Tag Archives: Garland of Howth

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

Usseriani sed non Usseriani

Two of the manuscripts that form the subjects of our study are connected to the name of Ussher. TCD MS 55 is commonly called Codex Usserianus Primus, while TCD MS 56, also known as the Garland of Howth, has been designated as Codex Usserianus Secundus. The adjective ‘Usserianus’ therefore associates these two Gospel Books with the eminent scholar and ecclesiastical politician  James Ussher  (b. 1581, d. 1656).

James Ussher, by Cornelius Johnson, 1641 © Jesus College, University of Oxford; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. Source.

Ussher played a key role in the assembly of the collection of the Library of Trinity College Dublin.  Belonging to the first generation of students educated at the recently-founded College, which he entered in 1594, aged 13, he went on to become one of its first scholars and remained there as a member of staff until he was elevated to the bishopric of Meath in 1621. Four years later, he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh.

In the early 17th century he was responsible, together with Luke Challoner, for buying books to build the Trinity College holdings. They went on ‘shopping trips’ to England and liaised with numerous eminent scholars and  collectors of the time, such as Sir Robert Cotton, whose library would later be one of the foundation collections of the British Museum, now held at the British Library.  Ussher himself also assembled a great library, estimated at c. 10,000 volumes,1 most of which made their way into the collections of Trinity College Dublin.

The  association of the two early manuscript Gospel Books (TCD MSS 55 and 56) with the famous  scholar would have been a prestigious provenance,  especially since their numbering, as Primus and Secundus, would imply that they were among the first volumes received from his library. This provenance, however, cannot be verified and seems rooted in tradition rather than fact. According to William O’Sullivan, former Keeper of Manuscripts at the Library,  Thomas Kingsmill Abbott gave them this name because both manuscripts had been placed with Ussher’s manuscripts.2

We will come back to the question of the manuscripts’  actual provenance in future posts.

For more on James Ussher, see HERE.

Catherine Yvard, Research Fellow



Behind the Lens

The Garland of Howth (TCD MS 56) has not yet received all the attention it deserves, partly owing to the fact that hardly any images exist of it.  This is about to change dramatically, as we recently began full digitisation of this manuscript.

Fig. 1 The Garland of Howth, 8th-9th century, TCD MS 56, f. 10r © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

For this project we are utilising a piece of book cradle technology (Grazer KT5242) which simultaneously cradles the binding, isolates and applies a gentle vacuum suction to the fore edge of the open page (fig. 2). Photographing a manuscript is a methodical process Continue reading Behind the Lens

The Garland of Howth

The Garland of Howth (TCD MS 56) is larger than the Book of Mulling and the Book of Dimma,1 and thus  does not fall within the category of the  so-called ‘Pocket Gospel Book’, a typically Insular  phenomenon to which I shall return in a future post. Unfortunately only two illuminated Gospel openings have survived out of the four, as the beginnings of Saint Luke and Saint John are now lost, but what remains is wonderfully intricate and idiosyncratic.

The Garland of Howth, 8th-9th century, TCD MS 56, f. 22r © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

The manuscript takes its name from a tradition according to which it was found on Ireland’s Eye, an island north of Howth, and later brought to Howth on the mainland.

As you can see from the images on this page, it is rather damaged, but it is also one of the most intriguing manuscripts of the group, as it has barely been studied. This is not all that surprising given that, as a high grade manuscript, it is difficult to access, and one cannot rely on existing images, as they are scarce and of poor quality.  This will soon change dramatically, as it is going to be fully digitised and published online. We will give you a preview of the new images as soon as we start. We will also be carrying out pigment analysis on this manuscript, using micro-Raman spectroscopy, which should yield interesting results and complement the analyses carried out on other early Irish manuscripts.

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