The Book of Durrow: St. Matthew, History & Illustrations

Instructor: Katie Streit

Katie has a PhD in History. She has taught middle school English and college History.

In this lesson, we will learn about the history and artistic features of one of the earliest and most famous illustrated gospel manuscripts of the Medieval Era, the Book of Durrow.

Picture Books

Many of us first learn to read with picture books. The colors, shapes, animals, and figures help us to learn simple words and sentences. Artwork and photographs are also important features in adult literature, like magazines, newspapers, and graphic novels. The use of images to supplement a text is not unique to modern literature. During the Medieval Age, Christian scribes produced Bibles that were also masterpieces of art. One of these masterpieces was the Book of Durrow.

Insular Art and Illuminated Bibles

The Book of Durrow is a hand-written and hand-illustrated gospel manuscript named after the Christian monastery of Durrow in central Ireland. It consists of 248 vellum folios (calfskin pages) measuring approximately 10 inches by 9 inches. The Book of Durrow was written in Latin Vulgate. Art historians classify it as an illuminated (or illustrated) Bible of the insular art tradition.

Insular art arose during Ireland's Golden Age following the collapse of the Roman Empire. The art style is recognized by characteristic interlacing bands that were originally used in Anglo-Saxon metalwork. Irish sculptors and scribes incorporated the interlacing bands into stone crosses and illuminated Bibles.

Most illuminated Bibles share four characteristics: carpet pages, icons of the gospel Evangelists, incipit pages, and initials.

  • Carpet pages - typically found at the beginning of the four Gospels of the New Testament and include intricate geometric or animal designs. Carpet pages earned their name because they look like oriental rugs or elaborately-designed prayer mats. It was also believed that the interlace decoration of these pages could trap evil, therefore shielding the text that followed.

Carpet page from the Book of Durrow. Observe the interlacing bands characteristic of insular art.

  • Gospel icons - a highly decorative depiction of an Evangelist (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John) typically appears before the gospel attributed to his name.
  • Incipit page - serves as a title page and includes the opening words of a text along with elaborate illustrations.
  • Initial - an enlarged and elaborately decorated letter that marks the start of an important section of a text (whether a chapter, paragraph, or verse). Although illuminated manuscripts existed prior to the Irish Golden Age, Irish Christian scribes gave them a new twist by incorporating the interlacing bands of insular art, as was the case with the Book of Durrow.

Book Details

The Book of Durrow begins with a few carpet pages and the Eusebian Canon Table (the lists of parallel gospel passages). Like other illuminated Bibles, before each Gospel, there's a page featuring the icon of an Evangelist followed by an elaborate carpet page (with the exception of St. Matthew's gospel). The incipit page of the gospel comes next, and the text begins with an initial.

Incipit page for the Gospel of St. Mark. Note the elaborate initial to start the gospel.

Elaborate initials appear throughout the manuscript. There are two additional ornamental pages within the manuscript, including the Chi-Ro (a monogram representing the name of Christ). The Book of Durrow ends with a decorative page of elaborate squares.

Illuminated Chi-Ro in the Book of Durrow

Celtic art influences are apparent throughout the book's illustrations, from its multi-color interlacing patterns to its knots, dots, and elaborate spiral designs. Although art historians note Mediterranean and Germanic influences in the illustrations (especially the use of interlace animals, known as zoomorphic triskeles), the various motifs incorporate Irish artistic traditions. The Book of Durrow represents that merger of pagan art traditions with Roman Christian subject matter and the Latin language.

So What?

What makes the Book of Durrow so special? Firstly, it is the earliest living, fully illuminated gospel manuscript of the insular art tradition. The ornamental decorations inspired subsequent illuminated manuscripts, including the famous Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells.

Secondly, the Book of Durrow is the first Irish illuminated text that included illustrated Evangelist pages. The Durrow scribes, however, attributed different symbols to the Evangelists than found in other works. St. Mark is represented by an eagle (rather the traditional lion). A calf symbolizes St. Luke, and a lion represents St. John (instead of the traditional eagle). St. Matthew, however, is symbolized as a man. This is important because it is one of the earliest Irish Christian representations of a human being. St. Matthew wears a decorative, checker-patterned cloak that covers everything except his head and feet.

Depiction of St. Matthew

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