The Book of Durrow to play key role in British Library exhibition

The Book of Durrow, one of the earliest surviving decorated Gospel books in Western Europe, will go on loan to the British Library for a landmark international exhibition of early medieval manuscripts and other objects, which opens next month. The announcement was made today by Trinity College Dublin.

The British Library exhibition ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War’ will explore the riches of art, culture and ideas covering the six centuries of the Anglo-Saxon period up to the Norman Conquest. The Book of Durrow’s decoration contains parallels with Anglo-Saxon metalwork and is thought to have been made in Durrow, Co. Offaly.

It is one of Ireland’s most important manuscripts and a precursor to the Book of Kells. The manuscript represents a fusion of artistic traditions that reveal a pivotal moment in the development of early Christian art in north-western Europe. Its distinctive and influential style is variously referred to as ‘Celtic’, ‘Hiberno-Saxon ‘or ‘Insular’ art.  This insular art style and its exquisite ornamentation inspired later masterpieces including the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The 1,300-year old book will join major manuscripts from around the world, such as the Codex Amiatinus, the oldest complete manuscript of the Bible in Latin, produced in the early 8th century, on loan from the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence. The exhibition will also include the Vercelli Book, one of the ‘four poetic codices’ of Old English poetry, on loan from Vercelli in Italy; the Domesday Book the detailed survey of lands held by William the Conqueror from The National Archives in the UK; and the Lindisfarne Gospels which are part of the British Library’s own collections.

Trinity College Dublin has been custodian of the Book of Durrow for the nation since the 17th century. It is displayed in the Library in rotation with other precious manuscripts, such as the Book of Dimma, the Book of Mulling and the Book of Armagh.

A Columban monk illustrated the Book of Durrow and while it has been named after the Columban monastery in Durrow, Co Offaly, its exact origins are subject to much debate,  it could be Durrow, Iona in Scotland or possibly even Lindisfarne in Northumbria.

The precious manuscript is particularly celebrated for its pared back aesthetic, its vibrant colours of red, yellow and green and the eclectic range of sources from which the scribe drew his inspiration.

Trinity College has analysed the inks and pigments of the manuscript using non-invasive micro-Raman spectroscopy and x-ray fluorescence techniques. The analysis has revealed that the brown-black ink is iron gall, the red comes from red lead and the green is a copper based acetate and yellow is arsenic sulphide or orpiment.

Coinciding with the British Library exhibition, the manuscript has been digitised and a new online exhibition has been developed by the Library of Trinity College Dublin showcasing the beautiful manuscript for the public, students and researchers anywhere in the world to study and learn more about it.  This is the first time it has been made available in this way, with such universally accessible, high quality images.

The Librarian and College Archivist at the Library of Trinity College Dublin, Helen Shenton said:

“The Book of Durrow is at the heart of Ireland’s cultural heritage. The manuscript’s exquisite ornamentation and history continues to inspire and enthral. Through this partnership with the British Library, people will be able to see it alongside major manuscripts from across Europe and the USA.  It will be exhibited with other significant works such as the Codex Amiatinus, the Lindisfarne Gospels and contemporary metalwork such as that from the recently discovered Staffordshire Hoard. The Book of Durrow plays a crucial role in telling the story of the Anglo-Saxon period and how it influenced early Christian art; the story simply can’t be told without it. In a Brexit and post Brexit era it is so important that our cultural institutions continue to collaborate in such significant partnerships.”

Lead Curator of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War at the British Library, Dr Claire Breay, said:

“I am thrilled that Trinity College Dublin has generously agreed to loan the Book of Durrow to the British Library’s exhibition, ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War’. The exhibition offers an exciting opportunity for new audiences to see this exceptional manuscript in London. Visitors will encounter the book, which was probably made in Durrow, Co. Offaly, alongside extraordinary manuscripts made in Northumbria in the same period. The display of the Book of Durrow together with contemporary decorated manuscripts will allow exhibition visitors to engage with the great artistic creativity of the period and to explore the strong cultural links between Ireland and Northumbria in the late 7th and early 8th centuries.”

The Provost and President of Trinity College Dublin, Dr Patrick Prendergast said:

“This 1,300 year-old manuscript has transcended borders throughout the ages and continues to teach us about the great value of educational and cultural collaborations.  Trinity is delighted to give people an opportunity to view the Book of Durrow in an exhibition of this scale and global importance.  As a university this is something that we want to facilitate and be part of.”

The exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War’ will run from 19 October 2018 – 19 February 2019 at the British Library.


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Caoimhe Ni Lochlainn, Head of Library Communications | | +353 1 896 4710