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The Famous Mulling Drawing

One of the most intriguing features of the Book of Mulling is the well-known circular device drawn on its last page (TCD MS 60, f. 94v; fig. 1). Approximately contemporary with the rest of the manuscript, it consists of two concentric circles accompanied by crosses with captions and indications of directions in Irish including the four cardinal points.1

094v-MS60_17_LO
Fig. 1 The Book of Mulling, 2nd half of the 8th century, TCD MS 60, f. 94v © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

The eight crosses around the outer circle are arranged in four pairs, each combining the name of an evangelist with the name of a prophet: from the top, clockwise, ‘cross of Mark’, ‘cross of Jeremiah’, ‘Matthew’ and ‘Daniel’, ‘cross of John’ and ‘Ezechiel’, and ‘cross of Luke’ and ‘cross of [Isaiah]’ (see figs. 2a-b). The inscriptions accompanying the four crosses contained inside the circles are partly illegible but one can still read, from top to bottom, ‘cross of the Holy Spirit’, ‘… with gifts’, ‘…with angels from above’ and ‘Christ with his apostles’.2

Fig. 2a From H. J. Lawlor, 'Notes on Some Non-Biblical matter in the Book of Mulling', in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (1895), p. 37.
Fig. 2a From H. J. Lawlor, ‘Notes on Some Non-Biblical matter in the Book of Mulling’, in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (1895), p. 37.

Strong green copper staining particularly apparent on the first leaves of the volume indicates that the manuscript was kept for a long time in direct contact with its enclosing shrine (see previous post) without the protection of a binding. This explains why this last leaf (f. 94) is so discoloured and damaged: it got torn in various places and some parts of it were sewn back together (fig. 1). The poor state of the leaf makes the interpretation of the circular device even more arduous.

Hugh Lawlor, in 1895, saw it as a ‘map or plan of some sort’, pointing out the presence of cardinal points.3 He proposed, on the suggestion of Thomas Olden, that the diagram could actually represent the ecclesiastical site of St Mullins (Co. Carlow), with the crosses marking the location of monastic buildings or crosses, while the circles could ‘represent the Rath of St Molling [sic], within which were his ecclesiastical buildings; the concentric circles perhaps indicating a double or even triple rampart’.4 A few years later, he attempted to superimpose the diagram with a plan of the actual site, but he admitted that this was inconclusive: ‘It leaves Mr Olden’s suggestion nearly as it was before – a hypothesis highly plausible in itself, not indeed altogether free from difficulties […], but by no means improbable – yet still only a hypothesis: a theory which is not, perhaps cannot be, either proved or disproved.’5

Fig. 2b From L. Nees, ‘The Colophon Drawing in the Book of Mulling: a Supposed Irish Monastery Plan and the Tradition of Terminal Illustration in Early Medieval Manuscripts’, in Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies (CMCS) 5 (Summer 1983), p. 69.
Fig. 2b From L. Nees, ‘The Colophon Drawing in the Book of Mulling: a Supposed Irish Monastery Plan and the Tradition of Terminal Illustration in Early Medieval Manuscripts’, in Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies (CMCS) 5 (Summer 1983), p. 69.

In 1983, Larry Nees, while not rejecting entirely the plan hypothesis, added another layer of interpretation, arguing that it probably functioned closely with the preceding liturgical text (on the same page).6 He stressed that the pairing of evangelists and prophets had its roots in Carolingian art (see fig. 3) and that the scribe must have had at his disposal a Carolingian model when designing the circular device, which he considered as closer in function to a ‘colophon drawing’.

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Fig. 4 Maiestas Domini, Vivian Bible, Tours, c. 845-846. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Lat. 1, f. 329v. Source.

The hypothesis of a Carolingian model would mean that this part of the manuscript could date to as late as the mid-9th century.

-Catherine Yvard, Research Fellow, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Trinity College Dublin