Enshrining the Book

As we pointed out in a previous post, three of the Gospel Books under examination were formerly kept in book-shrines. The shrines are extant for the Book of Dimma (TCD; fig. 1) and the Book of Mulling (National Museum of Ireland), while the damage visible on Codex Usserianus Primus implies that it was also kept in a metal box for some time (see more on this HERE).

Fig. 1 The Misach, late 11th century and 1534, National Museum of Ireland © National Museum of Ireland.

The practice of enclosing books in ornate boxes probably stems from the use of book caskets during religious ceremonies in early Christian Rome. The Gospel, considered to be the Word of God, needed to be housed in an appropriate manner:  lavish bindings and boxes were devised to protect the Scriptures and assert their importance through the use of precious materials.

A few early medieval German and Swiss examples have survived, such as a 12th-century box decorated with openwork ivory panels which was made for the St Gall book of hymns and would have been carried in processions (fig. 2).

Fig. 2 Hymni (XXVII) Sangallenses in processionibus, St Gall, 12th century, 25.5 x 8 cm. St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 360.  Source.

The Irish book-shrines or Cumdachs,1 though in appearance similar, served a different function as most were designed not to be opened. The texts thus enclosed2 would have started their lives being used as books and later acquired the status of relics, through association with a holy figure. In this later incarnation, the symbolic value replaced their original functional dimension.

Eight Irish book-shrines are extant, dating from the early 9th century to 1536 (a * designates the ones for which the manuscript still exists):3

  • Lough Kinale Book-Shrine, early 9th century, 34.5 x 28 x 11 cm
  • Soiscéal Molaise, early 11th century with late medieval additions, 14.7 x 11.7 x 8.8 cm
  • Shrine of the Cathach*, late 11th century, late 14th century and later additions, 19 x 25 x 5.25 cm
  • the Misach, late 11th century and 1534, 23.2 x 26.6 x 6.3 cm (fig. 1)
  • Shrine of the Book of Dimma*, late 12th century and 1380-1407 (TCD), 16.1 x 19 x 5 cm
  • Shrine of the Stowe Missal*, early 11th century and late 14th century, 18.7 x 15.8  x 4.6 cm
  • Book-Shrine of St Moling*, 1402 with later additions,  15.3 x 19 x 7.6 cm (fig. 3)
  • St Caillin’s Shrine, 1536 (Longford Diocesan Museum), 23.6 x 28 x 5.4 cm4
Fig. 3 Front of the Book-Shrine of St Moling, 1402 with later additions, Dublin, National Museum of Ireland. From C. Vallancey, Collectanea de rebus hibernicus (Dublin, 1786), pl. II. Out of Copyright.

Most of them are composite structures, as a result of later refurbishments.  Although they vary in size, depending on the manuscript they were intended to contain, they share a few characteristics:

  • they feature a cross on the front (see fig. 1)
  • they are typically adorned with openwork panels set against a contrasting background (gilded or silvered against bronze or vice versa), certainly emulating other kinds of reliquaries which would allow partial vision of the relics through a screen or grid structure (fig. 4)
  • ornamental settings are another common feature (see figs. 1 and 3)
Fig. 4 From S. Crawford, ‘A Descriptive List of Irish Shrines and Reliquaries. Part I’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 13, no. 1 (1923), pp. 74-93, fig. 2. Out of Copyright.

Unlike manuscripts, book-shrines often yield interesting provenance information, as they tend to bear inscriptions which either refer to their primary commissioning or to later refurbishments. We will soon return to this question and will also be looking more closely at the shrines of the Books of Dimma and Mulling.

For related posts on the web, see the Medieval Fragments blog and the Medieval Books blog.

Catherine Yvard, Research Fellow


  1. For more on this topic, see: S. Crawford, ‘A Descriptive List of Irish Shrines and Reliquaries. Part II’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 13, no. 2 (1923), pp. 152-156; C. Hourihane, Gothic Art in Ireland 1169-1550 (New Haven and London, 2003), pp. 114-137; and, more recently, P. Mullarkey, ‘Irish Book Shrines’, in Art and Architecture of Ireland, Vol. I: Medieval c. 400-c. 1600, ed. by R. Moss (Dublin, 2014), pp. 297-304.
  2. The Cathach enshrined a psalter, the Stowe shrine a missal and the name of the Misach also implies a missal rather than gospels.
  3. Unless otherwise specified, these artefacts are kept at the National Museum of Ireland.
  4. This piece is undergoing conservation following the 2009 fire at St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford. There does not seem to be consensus on the function of this shrine, as it has been argued it could have been intended for an ensemble of relics rather than for a manuscript, like the box-like Domnach Airgid (‘silver church’) now in the National Museum of Ireland. The recent Art and Architecture of Ireland volume maintains an ambiguous position on this point as it does not include it in the book-shrines section, while at the same time counting it as one of the eight extant book-shrines in the introduction to this category. See Art and Architecture of Ireland, Vol. I: Medievaled. by R. Moss (Dublin, 2014), pp. 295-296 and 298.