A 1,300 year old masterpiece in the Library of Trinity College Dublin
The Book of Durrow dates to c. AD650-700 and is one of the earliest intact gospel books to survive in Western Europe.
The manuscript contains a copy of the Four Gospels of the New Testament, together with some prefaces.
The content of the prefaces is so close in nature to those in the Book of Kells, it is thought that this part of the Book of Durrow may have served as a model or exemplar for the Kells scribes.
TCD MS 58 F. 5v canon table in the Book of Kells.
The Book of Durrow is particularly renowned for its artwork. Eleven of its pages are dedicated to painted decoration. In addition the opening of the four gospels and other important passages are highlighted by enlarging and ornamenting the letters.
Six pages are filled with an array of different, abstract ornament. These have been misplaced over time, but were most likely intended to mark the opening and closing of the gospel book, together with the opening of the prefaces and each individual gospel.
The designs used on these pages, known as ‘carpet’ pages because of their similarity to Persian rugs, suggests that the artist was familiar with the art of a number of different cultures.
The dynamic interlocking spiral and whorl motifs on folio 3v trace their origins to the pre-Christian La Tène style of Celtic or Iron Age art, that endured in non-Romanised areas such as Scotland and Ireland.
This art style was also used to decorate many of the initials in the manuscript.
The abstracted animals and snakes that writhe around folio 192v take their inspiration from the art current in Anglo-Saxon Britain at the start of the seventh century.
The intertwined ribbons that form complex mesh-like designs on some of the other pages trace their origins to the Mediterranean and are found, for example, decorating the pages of gospel books from the area that corresponds with modern day south eastern Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
Aside from the carpet pages the other focus of decoration is on illustrations of the four evangelists, authors of the gospels, shown in their symbolic form.
The symbols of the evangelists as a man, a lion, an ox or calf and an eagle trace their origins to the Old Testament vision of Ezekiel and New Testament Book of Revelation where animals of this type are described as surrounding the enthroned Christ. In the Book of Durrow each individual Gospel is prefaced with a symbol.
Unlike most early Irish manuscripts the scribe/artist of the Book of Durrow followed the interpretation of the symbols proposed by St Ireneus: Matthew - man; Mark - eagle; Luke - ox/calf; John - lion.
A striking element of the portrayal of the symbols is their rigid geometric form. Recent high resolution photography has begun to reveal some of the work practices used by the artist. For example the mark of the compass used to create the eagle's head can just be seen at the base of his eye.
Modern technologies have also begun to tell us more about the pigments used to create the still-intense colours in the manuscript.
Following non-invasive testing using micro-Raman spectroscopy and x-ray fluorescence, the colours used were identified as
Red = red lead
Yellow = orpiment
Green = copper acetate
Black and brown = iron gall
The survival of the manuscript for so long is extraordinary.
Small additions and alterations made to the manuscript over the years tell us something about how it was used over its long lifetime.
Corrections made to the text indicate that it was studied and contemplated by early medieval scholars. This correction was added into the right margin by the original scribe on fol. 68v.
In the seventeenth century biblical scholars such as James Ussher also examined its text. By this time the pages had become muddled, a point that is documented on folios 175v and 176r.
In the late eleventh century an agreement with the monastery of Killeshin (Co. Laois) to transfer land to Durrow was recorded on the back of the manuscript. This shows the record of a land agreement transcribed onto the very last page of the manuscript fol. 248v.
Around the same time a reading from the bible was added to another blank page. The passage in question (Acts 2:1-4), was typically read at Pentecost (Whit Sunday), suggesting that even though it was already around 500 years old, the manuscript was still in use on particular feast days. This image shows the liturgical passage written on the blank recto preceding the gospel of John fol. 192r.
At some unknown time a colophon in the manuscript was altered to imply that it had been written by St Colum Cille himself.
Certainly by the early tenth century, when a silver case (now lost) was made for the manuscript, it was considered to be a relic of the saint. In the seventeenth century this led a section of manuscript to be dipped in a cattle trough as a cure.
Others simply signed their names with a request to be remembered in prayers.
I ask your blessedness, holy priest of Patrick, that whoever should hold this little book in hand should be mindful of Columba the writer, who have written for myself this Gospel through twelve days’ space by the grace of Our Lord the Holy Spirit.
Ora pro me fra/ter mi dns tecum sit (‘Pray for me, my brother, the Lord be with you’).
Signature of historian Conall Mac Eoghagáin, written on Christmas day, 1633, fol 124v.
‘have mercy, O Lord, on Neamanus, son of Nechtan’ fol. 191r.
Text: Rachel Moss, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Trinity College Dublin
Curation: Estelle Gittins, Manuscripts & Archives, the Library of Trinity College Dublin
Technical support: Greg Sheaf, Web Librarian, The Library of Trinity College Dublin
Images: Gill Whelan, Senior Digital photographer, The Library of Trinity College Dublin