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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
How important are shoes? Ask Dorothy – or Cinderella! Footwear had significance for medieval Christians, too. Looking closely at the figures in our early medieval Irish manuscripts, we see that some figures wear shoes and others do not. It is possible to identify many of these figures as portraits of the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Before they wrote their Gospels, these men were disciples of Christ.
Two Gospels record specific instructions that Christ gave his followers about shoes. The guidelines were given to the apostles as they were sent out on missions to preach. In Matthew’s Gospel (10.8-10), Christ advises the apostles to travel without money or a change of clothes and that they should not take shoes, either. Mark’s Gospel (6.9) gives similar instructions about travelling light, but recommends the wearing of sandals.
During the central Middle Ages, a few hundred years after our manuscripts were produced, new currents of thought about monastic practice sought to reconnect with early Christian practices. Monks were especially interested in imitating the apostles and their devotion was measured in austerity. Monastic leaders like Peter Damian (11th century) told their monks that they should not wear shoes or even cover their legs as a sign of their commitment to Christ. The link in the minds of these later medieval monks between early Christian behaviour and the renunciation of even the smallest luxury likely led to the iconographic convention of rendering the apostles barefoot.1 We see barefoot figures in the images for Matthew and Mark in the Book of Mulling and the evangelist on the left in the Garland of Howth (figs. 1a-b, 3a). Their lack of shoes, however, may not reflect their sanctity.
In the early Middle Ages, when our early Irish manuscripts were made, shoes were prescribed for monks. John Cassian (5th century), whose records of early Christian desert ascetics were so influential in the West, regarded sandals as appropriate footgear for hermits. Benedict (6th century), one of the earliest abbots in the West to write down guidelines of behaviour for monks, recommended that either shoes or sandals were worn. John in the Book of Mulling, Matthew, Mark and Luke in the Book of Dimma and the evangelist on the right in the Garland of Howth all wear shoes (figs. 1c, 2a-c, 3b).
Although medieval shoes have survived to this century, they are often in a fragmentary state. Shoes were made from leather and like other organic materials, they broke into pieces over the centuries. It may also be that the shoes were discarded only when they wore out and so have been mere fragments since the Middle Ages.2 Leather uppers from three styles of shoes were recovered in excavations at Iona, site of an important early medieval monastery. A reconstruction of one shoe type (fig. 4) proposes that it would have looked very much like the ankle boots worn by St. John in the Book of Mulling (fig. 1c).3
The slippers worn by St. Mark in the Book of Dimma (fig. 2b) better resemble an early medieval shoe found in an Irish bog in Co. Leitrim (fig. 5). The majority of our Evangelists are equipped with the same footwear as the monks who made and used the Gospel books.