The Iona Gospels—Contrast with Roman and Byzantine—Details—Treatment of animal forms—Colour schemes—The Gospel-book of St. Columbanus—That of Mael Brith Mac Durnan—The Lindisfarne Gospels—Cumdachs—Other book-shrines.

We have seen that in both Roman and Byzantine MSS. the titles and beginnings of books were merely distinguished by a lettering in red or gold, rather smaller, in fact, than the ordinary text, but rendered distinct by the means referred to. The handwriting, too, is clear and legible, whether capital, uncial, or minuscule.

In absolute contrast to all this the Iona Gospels have the first page completely covered with ornament. On the next the letters are of an enormous size, followed by a few words, not merely in uncials, but in characters varying from half an inch to two inches in height. The page opposite to each Gospel is similarly filled with decoration, separated into four compartments by an ornamented Greek cross. This may, of course, be simply a geometrical device in no way connected with Greece, but, taken in connection with other features, we see in it an indication of contact with Byzantine work and the side of illumination which deals rather with the tabular enrichment of the page than the development of the initial. Further, the writing, though large, is not easily legible, for it is involved, enclaved, and conjointed in a manner sufficiently puzzling to those who see it for the first time.

The plaiting and inlaying are certainly borrowed from local usages, and the survival of the same kind of interlaced plaiting in the Scottish tartans is some evidence of the long familiarity of the Celtic race with the art of weaving. When we remember that some of the early illuminators were also workers in metals, we can understand that penmen like Dagæus, Dunstan, and Eloy had designs at their command producible by either method. So we see, both in the MS. and in the brooch and buckle, the same kind of design. Among the earliest animals brought into this Celtic work we find the dog and the dragon; the latter both wingless and winged, according to convenience or requirement. The dog is so common in some of the Celto-Lombardic MS., of which examples still exist at Monte Cassino, as almost to create a style; while the dragon survives to the latest period of Gothic art.

Whatever is introduced into a Celtic illumination is at once treated as a matter of ornament. When the human figure appears it is remorselessly subjected to the same rules as the rest of the work; the hair and beard are spiral coils, the eyes, nostrils, and limbs are symmetrical flourishes. Colour is quite regardless of natural possibility. The hair and draperies are simply patterned as compartments of green or blue, or red or black, as may be required for the tout ensemble; the face remains white. Lightened tints are preferred to full colours, as pale yellow, pink, lavender, and light green. A very ludicrous device is made use of to denote the folds of the drapery; they are not darkened, there is no light and shade in Celtic work, but are simply lines of a strongly contrasting colour. The blue and red appear to be opaque, and therefore mineral colours; the rest are thin and transparent. Nothing can be more wayward than the colouring of the symbolic beasts of the Gospels. In the Evangeliary of St. Columbanus (not Columba, but the founder of Luxeuil and Bobbio, who died in 614) the Lion of St. Mark is an admirable beast in a suit of green-and-red chain armour in the form of mascles or lozenges. (See the illustration in Westwood'sPalæographia Sacra Pictoria of a figure page from the Gospels of Mael Brith Mac Durnan for a typical example.)[12]

[12] See also an article by Westwood in Journal Archæol. Inst., vii. 17, on “Irish Miniatures.”

The only point that might argue the freedom in Celtic work from Byzantine influence is the absence of gold, but perhaps this was only because the earlier Irish illuminators could not obtain it; we find it later on. In the Book of Kells and the Lambeth Gospels there is no gold. The former dates somewhere in the seventh century, not the sixth, as sometimes stated; the latter, shortly before 927. In the Lindisfarne Gospels (698-721) gold is used. In the Psalter of Ricemarchus, now in Trinity College, Dublin, are traces of silver. It is in connection with these Irish MSS. that decorated and jewelled cases, called cumdachs, make their appearance, such as the one attached to the Gospels of St. Moling in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. These book-shrines are almost exclusively an Irish production. In other countries the idea was to adorn the volume itself with a splendid and costly binding, perhaps including gold, silver, and gems. In Ireland the idea of sacredness was carried out in another way. Instead of decorating the covers of the book itself, it was held, as in such a MS., for instance, as the Book of Durrow, to be too venerable a relic to be meddled with, and a box or case was made for it, on which they spent all their artistic skill. Generally the case is known as a cumdach; but one kind, called the cathach, was so closed that the book was completely concealed, and it was superstitiously believed that if it were opened some terrible calamity would overtake its possessors. Such was the cathach of Tyrconnell. We must remember, however, that in this instance the keepers were not men of book-learning, but hardy warriors who carried thecathach into battle as a charm and an incitement to victory.

Of similar shrines, which were made for precious books by both the Greeks and Lombards, the oldest and most famous is that made for Theudelinde, wife of Agilulf, King of the Lombards, and given by her, in 616, together with the famous iron crown and other relics, to the Cathedral of Monza, where they are still to be seen.

The enrichment of the covers of books themselves, as distinct from the use of cases or shrines, has been usual in almost all ages and styles of decoration. When we come to speak of Carolingian MSS. we shall find several remarkable instances.

We must now pass on from this curiously attractive theme of Celtic calligraphy to its contemporary styles of France, Germany, Spain, and Italy, only remarking by the way that no other style of its time had so marked an influence on the local scriptoria into which it was introduced as this same Celtic of Ireland. It is not only traceable, but easily recognised all along the Rhine, in Burgundy, the Swiss Cantons, and Lombardy, until at length overwhelmed by the general introduction of Romanesque or Byzantine, which was restored and filtered through the Exarchate and the Lombard schools during the early days of the new Carolingian Empire.