Decorating the Canon Tables

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.

Figure 1 Canon I, Book of Mulling, 8th century, TCD MS 60, f. 5r © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.
Figure 1 Canon I, Book of Mulling, 8th century, TCD MS 60, f. 5r © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

By comparison, the canon tables in the Book of Kells are far more elaborate (figs. 2-3).  The first eight tables in the Kells manuscript display the index in an architectural format.3 A hemispherical dome is supported by a series of columns, complete with bases and capitals as would be found in a real building. Section numbers are placed beneath the arches.  The arrangement of the arcades into groups of three (fig. 3) or four (fig. 2) suited the layout of the tables and may have also been a reference to sacred buildings such as the shrine of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.4

Figure 2 The Book of Kells, ca.800, TCD MS 58, f. 2r © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.
Figure 2 The Book of Kells, ca.800, TCD MS 58, f. 2r © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.
Book of Kells, f. 2r, detail
Book of Kells, f. 2r, detail

In addition to the arcade framework, the Kells canon tables use Evangelist symbols (see previous post) as visual cues to aid the reader. The symbols for each Gospel writer are positioned under the dome for the first canon table (fig. 2).5 Their presence confirms that this table is the concordance for all four Gospels.  Similarly, the table for the second canon has only three symbols – those for Matthew, Mark and Luke, which verify the page as an index of those three Gospels (fig. 3).

Figure 3 The Book of Kells, ca.800, TCD MS 58, f. 3r © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.
Figure 3 The Book of Kells, ca.800, TCD MS 58, f. 3r © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.
Book of Kells, f. 3r, detail
Book of Kells, f. 3r, detail

The elaborate decoration for canon tables in a display book like the Book of Kells emphasizes the significance of Eusebius’ system for interpreting the Gospels. It may also shed light on the motivation for inserting canon tables, even in so simple a format, as a later addition to the Book of Mulling.

Footnotes

  1. For more on canon tables, see C. Nordenfalk, ‘The apostolic canon tables,’ Gazette des Beaux Artes, 6:62 (1963), 17-34.
  2. For more on visual representations of Gospel harmony in Insular manuscripts, see J. O’Reilly, ‘Gospel harmony and the names of Christ: Insular images of a patristic theme’, in K. Molinari and J. Sharpe (eds.), The Bible as Book: the Manuscript Tradition (London, 1997), pp. 73-88.
  3. For more on Insular canon table arcades, see E. Mullins, ‘The Canon Tables in Boulogne, Bibliot èque Municipale, MS 10,’ in E. Mullins and D. Scully (eds.), Listen, O Isles, unto Me: Studies in Medieval Word and Image in Honour of Jennifer O’Reilly (Cork, 2011), pp. 302-312, esp. pp.306-7.
  4. C. Neuman de Vegvar, ‘Remembering Jerusalem: architecture and meaning in Insular canon table arcades,’ in R. Moss (ed.), Making and Meaning in Insular Art (Dublin, 1997), pp. 242-256.
  5. For more on Evangelist symbols in canon tables see N. Netzer, ‘The Origin of the Beast Canon Tables Reconsidered,’ in F. O’Mahony (ed.), The Book of Kells (Dublin, 1994), pp. 322-32.