In 1926, after having the rare pleasure of examining the Book of Dimma, Dr. Richard Best, Celticist at the National Library of Ireland wrote, ‘Lastly, it is to be hoped that this precious volume…of so great importance to palaeographers [sic], may before long be published in facsimile.’ 1 It may have taken 90 years, but Dr. Best’s wish is our command. The digital Book of Dimma is now available online. This is the third of four Insular Gospel books to be digitized through our Early Irish Manuscripts project. You can see all the images here.
The Book of Dimma is a pocket Gospel book made in the eight century. These small, early medieval volumes seem to have been the unique products of Insular scriptoria. Generally, they contained only the four Gospel texts. Dimma contains a supplemental text of a ritual for the Visitation of the Sick, inserted later. Likely owing to their small size, the script used in pocket Gospels was a compact style known as Irish miniscule. Also in keeping with their modest dimensions, these manuscripts tend to have abbreviated programs of decoration.
Three Evangelist portraits survive in the Book of Dimma. These are representations of Matthew, Mark and Luke (figs.1-3). While Matthew and Luke stand, Mark is seated on a magnificent chair completed by bird-head finials. For John, instead of an image of the author, there is his evangelist symbol, the eagle (fig.4).
Although text at the end of three of the Gospels claim that the scribe who copied the book was called Dimma, this is unlikely (see previous post). Dimma was a legendary scribe who was said to have been commissioned by St. Crónán, the seventh-century founder of the monastery at Roscrea, to copy all four Gospels in a single day. He accomplished his assignment with the help of divine intervention as the sun did not set for 40 days. Dimma’s name was written over erasures of previous inscriptions in what appears to have been an attempt to connect the manuscript to a famous miracle.
In the twelfth century, a shrine (fig. 5) was made to enclose the Gospel book (see previous post). The bronze and silver box was further embellished at the turn of the fifteenth century. According to the inscription, it was renewed through the patronage of local King Tadhg Ua Cearbhall and Domnall Ua Cuanáin, a member of the family of hereditary guardians of the church and its lands at Roscrea.
The Book of Dimma has had an association with Roscrea (fig. 6) from the early Middle Ages (see previous post). It is likely that the book and its shrine remained in the vicinity of Roscrea for several centuries. The post-medieval provenance of the two works is marked by a moment of deceit when it seems a tale was invented for the rediscovery of the book and its shrine (see previous post). Subsequently, the manuscript was purchased by Henry Monk Mason and William Betham (see previous post) before being purchased for the Trinity College Library collection in the mid-nineteenth century.
Colleen Thomas, Research Fellow