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Colm Cille's Spiral: The Object

A Dublin City Council Public Art Commission, supported by Dublin City Council, Difference Exchange, King’s Cultural Institute, Derry-Londonderry City of Culture 2013 and Trinity College Dublin.

Principal Researcher: Dr Laura Cleaver
Curators: Ruairí Ó Cuív, Clíodhna Shaffrey and Laura Cleaver

In 2013 a group of curators, artists, writers and academics collaborated on a project exploring the legacy of the story of Colm Cille or St. Columba in Britain and Ireland. The project was part of the events generated around Derry-Londonderry City of Culture (2013) and further details can be found here. The Dublin-based section of the project examined objects now in Dublin that have been connected with Colm Cille or his cult, with a walking tour around the city culminating in a chance to see a new work, Everything's Moving Below the Surface by artist Tracy Hanna. Here some of those involved reflect on a selection of the objects associated with Colm Cille, and the experience of telling his story in the twenty-first century.

Colm Cille: Life and Legend

Colm Cille, also known as Columba, whose name means 'dove of the churches' was born in around 521, possibly at Gartan Co. Donegal. He is reputed to have founded monasteries at Derry, Durrow and Iona. A century after his death in 597, Colm Cille's life inspired Adomnán, abbot of Iona, to produce a written record of the man who was by then recognised as a saint. The saint's relics may have been brought to Ireland from Scotland in the ninth century, following Viking raids, when monks from Iona founded the monastery at Kells. A large number of objects associated with Colm Cille are now to be found in Ireland. The most prized relics would have been parts of the saint's body, but these seem to have been lost by the twelfth century, as several claims of the miraculous rediscovery of the body were made in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Contact with a saint's body was widely believed to confer holiness and thus objects associated with the saint, including his clothing and possessions, took on great significance. None of the objects included here can be proved to have had a direct connection with the saint during his lifetime, however they testify to the enduring importance of the saint, and the desire to identify objects with his life, miracles and cult.

The Cathach of Colm Cille
Royal Irish Academy
Late sixth or early seventh century

The Cathach is one of the oldest surviving manuscripts made in Ireland and has traditionally been associated with Colm Cille. According to a sixteenth-century version of the saint's life the manuscript was written by Colm Cille who surreptitiously copied it from a book owned by St Finnian. This led to the Battle of Cúl Drebene of 561, and some accounts suggest that this, in turn, led to Colm Cille's banishment, prompting him to found the monastic community in Iona. It is unlikely that the Cathach is, in fact, a manuscript produced by Colm Cille, and it was probably made shortly after his death. However the Cathach is evidence for the careful copying of a Psalter, a key text for medieval devotion, in this period. Moreover, the seventh-century life by Adomnán, testifies to Colm Cille's involvement in writing manuscripts, and records miracles associated with these books. According to Adomnán, Colm Cille was copying a Psalter shortly before his death. The name Cathach (or 'battle book') derives from the claim that the manuscript was carried into battle, and the sixteenth-century life claims that when an army used it as a talisman they were always victorious.

The Shrine of the Cathach
National Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street
Eleventh and fourteenth century

The sixteenth-century life of Colm Cille records that the Cathach was kept in a container of gold and silver that it was not permissible to open. Keeping an object out of sight added to its mystery and created an aura of holiness. The surviving shrine is made up of metal panels over a wooden core, but the box is hinged, to allow access to the manuscript within, if only for a select few. The significance of the manuscript as a relic is proclaimed through the use of precious materials and the decoration chosen. In the panel on the left, a monk prays to the saint, who is dressed as an abbot and makes a gesture of blessing, echoing that made by the larger figure of Christ. On the right is a scene of the crucifixion, whilst above angels swing censers, further emphasising the sacred nature of the scene and the object. The remaining space is filled with decoration, including foliate designs, birds, beasts and grotesques. The importance of the shrine as an object associated with the Cathach is indicated by the fact that although changes have been made over time, parts of the earlier object have been retained. Thus the side panels date from the eleventh century, but the top was replaced in the fourteenth century, with the rock crystals added at a later date.

The Book of Durrow
Trinity College Dublin
Seventh century

© Board of Trinity College Dublin

The early sources credit Colm Cille with founding the monastery at Durrow either before his departure for Iona or during a return visit to Ireland. The Book of Durrow, a copy of the four gospels, contains a now nearly illegible inscription claiming that it was written by Colm Cille. This cannot be true, as the manuscript was probably produced in the late seventh century. The volume is one of the earliest surviving manuscripts from Ireland and contains full-page images, including representations of the evangelist symbols (a man for Matthew, lion for Mark, ox for Luke and an eagle for John) as well as the gospel text. The manuscript is first recorded in Durrow in the late ninth or early tenth century, when it was placed in a shrine (now lost) that had an inscription that also made reference to the saint. In the seventeenth century the manuscript was still considered a relic of the saint. Part of the volume was immersed in water, with the water then being used to cure sick cattle.

The Book of Kells
Trinity College Dublin
Eighth century

© Board of Trinity College Dublin

The first recorded reference to the Book of Kells in the early eleventh century describes the theft of the manuscript from Kells, and refers to the manuscript as the gospel book of Colm Cille. The volume probably dates from the eighth century, thus it cannot have had a direct connection to the saint during his lifetime. However the monastery at Kells was founded by monks from Iona in the first decade of the ninth century, and the relationship between the two communities raises the possibility that the manuscript was made on Iona, leading to an association with the relics of Colm Cille. The manuscript is a copy of the four gospels and is lavishly decorated, which, taken together with errors in the text, may suggest that it was a status symbol that glorified the gospels and the community, as well as a labour of devotion, rather than a text that was carefully read and studied. On some pages text and image are intricately combined, forcing the reader to work hard understand the words. This practice resonates with the start of John's Gospel: 'In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God'. The intricacy of many of the designs suggests that the decoration would have taken years to complete, and the manuscript is amongst the most richly decorated from the period. Despite its fame, many questions about the Book of Kells remain, including when it came to Kells and why it was never finished.

The Canons of Saint Basil
Chester Beatty Library
c. 900

©The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

The objects associated with Colm Cille demonstrate the importance of the movement of books and other objects used in Christian practice around Europe. In the early Middle Ages the Mediterranean was an important source of Biblical texts in Latin and Greek for churches on the fringes of Europe. The practice of monasticism also has its roots in the retreats from the world by individuals and groups in the Middle East and North Africa. Like the early monks who settled in the desert, Colm Cille was credited with overcoming the challenges of wild beasts and extreme weather in the course of founding his communities of monks. As Christianity became more established in northern Europe these monastic communities in their turn sent gifts, including manuscripts, to centres such as Rome. The fragment of the Canons of St Basil was made in Egypt and has no direct connection with Colm Cille or his cult. However the similarity between the creature in the margin of the Canons of St Basil, made around the year 900, and creatures in manuscripts such as the Book of Kells is a reminder of the importance of this two-way traffic for the spread of ideas.

High Crosses at Kells

In addition to manuscripts, carved high crosses are an important surviving witness to engagement with the Bible and the skills of artists in the early Middle Ages. These crosses are usually associated with monastic sites and decorated with scenes from the Bible and the lives of saints. They may have been tools for devotion and teaching, and the subjects chosen often indicate an interest in ideas about life in the wilderness that might have had a particular resonance for monks. At Kells four crosses survive from the monastic site. The face of the 'south cross' shown here includes images of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Daniel in the lions' den and Sts Paul and Anthony receiving bread from a raven. The last two scenes were both understood as demonstrating God's provision in the face adversity. An inscription at the base of the cross declares that this is the 'cross of Patrick and Colm Cille' (although this is now illegible due to weathering).

The Life of Colm Cille
Marsh's Library
Fifteenth century

© Marsh's Library

The enduring importance of Colm Cille's cult is demonstrated by his inclusion in this collection of (predominantly Irish) saints lives produced in the fifteenth century. The text is a shortened adaptation of Adomnán's life of Colm Cille. Such collections of saints' lives provided materials that could be read aloud on the feast days of particular saints, and this volume may have come from a Franciscan monastery. Colm Cille's feast was celebrated on the 9th of June. This manuscript was amongst those used to compile the first printed editions of the life of Colm Cille, including the edition published by William Reeves in 1857.

See the full manuscript here

Further reading:

  • Adomnán of Iona, Life of St Columba (trans.) R. Sharpe (Penguin, 1995)
  • Manus O'Donnell, The Life of Colum Cille (ed.) B. Lacey (Dublin, 1998)
  • B. Cunningham & S. Fitzpatrick, Treasures of the Royal Irish Academy Library (Dublin, 2009)
  • B. Meehan, The Book of Durrow (Dublin, 1996)
  • B. Meehan, The Book of Kells (London, 2013)
  • P. F. Wallace & R. Ó Floinn, Treasures of the National Museum of Ireland: Irish Antiquities (Dublin, 2002)

This project could not have happened without the generous support of the contributing institutions. The organisers are very grateful to the OPW, National Museum of Ireland, Chester Beatty Library, Royal Irish Academy, and Marsh’s Library.