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): ‘TATHEVS O KEARBVILL REI DE ELV MEIPSV/M DEAVRAVIT: DOMINVS DOMNALDVS O CVANAIN CO/NVERBIVS VLTIMO MEIPSVM RESTAVRAVIT;/ TOMAS CEARD DACHORIG; INMINDSA’, which translates as ‘Thadeus Ua Cearbaill, king of Eile had me gilt: the lord Domnall Ua Cuanáin, coarb, was the last one to restore me; Tomás the craftsman fashioned this shrine’.1

The inscription probably refers to Tadhg Ó Cearbhall (Tadgh O’Carroll), king of Éile (r. 1380-1407),2 an art lover recognised in the Annals as a patron of poets and musicians in Ireland and Scotland. Domnall Ua Cuanáin, also referred to in the inscription, has not been precisely identified, but the Ua Cuanáin family were the hereditary coarbs of Roscrea (i.e. considered to be the successors of Saint Crónan of Roscrea). It would therefore not have been surprising for them to be the keepers of the shrine. Nothing is known of Tomás the goldsmith, but the work must have been carried out in Roscrea.

It is uncertain whether the openwork panels on this side were part of this phase, though they are likely to be late medieval, and the crucifixion scene may date from the early 15th century.

The back of the shrine (fig. 2) shows evidence of heavy restoration by Henry Monck Mason (see earlier post): the bronze backing plates, the frame, cross and settings are all 19th century.  The incised inscription running on three sides also dates from the 19th century and reads: ‘The inclosed [sic] Copy of the Four Gospels was written by Dimma the son of Nathi who died about A. D. 620’.3

Fig. 1 Front of the shrine of the Book of Dimma, Ireland, 12th century and 1380-1407, 16.1 x 19 x 5 cm. TCD © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.
Fig. 2 Back 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 openwork silver panels (figs. 2, 2a), on the other hand, constitute the most substantial remains of the original mid to late 12th-century shrine:  they consist of interlaced animal ornament in the so-called Hiberno-Urnes style which originated from the Cross of Cong School, Roscommon in the early 12th century.

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Fig. 2a Detail of the upper right openwork panel on the back of the shrine of the Book of Dimma, Ireland, 12th century with 19th-century backing. TCD © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

The right side of the box (fig. 3) is covered by an incised sheet of silver now partially lost where one can still nevertheless see the design of interlacing snakes against a hatched ground, which also point to the 12th century, although they may be later than the panels on the back.

Fig. 3 Right side 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 left side (fig. 4) is decorated with three die-stamped panels with rampant lions enclosed in quatrefoils on either side. The same dies were also used on the top panel (fig. 5).

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Fig. 4 Left side 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.

These panels, with a rather mass-produced quality, may according to Ó Floinn be contemporary with the crucifixion on the front of the box.4

Dimma-Book-Shrine_Left-Side_750
Fig. 5 Top 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 panel which would have closed the bottom of the shrine is unfortunately now lost (fig. 6).

Dimma-Book-Shrine_Top
Fig. 6 Bottom 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 material complexity of the shrine and its highly composite nature are emblematic of this type of objects, the result of numerous alterations from the 12th century when it was made to the 19th century.

For more on this topic, see: R. Ó Floinn, ‘The Shrine of the Book of Dimma’, in Éile. Journal of the Roscrea Heritage Society 1 (1982), pp. 25-39; C. Hourihane, Gothic Art in Ireland 1169-1550 (New Haven and London, 2003), pp. 124-126; P. Mullarkey, ‘Shrine of the Book of Dimma’, in Art and Architecture of Ireland, Vol. I: Medieval c. 400-c. 1600, ed. by R. Moss (Dublin, 2014), p. 303.

Footnotes

  1. This transcription and translation are taken from R. Ó Floinn, ‘The Shrine of the Book of Dimma’, in Éile. Journal of the Roscrea Heritage Society 1 (1982), pp. 25-39 (p. 29).
  2. Kingdom in northern Munster.
  3. On this attribution, see previous post.
  4. R. Ó Floinn, ‘The Shrine of the Book of Dimma’, in Éile. Journal of the Roscrea Heritage Society 1 (1982), pp. 25-39 (p. 37).