The "Cathach of St. Columba." 
Early Irish majuscule, s. vii1.  Dublin, Royal Irish Academy s. n.
E. A. Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores, 2.266

 
Shrine of the Cathach 
 
 
DUBLIN, ROYAL IRISH ACADEMY MS S.N. — PSALTER (CATHACH OF ST. COLUMBA)
LATE 6TH/EARLY 7TH CENTURY BCE
PARCHMENT OR VELLUM
200 X 130 MM

The manuscript is in poor condition. Fifty-eight leaves survive. This manuscript introduces two decorative forms which will become staples of Insular manuscript decoration. First, the decorations of initials which actually alter the form of the initial, rather than just filling in spaces, and the diminution of letters at the beginning of a section, in which the enlarged initial is followed by letters which become successively smaller until they match the size of the text (also called diminuendo.)(Alexander, cat. Entries 4 and 5.) This diminution pulls the initial into the script, instead of leaving it standing apart. As Nordenfalk describes them, the initials "are conceived as elastic forms expanding and contracting with a pulsating rhythm,"(13). The initialsí designs indicated the preference of Insular artists for traditional Celtic design over the Late Antique. (Nordenfalk, 13-14.) The illumination consists of around 60 initials at the beginning of each Psalm. The decorations include trumpet, spiral, and guilloche shapes. (A guilloche shape is "a design in which two or more curved lines or bands are interwoven, forming a series of spaces in between them," according to the New World Dictionary.) The tail of an initial Q turns into a fish. Other initials have flourishes which resemble abstract bird heads.

The cathach is traditionally associated with St. Columba, who is alleged to have copied it himself. It was enshrined in a cumdach, which was carried into battle as a talisman to gain victory; "cathach" means "battler." When the shrine was opened in 1813, the Psalter was discovered. Like the Codex Usserianus Primus, it was considered a relic. Calkins suggests that  the decorated letters' "motifs have no direct resemblance to those appearing in the Durrow illuminations." (Calkins, 32.) This statement ignores the clearly zoomorphic flourishes of the letters, resemblling faces or fish.
 

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