Fol. 3v, Carpet Page
(Nordenfalk, pl. 3)
Fol. 192v, Carpet Page
(Nordenfalk, pl. 8)
Fol. 191v, The Lion, symbol of John
(Nordenfalk, pl. 7) 
Fol. 86, Incipit of Mark
(Nordenfalk, pl. 8) 


245 X 145 MM

According to Bernard Meehan the Book of Durrow is "the earliest surviving fully decorated insular Gospel manuscript," (Meehan, 9.) It is considered to represent a "new, essentially medieval concept of embellishing the sacred text as though with precious jewels and textiles."  (Calkins, 31.) It is the first example of a full program of decoration which complements the structure of the text. (Calkins, 36.) Its date of origin is controversial but is believed to be the late 7th century. Its origins have also been the subject of debate, with scholars arguing between Durrow and Northumbria as likely places of origin, with current scholarship leaning toward Durrow. Like the Codex Usserianus Primus and the Cathach of St. Columba, the Book of Durrow had its own shrine that was lost in the late 17th century. In the 17th century, the book was dipped into a trough for sick cattle to drink out of, as it was believed to possess curative powers.

The Book of Durrow continues the use of diminuendo seen in earlier manuscripts. It also continues the use of interlace decoration. Interlace is thought to have an apotropaic function because of its perceived ability to trap evil. Thus the interlace carpet pages could have been intended to protect the texts. The carpet pages utilize a variety of interlace, including animal interlace. Mediterranean influence is also present in the carpet pages. This text includes the first example of a cross being placed at the center of a carpet page (f. 1v.) According to Alexander, the animal interlace designs are probably Germanic, and are related to decoration found on items from the Sutton Hoo hoard. In this manuscript, the full force of Insular decoration is united with a Christian text for the first time.

The evangelists make their first Insular appearance in this manuscript. Calkins states, "The use of evangelist portraits can be seen as a logical outcome of a Mediterranean tradition stemming from the classical use of author portraits." (Calkins, 60.) The Man, the symbol of St. Matthew, is as one would expect of Celtic-influenced art: his body is an abstract bell shape with a head and two feet tacked on. The animal symbols are slightly more realistic. Each evangelist symbol page is followed by a carpet page (except for Matthew, whose carpet page is missing.) The carpet pages face the incipits of each Gospel. (Calkins, 37.) The four evangelists symbols, shown together on one page, are united by a cross, indicating the harmony of the Gospels. (Calkins, 36.) Textual decoration flowers with the Chi Rho monogram of this text. The decoration of the XPI monogram which stands for the name of Christ is considered to be the true beginning of the Gospel because it describes the birth of Christ. The beginning of the narrative of Christ's life is celebrated by the elaboration of the Chi Rho monogram, an example which will greatly exaggerated in the Book of Kells. (Calkins, 43.) Letters are elaborated in relation to their symbolic importance. The usual pairing of the eagle symbol for John and the lion for Mark has been reversed in this manuscript, and has been related to the writings of St. Irenaeus, a Bishop of Lyon from the 2nd century. (Calkins, 46.) Lawrence Nees suggests that the four-symbols page is related to an early southern Italian book cover, and that book covers were thought to have protective properties. (Nees, 4-5.) Calkins attributes this function to the carpet pages as well. Such designs were used on book covers, so these pages may serve as internal book covers. The ornaments are also similar to designs for textiles which  would have been used for relic shrouds. (Calkins, 53.) Decorative elements are also drawn from stone carving and metalwork. (Calkins, 57.) Carpet page designs seem to have been painted to resemble metalwork, and could be derived from metalwork book covers or book shrines, as the one made for the Cathach of St. Columba. (Calkins, 59.) Other examples of Gospel books were bound singly, and the carpet pages may function as book covers meant to replicate that separate binding. (Calkins, 62.)

While the Insular artists did not develop the evangelist symbols, it seems worth addressing the possibility of whether there could be any connection between the evangelist symbols and the Celtic tradition of shape-shifting in decoration. Alexander notes that the Book of Durrowís evangelist symbols do not carry books, which is unusual. He suggests that in this case, perhaps the images function less as symbols of the evangelists than as their personifications. The evangelist symbols all consist of traditional Celtic decoration, including cloisonné-like partition and colors, spirals, dots, and triskele patterns. Illuminated letters are similarly decorated. The Book of Durrow combines styles which will be elaborated in subsequent Insular manuscripts.



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