There are many treasures in the Library at Trinity College Dublin. Most are known to scholars and experts; a few, like the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow, are recognized more widely. It is rare then, that a manuscript largely unknown to researchers and the public alike, is brought to light. This year, the Early Irish Manuscripts Project brings forward a hidden gem, a digital version of the Garland of Howth. See the full manuscript here.
Inscribed on the 86 folios of the codex are the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As with other Insular Gospel books, a set of illuminated pages were made to preface the book of each evangelist. The Garland of Howth (also known as Usserianus Secundus, MS 56) preserves the introductory images for the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. On these folios, the large initials of Insular display script playfully mix with interlace and beasts (fig. 1). Images of the evangelists and their symbols are incorporated into this landscape of words and ornament.
The manuscript likely dates to the ninth century meaning it would have been made at about the same time as the better-known Book of Kells. The Garland of Howth is smaller than the Kells manuscript, measuring 24.1 cm x 19.2 cm, so about half the size of Kells. Where Kells would have been far too large to look at without the aid of a table or lectern, The Garland of Howth could have been held comfortably in the hands.
While the decoration in the Garland of Howth is less elaborate than in Kells, there are comparable elements. Publishing the full manuscript will give researchers an unprecedented opportunity to examine paintings produced in the Insular tradition in the same time as those made for the Kells volume.
Estimates about how long it would take to produce a codex like the Garland of Howth vary. Making an illuminated manuscript like the Garland of Howth likely took months to complete, if not longer.1Producing a digital version has been no less painstaking. The manuscript has been conserved, photographed and digitized (see previous post). Making it available to researchers around the world has been a project that has taken two months to complete.
This Gospel book has traditionally been associated with the monastery founded by St. Nessan (7th century) on Ireland’s Eye, an island off the coast of Howth. Eventually, it is said to have passed into the hands of the wife of the Lord of Howth. Although the work was known to James Ussher, there is no proof that he owned it before it came into the collection of Trinity College Dublin (See previous post). From the small early medieval monastic community, through privileged hands in the intervening centuries, the Garland of Howth is now accessible to all.
Colleen Thomas, Research Fellow