Book of Durrow
Irish Illuminated Gospel Manuscript: History, Design, Illuminations.

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Book of Durrow
Illustrated Fragment
One of the earliest examples
of Irish religious art.
Along with the Book of Kells,
it is seen as a major example
of Hiberno-Saxon Insular Art.

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Book of Durrow (c.650-80)


Place of Origin
Part of the Irish School of Illumination
The Illuminations
Design Influences
Carpet Pages and the Evangelists' Symbols
Example of Hiberno-Saxon, or Ultimate La Tene Celtic Art

Further Resources
How Illuminated Manuscripts Were Made
History of Illuminated Manuscripts (600-1200)
• For cultural affairs in Ireland, see: Irish Visual Arts.

Note: For the world's most ancient illuminated gospel manuscript, see: the Garima Gospels (390-660) from Ethiopia.

First Page of Saint Jerome's
Translation of the four Gospels
Into Vulgate. (Book of Durrow)
A fine example of Biblical art
of the 7th century

For the history & development
of the iconography, zoomorphic
patterns and decorative motifs
used by the ancient Celts, see:
Celtic Designs.


One of the most famous Irish illuminated manuscripts, and a masterpiece of early Medieval art, the Book of Durrow is the first of the fully decorated Gospel Books. A masterpiece of medieval Christian art, it probably dates to the period 650-680, despite a later inscription which recorded the legend that it was copied out by St Columba (c.521-597) in the space of 12 days. This, at least, confirms its place of origin as one of the Columban group of monasteries, but it is still unclear whether it was produced at Iona (its chief foundation), in one of the Irish houses, or in Northumbria. Certain textual peculiarities link it with the Book of Kells, which would favour the Iona argument, but this has to be balanced by stylistic considerations, where there are greater affinities with north-eastern Britain. In any event, the manuscript was in Ireland by the 10th century, when a special shrine was created for it. A century later, it had arrived at Durrow Abbey itself, in County Offaly, one of the monasteries founded by St Columba. Not only is it a superb example of early Christian art, it is the earliest surviving fully decorated Gospel manuscript of the Hiberno-Saxon Insular Art tradition. It exemplifies the start of medieval book illustration based on the monastic concept of illustrating the sacred text as if with precious jewels and textiles.



Predated only by the Cathach of St Columba, The Book of Durrow is a gospel manuscript named after the monastery of Durrow, a foundation of Saint Columba near Tullamore in central Ireland. Here it was kept from the eleventh century (if not before) until the seventeenth century, when, after the dissolution of the monastery - as we know from an entry in the Martyrology of Donegal and from a mention in Conall MacGeoghegan's translations (1627) of the Annals of Clonmacnoise - it passed to one of the MacGeoghegans, who would soak it in water which was then used as a cure for sick cattle. In 1661 it came into the possession of Henry Jones, a Cromwellian army scout master who had become the Protestant Bishop of Meath and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin. Eventually Jones gave it to Trinity College, in whose library it is still kept.

Monasticism had been introduced into Ireland in the fifth century. The Book of Armagh reports that Saint Patrick used to distribute books of law and books of the gospel to his newly founded monasteries; and it was no doubt not long before the copying and decorating of books became a regular part of the work of the monks. Saint Columba, also known in Irish as Colum-Cille, founded a number of monasteries in the sixth century, including Durrow and Derry. According to tradition, Columba was himself an ardent copyist and is reported to have written 300 manuscripts in his own hand. Indeed, legend reports that it was a dispute over the possession of a manuscript which led to his self-exile to Iona in 565.

Whatever the truth of the story, Columba's exile was fruitful for English art as well as for English Christianity, for it led to the introduction of Celtic abstract art into the manuscript painting of the north of Britain. Seventy years later, in 635, Irish monks from Iona under Aidan set forth into Northumbria and founded the monastery of Lindisfarne, which soon became famous under Saint Cuthbert. And the Lindisfarne Gospels, that magnificent surviving example of those monks' work at the end of the seventh or beginning of the eighth century, shows that they were little behind their Irish contemporaries in the art of illumination.

Bede reports that in the latter part of the seventh century many Angles went to Ireland for a time to study, so that by the end of that century there were no doubt in Britain a number of monastic artists who were trained to carry on the miniature painting of the Irish illuminators, as well as actual Irish manuscripts to serve them as models.


One of the most famous works of Irish art, the Book of Durrow is a small manuscript and an early one, though its date is difficult to fix with any certainty. It is generally regarded as having been written toward the close of the seventh century. Gwynn thought it not later than 650, Lindsay about 700. Bruce-Mitford places it in the neighbourhood of 680-85, on the assumption that the Lindisfarne Gospels were completed about 698 and granting the direct affiliation between the monasteries of Lindisfarne in Northumbria and Durrow in Meath. However, as Professor Luce points out, the Book of Durrow might be the product of another scriptorium which continued an earlier style, and then its date could be independent of Lindisfarne for, as he writes, " many manuscripts of high quality must have been lost. One should be careful not to postulate too close a connexion between those manuscripts which have happened to survive."

In any case, the Book of Durrow is clearly earlier than the Lichfield Gospels (Book of Lichfield) (c.730), and also the Echternach Gospels (690-715) of Saint Willibrord, attributed by Zimmermann to the middle of the eighth century. In it there is no bird theme on any of the seven "carpet" pages and the animal theme occurs but once. Zoomorphic ornament is used only to a very limited extent and is not associated with the decoration of the script. Throughout it preserves a primitive, pristine character. The text (monograms and decorated capitals) carries a developed Celtic curvilinear ornament of hair-spring coil and small trumpet type. Such ornament can be seen to have evolved directly from the script embellishments of the early Cathach of Saint Columba, thus establishing a relationship in time subsequent to that work. For his part, Professor Ludwig Bieler places the book halfway between the Durham manuscript fragment and the Codex Epternacensis, both manuscripts of Northumbrian origin, while Professor Luce proposes a date of 630.


Place of Origin

Just as the dating of the Book of Durrow is difficult to fix with any precision, so the place of origin of this codex also remains debatable. T.K.Abbott in 1895 believed he had established that the text had its roots in Northumbria. Zimmermann felt convinced that the artist of the Codex Epternacensis, executed in Northumbria, had been influenced by the Book of Durrow. On the other side of the question Professor Luce writes, in his preface to the facsimile edition, "the prima facie probabilities are so strongly in favour of the Irish origin of the codex that the onus of proof lies fairly and squarely on the shoulders of those who think it of English origin."

Part of the Irish School of Illumination

No matter where its geographical source may have been, whether Durrow or Northumbria, it was essentially a product of that school of manuscript illumination which the Irish followers of Columba had fostered, a school rooted in the tradition of late La Tene ornamentation, a firmly established style of decorative art in which the new demands made by the Christian Church were able to find a place.

Early as the Book of Durrow may be, we see in it the artistic type of the Irish gospel-book already fully developed. Each gospel is preceded by the symbol of the Evangelist enclosed in a border or ornamental frame, by a page of rich ornament and, as an opening of the text, by an initial in a matching style. At the beginning of the book are found a few ornamental pages based on the form of the cross, another page with symbols of the Evangelists in the corners of the cross and the Eusebian Canon Tables (lists of parallel passages in the various gospels in ornamental frames or archways). At the end there is a page with a pattern of squares (folio 248r). In addition to the opening passages of the four gospels there are ornamental initials in two other places: they elaborate the Chi-Rho "autem generatio" after the Genealogy of Christ in Saint Matthew, and the "fuit in diebus Herodis " after the prologue of Saint Luke. Ornamental initials on a smaller scale occur here and there in the prefatory matter. The entire ornamentation of the codex is planned in every detail. The same plan, though more developed, underlies the ornamentation of the Lindisfarne Gospels (698) and the Book of Kells (800). In fact, this plan set the fashion not only for these two later works but also for many other gospel-books in Northumbria and on the Continent. And, as Ludwig Bieler has written, it is evident that such a well-designed plan as this "must have originated either in the mind of an individual or within a closely knit spiritual community. In any event it must have been the product of a very definite spiritual and artistic milieu. One cannot help thinking in this connexion of that great community of Irish monks, the familia Colum-Cille."

The Illuminations

One of the most outstanding early manuscripts in the history of Irish art, the Book of Durrow measures about 10 inches by 9 inches, is written in Insular Script on vellum (calfskin) and consists of abut 250 pages (folios). The text includes the four Gospels of the New Testament, as well as six surviving carpet pages (devoted exclusively to decoration) similar in design to earlier patterns of Celtic metalwork art, and (for the first time in any Irish illuminated text) a series of highly illustrated evangelist pages. (For a comparison, see Christ's Monogram Page in the Book of Kells.)

Unusually, the Durrow scribes assigned different symbols to each prefatory page of the gospels: a man for Matthew, but an eagle for Mark (instead of the traditional lion), a calf for Luke, but a lion for John (instead of the traditional eagle). The four symbols are displayed together on one page, and united by a cross, implying the harmony of the Gospels. Each evangelist symbol is followed by a carpet page. Illustrations in the manuscript include: interlace patterns, spirals, zoomorphic triskeles, and knots, all derived from Celtic art.

Celtic Designwork
For specific motifs used by the ancient Celts in their crafts, see: Celtic Interlace designs as well as Celtic Spirals and Celtic Knots.


Design Influences

The illuminations in the Durrow manuscript point to a number of very different influences, notably Celtic abstract curvilinear art. There are, for example, the inherited Celtic spirals and "trumpets" of the La Tene style of art which, like the millefiori and cloisonné, were translated from metal and enamel to the book page. As early as the Cathach of Saint Columba (c.610-620), the dot-edging is already found. In the Book of Durrow, these rows of dots are not only around the contours of letters, but also in places are superimposed on the interlacing ribbon. Scattered in small groups, preferably groups of three for symbolic associations, they also serve the purpose of filling empty spaces. The most striking ornamental feature of the Book of Durrow is, however, the broad band interlacing, framed by double lines, which has its counterpart in stone on the slightly later crosses of Fahan Mura and Carndonagh in County Donegal; and later still, on the two older side plates of the silver book shrine, the Domnach Airgid, in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin.

History of Celtic Culture
For facts about the Celts, their metalwork and other designs, see: Celtic Art in Britain and Ireland and Celtic Style Christian Art.

Carpet Pages and the Evangelists' Symbols

The chief focus of the decoration was on the Carpet Pages and the Evangelists' symbols. The former made extensive use of multicoloured interlacing, which far outshone any contemporary examples, even though the bands were broader and less subtle than in the Gospel Books of the next century. The finest of the Carpet Page designs, however, were those featured on folios 3v and 192v. The first of these presented an elaborate arrangement of spirals within spirals, contained inside an attractive interlace border. The individual groups of spirals were linked to each other by a flowing motif, known as a trumpet spiral. This type of pattern is highly reminiscent of the ornamental metal discs, which were featured on the Celtic-style bronze hanging-bowls of the period.

The design of folio 192v is even more striking. Here, a central roundel, composed of plaitwork, is enclosed within a border of animal interlacing. Some of the creatures are clearly snakes, but the side panels show an unusual form of quadruped. The animal interlacing is the first appearance in Irish illumination of a typical motif of German medieval art. But even here, at its first occurrence in an Irish manuscript, the motif is treated with a difference. Not only is the individual animal more isolated and less twisted than is common in Teutonic art; it also retains more of its anatomy, as exemplified by the comparatively naturalistic treatment of the legs. The difference becomes evident to anyone who compares the page from the Book of Durrow with animal interlacing from Scandinavia, for example, or metal from the Sutton Hoo Find in the British Museum in London. This greater vitality in ornamental animals remains characteristic of Irish art for a long time, both in metal and on the vellum page: its animal bodies, however drawn out, sinuous and contorted they may be, at least always have heads and extremities that give some impression of realism.

The Evangelists' symbols conjure up an entirely different set of associations. The highly stylized man, who represents St Matthew (none of the Durrow symbols have either wings or haloes), can be likened to much of the stone-sculpture of the period. On the Celtic High Cross sculptures at both Moone and Carndonagh, for example, it is possible to find figures whose torsos are conveyed by a simple, formless block. At the same time, the chequerboard decoration of the man's cloak may well have been inspired by the millefiori enamel inlays, which were something of a specialty of Irish metalworkers. The Durrow lion is equally interesting. The way that its legs and haunches appear to be attached by scrolled hinges is very close to the engraved depictions of animals on certain Pictish slabs, dating from the first half of the 7th century.


A link between script and illumination is established by ornamental initials. Unlike the early continental scribes who, regardless of context, put an enlarged capital at the beginning of a page or even a column, the Irish scribe and illuminator, however keen he may be on decorating his manuscript, does not for a moment forget that the initial is part of the text and should be used as a means to its articulation. In the Book of Durrow, for example, the large initial which grows in size and richness of ornament from one gospel to another is regularly followed by a smaller initial of the same style, which in turn is continued by one or more lines of ornamental script framed by a hollow band, or dotted oblong. In the Book of Durrow these letters are normally hollow, filled in with colour or black and always, by various devices, united into one artistic unit.

Example of Hiberno-Saxon, or Ultimate La Tene Celtic Art

The monks who endowed the Book of Durrow with their calligraphic art and decorative designwork can be regarded as being among the earliest Irish artists of the medieval period. The Gospel manuscript itself exemplifies the style known as Hiberno-Saxon Insular Art, or Ultimate La Tene, which was widely practised across the British Isles and Ireland. The Evangelist symbols in the Book of Durrow are quite similar in style to zoomorphic iconography found on earlier Pictish stone carvings.

The Durrow manuscript was lost in the sixteenth century, at the time of the dissolution of Durrow Abbey, but recovered some 100 years later. It is now kept at Trinity College, Dublin.

Other important examples of monastic Irish art include the Codex Usserianus Primus (600-610), the Cathach of St Columba (610-620), the Book of Dimma (c.620), Lindisfarne Gospels (700), Book of Kells (c.800), the Book of Armagh (807), Book of MacRegol (810), Book of Deer (early 9th century), the Book of MacDurnan (910) and the Book of Dun Cow (1080).

See also: Celtic Culture.

• For more on the history of illuminated manuscripts, see: Homepage.

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