DUBLIN TRINITY COLLEGE MANUSCRIPT A.4.15 (55) — GOSPEL BOOK, CODEX USSERIANUS PRIMUS
EARLY 7TH CENTURY
VELLUM OR PARCHMENT, 180 FF., INITIAL ON 149 VERSO
175 x 120, 30 mm

This is probably the earliest surviving Insular manuscript. It is in very poor condition. The cross on 149 v. is the only surviving decoration. According to Nordenfalk, this book confirms that Celtic manuscript decoration was not highly evolved at this time (he suggests a date of 600 C.E. for this book.) The cross decoration occurs at the transition from the Gospel of Luke to the Gospel of Mark. On the left of the cross is the explicit of Luke; on the right is the incipit of Mark. The manuscript was originally housed in a cumdach (shrine), indicating its status as a relic. Outlines of dots decorate the cross and the twisting rope pattern that frames it. These dots were most likely copied from a 5th century Greek manuscript. According to Alexander, this is the earliest example of an Insular artist copying a Mediterranean decorative device. The manuscript was made in Ireland.

This manuscript does not exhibit the historiated initials, interlace, or diminuendo script which will evolve as hallmarks of Insular manuscript decoration. The change in the 2nd 4th centuries C.E. from papyrus roll to codex (bound book) created new possibilities for decoration by creating a finite space for each page. The Insular style, with its elaborate use of patterning, will blossom in the confined space of the codex page, creating a tension between the finite space of the page and the infinite-seeming patterns.

Despite the simplicity of the illumination, close examination reveals that Celtic number symbolism abounds in this image. For example, the image covers twelve lines of ruling, and is bordered by 3 frames of 4 sides each; 3 + 4 = 7, the number symbolizing creation, alpha; 3 x 4 = 12, the number symbolizing the end, omega. Alpha and omega symbols are both present below the arms of the cross (D. Verkerk, lecture, 11/15/98).

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