Tag Archives: Book of Dimma

The Evangelists’ Shoes

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).

Fig. 4 On the right, leather shoe found at Iona, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. Source.

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

Fig. 5 Shoe found in a bog, Carigallen, Co. Leitrim, early medieval, National Museum of Ireland, W. 10 © National Museum of Ireland, Dublin.

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.

Colleen Thomas, Research Fellow

The Shrine of the Book of Dimma

This shrine was made in the 12th century to enclose the 8th-century Gospel Book known as the Book of Dimma (TCD MS 59; see previous post) but, like many book-shrines, it was significantly altered in subsequent centuries, in particular in the late Middle Ages and the 19th century.

It is made of bronze, silver and gilt silver, with blue glass beads, a few blue stone cabochons (lapis lazuli?) and some remains of niello inlay. It is a tight fit for the manuscript, which implies that there is no space for a wooden core, as was often the case for book-shrines. It is however possible that the box was originally larger, and reduced in the course of later refurbishments.

Fig. 1 Front of the shrine of the Book of Dimma, Ireland, 12th century and 1380-1407, 19 x 16.1 x 5 cm. TCD © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

The appearance of the front (fig. 1) is largely the result of a late-medieval refurbishment whose commissioner and craftsman are commemorated in the inscription in Lombardic script running along the framing strips (fig. 1a-d): Continue reading The Shrine of the Book of Dimma

The Devil’s Caves…

The Book of Dimma (now TCD MS 59) and its shrine were purchased by Mr. Henry Monck Mason from a Dr. Thomas Harrison of Nenagh (Tipperary) in the early 19th century. They first came to public attention in 1816 when Monck Mason, librarian at the King’s Inns in Dublin, brought them to be exhibited at the Society of Antiquaries in London (then at Somerset House; fig. 1).

In 1824 William Darton (Junior) wrote a guide to London: A Description of London: Containing a Sketch of Its History and Present State, and of All the Most Celebrated Public Buildings, &c.
Fig. 1 W. Darton Jr, A Description of London: Containing a Sketch of Its History and Present State, and of All the Most Celebrated Public Buildings, &c. (London, 1824). Source.

On May 24th 1819, when Monck Mason presented the manuscript and its shrine at the Royal Irish Academy, he explained that, according to Dr Harrison, Continue reading The Devil’s Caves…

Roscrea and the Book of Dimma

Since its introduction to the scholarly community, the Book of Dimma (TCD MS 59) has been associated with the early ecclesiastical settlement at Roscrea. Aside from the ‘forged’ links of the manuscript to Dimma, scribe of Saint Crónán of Roscrea (see previous post), names inscribed on the shrine recording the 14th-century restoration work link it to the lord of the territory in which Roscrea sits, and both shrine and manuscript first came to antiquarian notice when in the possession of the parish priest at Roscrea.

Fig. 1 Monaincha Abbey © R. Moss.

The church at Roscrea was established sometime in the late 6th or early 7th century at a crossroads on one of the principal route ways of ancient Ireland- the Slighe Dhála and the location of a famous fair, the Aonach Éile. Continue reading Roscrea and the Book of Dimma

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.

Continue reading Enshrining the Book

Pocket Books

From the late 7th to the early 12th century, Gospel Books were, with Psalters, the most common type of illuminated manuscript produced in Irish foundations in Ireland and across Europe. The surviving copies broadly fall into two categories: lavish illuminated Gospel Books, such as the Book of Kells (TCD MS 58), the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, BL, Cott. MS Nero D.IV) or the Lichfield Gospels (Lichfield, Cathedral Library, MS 1), and more modest volumes, of small proportions and with fewer illustrations, commonly known as ‘pocket Gospel Books’.

Fig. 1. The Book of Dimma, late 8th century (TCD MS 59, p. 107) © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

The Book of Dimma (TCD MS 59; fig. 1) and the Book of Mulling (TCD MS 60) belong to the latter group. Codex Usserianus Primus and the Garland of Howth, however, fall outside of this typology, belonging neither to one category nor the other, being too large to be called ‘pocket’ books,1 and too scarcely illuminated to constitute luxury volumes.

The main characteristics of pocket Gospels are as follows: Continue reading Pocket Books


Codex Usserianus Primus (TCD MS 55) has reached us in a fragmentary state, as it now consists of the remains of approximately 182 folios: some are substantial, other ones parchment snippets. The pattern of damage, concentrated around the edges and affecting more severely the beginning and the end of the volume (figs. 1-3) indicates that the manuscript must have been kept unbound in a metal box for a very long time.

The practice of enclosing books in sealed book-shrines or cumdachs seems to have been common in Ireland in the Middle Ages: Continue reading Fragments

The Book of Dimma

The Book of Dimma (TCD MS 59) is a small volume that contains the four Gospels as well as a few later additions, and was probably made in the late 8th century at Roscrea, a monastery founded in the 7th century .

Just as the Book of Mulling was not  written by Mulling (see previous post), the Book of Dimma was not written by Dimma.

The Book of Dimma, late 8th century (TCD, MS 59, p. 104) © The Library of Trinity College Dublin.
The Book of Dimma, late 8th century, TCD MS 59, p. 104 © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

The name Dimma appears on several pages at the end of three Gospels (pp. 29, 52 and 148), but in each case it was written  over an erasure. The reason for the alteration would have been to enhance the holy nature of the book by connecting it to an episode from the life of Saint Crónán (d. 619), the founder of the Roscrea monastery. According to the legend, Crónán asked a scribe called Dimma to produce a copy of the Gospels for him, demanding it to be ready by the next day. Dimma succeeded in this impossible task, as the sun miraculously did not set for the next forty days.

Whoever wrote the name of Dimma over that of the original scribe wished to transform this manuscript into the famous Gospels; the alteration was probably made at Roscrea in the late 10th or 11th century. Luckily, one colophon was left intact, on p. 103, revealing the original name of Dianchride, a name that occurs in the genealogy of the Uí Chorcrain, who had a branch based in the northern part of Tipperary.

Catherine Yvard, Research Fellow

Launch of the Early Irish Manuscripts Project at Trinity College Dublin

The Library of Trinity College Dublin, in partnership with the Department of History of Art and Architecture, has received generous support from  Bank of America Merrill Lynch Art Conservation Project to fund an exciting project focused on four of the most important early medieval insular Gospel Books in the Library.

This blog will tell you all about these manuscripts and will keep you posted on our progress and discoveries.

The Book of Dimma, late 8th century, TCD MS 59, pp. 104-105 © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

The manuscripts in question are :

  • Codex Usserianus Primus, 5th or 7th century (TCD MS 55)
  • the Book of Dimma, late 8th century  (TCD MS 59)
  • the Book of Mulling, 2nd half of the 8th century (TCD MS 60)
  • the Garland of Howth, 8th-9th century (TCD MS 56)

We will be looking at them from many different angles. The TCD conservation team will focus on preservation and technical examination, including non-destructive pigment analysis. Their findings will complement recent results achieved for the Book of Kells, the Book of Durrow and the Book of Armagh, using micro-Raman spectroscopy.

Two of the manuscripts (Dimma and Mulling) are sitting rather uncomfortably in their mid-20th-century bindings, so this  will be addressed in the conservation treatment, along with a close examination of their codicological  structure.

The manuscripts will also be studied from an art historical perspective, the Garland of Howth in particular has barely been researched, so this should lead to significant discoveries.

And last but not least, they will be fully digitised and  accessible online, so that everyone can have a chance to turn their pages.

Catherine Yvard, Research Fellow