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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

Evangelist portraits are more typically found marking the start of their gospel, which in the case of the Garland of Howth Matthew has been lost. Depicted in their human form they usually either hold the gospel in both hands, close to the heart or breast; or hold the gospel in the left hand and a stylus or quill in the right. The figure on the left of folio 1r is shown rather with his arms raised. This gesture is more reminiscent of a Majestas Domini with the right hand raised in benediction, and the left hand holding a gospel book.

Swords are typically an attribute of kingship, and associated with images of Herod, Solomon, David, Christ and various secular kings, together with Matthew and St Paul (as a symbols of their martyrdoms). The manner in which the sword is displayed by the Howth figure, raised over the right shoulder, with a book held in the left hand on the knee is most reminiscent of the imperial iconography of judge and law-giver. As swords formed part of the regalia of early Irish kingship, the connotation of secular power would not have been lost on a native audience. Indeed a number of the contemporary high crosses, sponsored by local kings, incorporate comparable figures.

Figure 2 Image of a secular potentate on the high cross at Durrow. Photo. R. Moss.
Figure 2 Image of a secular potentate on the high cross at Durrow. Photo. R. Moss.

In the Book of Kells, the elaborately decorated opening of Matt 1:18 is prefaced by a Majestas Domini, and a carpet page with double armed cross. Martin Werner proposes that this was intended to represent Christ of the Resurrection, Second Coming and Last Judgement, facing an image of the True Cross, which alludes to the incarnation and resurrection.3  Thus the cycle of images is intended to convey the humanity of Christ as represented by his suffering on the cross in the temporal sphere and the heavenly Christ, dwelling in heaven with God the Father: Christ as a single entity with two natures.

Could the combination of figures around a cross form on the Garland of Howth page represent a conflation of these ideas? Are we looking at a representation of a secular patron of the book implying heavenly sanction for his rule, as found in contemporary Continental manuscripts (see previous post)? Are we looking at dual depictions of Matthew, one as evangelist, the other as martyr (see previous post)? Or are the figures indeed intended as an illustration of the genealogy of Christ? In concordance with the practice of lectio divina –prayerful meditation, or rumination on scriptural texts, these multivalent images presented visual catalysts for the meditative reader (see previous post). A particular image juxtaposed with another, or with a particular piece of text, might hold a different meaning, not only reliant on context, but also on audience.

Rachel Moss, Assistant Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture

Footnotes

  1. H.C. Hoskier, The text of Codex Usserianus 2 : r2 otherwise known as the ‘Garland of Howth’ with critical notes to supplement and correct the collation of the late T. K. Abbott (London, 1919), p. 1.
  2. Isabel Henderson, ‘Abstracts: The Book of Deer’ in E. Evans, D. Griffith, J.G. and E.M Jope (eds) Proc. Seventh International Congress of Celtic Studies (Oxford, 1986), p. 278.
  3. Martin Werner,’ Crucifixi, Sepilti, Susciati,’ in ed. Felicity O’Mahony, The Book of Kells: Proceedings of a Conference at Trinity College Dublin 6-9 September, 1992 (Aldershot, 1994),pp.450-88 at 455-57