The Gospel Book of Durrow: Historical Context

The Rise of Christianity in the British Isles

At the peak of the Roman Empire their territory stretched from the Italian Peninsula to Britain. Although, their territory officially ended at Hadrian’s Wall, Ireland was still able to experience Roman culture through trade and travel (Snyder, Luttikhuizen & Verkerk 2006, p. 138). For instance, the monastic settlements at Iona, Scotland and Durrow, Ireland were established ca. 550 by St Columba (d. 597) (Snyder, Luttikhuizen & Verkerk 2006, p. 139). These became important religious and socio-political centers. However, the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 separated the budding Christian monastic sites from their Roman Christian origins. Despite this disconnect, Pope Gregory the Great (r. 590-604) ordered missionaries back into the area in 597 (Stokstad 2008, p. 446). They were specifically sent to the Anglo-Saxon king Ethelbert of Kent whose Christian wife was willing to help their cause. The missions headed by St Augustine (d. 604) encountered specific conflict over the syncretic religious practices that had been developed by the isolated Celtic Christians (Stokstad 2008, p. 446). Although, these tensions did eventually come to an end, traditional Anglo-Saxon art forms continues a unique combination of paganism with the new Christian iconography that appears in martial culture, such as illuminated manuscripts.


Manuscript Production

Manuscript production played an important part of social economic and political organizations through the centuries. The form of the bound codex came into being in the 1st century (Stokstad 2008, p. 251). Its portable format allowed the technology of bookbinding and illumination to travel the expansive Roman Empire and be created in different royal and religious centers. In the early medieval period during the 6th to 7th century Gospel books were highly valued for their ability to contain and transmit the glory of the Christian religion. These lavish books were made in a scriptorium by monks through an expensive and time-consuming process. After all the expensive materials were collected and prepared a letterer (copisti) would write in the text, occasionally leaving room for decoration, which was done by an artist (illuminator) (Meggs & Purvis 2006, p. 42). Included in a few illuminated manuscripts is a page of inscription called a colophon containing information about who made the codex as well as where and when it was made.


The Gospel of Durrow

One of the earliest surviving Irish illuminated manuscripts is the Gospel of Durrow (MS 57, Trinity College). Made in ca. 680 at either Iona or Durrow the style of the artwork suggests that Irish scribes illuminated the codex (Meggs & Purvis 2006, p. 44). The colophon curiously states that St Columba wrote the codex. Although untrue, this pious addition reflects the association of this prestige item with an important Christian saint, probably to increase its status through divine association (Snyder, Luttikhuizen & Verkerk 2006, p. 139). The Gospel of Durrow utilizes a fully developed repertoire of hybrid Christian models and insular (Anglo-Saxon and Irish) art forms. Within the illuminated manuscript are pages of text beginning with an incipit at the start of each Gospel. As well, full pages of decoration known as carpet pages face another page of decoration with the symbol of the evangelist whose text they preference. A special feature in image of the man (Matthew’s symbol) is the tonsure hairstyle he wears. This identifies him as a monk of the early Celtic church (Stokstad 2008, p. 448). The codex is done on suede-like parchment that is highly receptive to the black ink and yellow, red and green tempura. The images themselves appear to be similar to Irish or Scandinavian metalwork of the same era (Snyder, Luttikhuizen & Verkerk 2006, p. 139). Enforcing this impression is the lack of natural space or ground lines for the figures to anchor themselves to, making them seem as through they are a decorative piece of metal work attached to the page contributing their prestige to the codex (Snyder, Luttikhuizen & Verkerk 2006, p. 139). Decorative borders play a large role framing each of the images and carpet pages. Each is unique and presents a complex pattern of interwoven geometric forms that can turn into figural serpent forms. The interlace ribbon is also coloured in such a way that it creates another layer of visual pattern to the image, they shift and change depending on location. Spirals and trumpet shapes warp themselves through and around Christian motifs, such as a cross or evangelist symbol.



Clarke, M 2004, ‘Anglo-saxon manuscript pigments’, Studies in Conservation, vol. 49, no. 4, pp. 231-244, viewed 7 July 2011,

Meggs, P & Purvis, A 2006, Megg’s History of graphic design, 4th edn, John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey.

Snyder, J, Luttikhuizen, H & Verkerk, V 2006, Art of the middle ages, Pearson Prentice Hall, New Jersery.

Stokstad, M 2008, Art history, 3rd edn, Pearson Prentice Hall, New Jersey.

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