Project is pleased to announce the launch of the digital version of Codex Usserianus Primus (TCD MS 55). This is the fourth and final early medieval Gospel Book to be digitized on this project. Usserianus Primus is special because it is one of the earliest examples of a Gospel Book, thought to have been made in Ireland, to have survived to the present day. While it has generally been dated to the seventh century, a controversial assessment has identified the manuscript as the product of the fifth century, an extraordinarily early date for a Christian book to have been made in Ireland.
Compared to the other Gospel Books in this project, Usserianus Primus is particularly fragile. While the manuscript has retained 182 folios with scriptural text, these have suffered damage rendering many of them fragments. In addition, the late nineteenth-century binding of the volume caused stress on the vellum resulting in distortion of the leaves (see previous post). Conservation has involved both dis-binding the volume and remounting the leaves in a painstaking process that has taken months to complete (see previous post).
The damage done to the manuscript folios is consistent with storage in a metal box (see previous post). It is likely that the Gospels were kept in a book shrine like the ornate boxes made for the Book of Dimma and the Book of Mulling (see previous post). Manuscripts were typically enshrined if they had an association with a saint. Who the holy figure associated with Usserianus Primus might have been, is now unknown.
Folios from the beginning, middle and end of the manuscript. Codex Usserianus Primus, 5th or early 7th century, TCD MS 55, ff. 6r, 76r, 178r © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2016.
Usserianus Primus as given its name by the nineteenth-century Trinity Librarian, T.K. Abbott. It was assumed that the great collector of ancient manuscripts and Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher, had owned the codex, as he had so many others in the library collection. Thus, the book was called, ‘The first book of Ussher,’ in Latin. This is now thought to have been unlikely (see previous post).
There is very little decoration in Usserianus Primus. Other than red dots to emphasize a few initials within the text, the only surviving ornament is found on folio 149v between the end of Luke’s Gospel and the beginning of Mark’s. In this location was placed a cross that takes the form of Christ’s initials in Greek (see previous post). The image is further elaborated with the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, a standard designation for Christ as the beginning and end of all things. The ensemble is enclosed with three red and black frames. The ornamentation suggests that this early Irish Gospel book was inspired by an example from the Mediterranean.