In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Book of Durrow

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Texts
  • Facsimiles
  • History and Historiography
  • Text
  • Paleography
  • Decoration: Artistic Context and Style
  • The Evangelist Pages
  • Carpet Pages
  • Elaborated Letter Forms
  • Later Additions to the Manuscript
  • Codicology and Pigment Analysis

Medieval Studies Book of Durrow
Rachel Moss
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0319


The Book of Durrow (Dublin, Trinity College MS 57) is thought to be the earliest extant illustrated manuscript of the gospels in northwestern Europe. It measures 9.6 × 5.7 in. (245 × 145 mm) and contains 248 folios. Drawing on stylistic comparison and the relatively pure nature of the Vulgate text, current scholarship places its production in the latter half of the seventh century. Its place of production has been the subject of significant controversy, with arguments for Irish, English and Scottish origins. There is consensus only on its association with a Columban monastery. The manuscript contains the text of the four gospels with prefatory texts typical of the Insular tradition. The unusual order of the latter is also found in the Book of Kells, suggesting that this part of the Book of Durrow, its exemplar, or a direct copy of either, served as a model for the later manuscript. The Book of Durrow contains eleven fully decorated pages together with the elaboration of important parts of the text. As currently bound, the book opens with a double-armed cross (folio 1v), facing an image of a cross surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists (folio 2r), followed by a page decorated with dynamic intertwining spiral motives, derived from the pre-Christian, La Tène style (folio 3v). This faces the enlarged letters of the words “Novum Opus,” the opening of the prefatory materials. Each gospel is then prefaced with an evangelist symbol, a “carpet” page of full decoration, and the enlarged initials of the opening text of the gospel. The exception is the Gospel of Matthew, which is missing a carpet page. This may be the present folio 3v. The manuscript is closed by a carpet page on folio 248r. The artwork draws heavily on the fine metalwork traditions of the seventh century. Each carpet page demonstrates knowledge of the traditions current in “Celtic” Ireland, the Mediterranean, and Anglo-Saxon England, while Pictish and Roman influences are found in some of the evangelist symbols. The restrained color palette of red, yellow green, and brown/black is also typical of the metalwork tradition of the time. An inscription on a now-lost cumdach or book cover, the addition of a legal memorandum to one of the blank pages, and various other later textual additions suggest that it was in Durrow Co. Offaly by the tenth century. It remained there until c. 1660, when it was given to the Library of Trinity College Dublin. The manuscript is rarely publicly displayed.

General Overviews

Although mentioned in almost every general introduction to Insular and Anglo-Saxon art, detailed studies of the manuscript are relatively few compared with the related Book of Kells and Lindisfarne Gospels. Readily available introductions to the manuscript aimed at a general audience can be found in Meehan 1996 and with some updates in Moss 2018. De Vegvar 1987 provides a solid overview of the Northumbrian context of the manuscript, while Henry 1965 remains a good general introduction to Irish art of the period. Gameson 2012 provides the most comprehensive contextual introduction to contemporary manuscript production, with a focus on Britain. Textbooks or surveys of Insular manuscripts specifically are relatively few. One of the earliest surveys, Micheli 1939, argued for strong Irish influence in the manuscripts, a view vehemently rejected by Masai 1947, which favored a Northumbrian origin. These books were to set the nationalistic tone of Insular manuscript scholarship for much of the later twentieth century. Brown 2007 is a visually impressive introduction to Hiberno-Saxon manuscripts as a group. Its numerous illustrations serve as a good introduction to the novice, although its relatively brief text should be supplemented with additional texts. Henderson 1987 remains the best overview, setting seven of the manuscripts within their historical context and giving some interesting iconographic insights, best suited to an audience with some prior knowledge of the material. Similarly, Barbet-Massin 2013 provides some alternative iconographic interpretations, most suited to an undergraduate or specialist audience. See also Facsimiles.

  • Barbet-Massin, Dominique. L’Enluminure et le sacré: Irlande et Grande-Bretagne VIIe-VIIIe siècles. Paris: Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2013.

    A substantial study of six “deluxe” gospels aimed at the specialist reader. Very wide ranging in its coverage of exegetical, liturgical, and secular influences. The study extends back to the pre-Christian Insular world, offering new, if not always convincingly argued, approaches to the study of the manuscripts.

  • Brown, Michelle P. Manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon Age. London: British Library, 2007.

    A very well-illustrated introduction to early medieval manuscripts created on the islands of Britain and Ireland. Despite its title, contains information on manuscripts more typically associated with Ireland including the Books of Kells and Durrow.

  • de Vegvar, Carol. The Northumbrian Renaissance: A Study in the Transmission of Style. London and Toronto: Susquehanna University Press, 1987.

    A useful survey of the flourishing of Northumbrian artistic culture c. 650–750. Contains a detailed discussion of the Book of Durrow, placing its creation in the “Celtic” Church, possibly Iona, the decoration of which influenced later Northumbrian artists.

  • Gameson, Richard, ed. The Book in Britain. Vol. 1, c. 400–1100. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    An excellent, comprehensive guide to all aspects of the early medieval book with thirty-nine essays written by leading scholars in the field. Essays of particular relevance to the Book of Durrow cover materiality (Gameson), Insular paleography (Brown), and illustration (Netzer). Includes a useful, lengthy bibliography.

  • Henderson, George. From Durrow to Kells: The Insular Gospel-Books, 650–800. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

    Remains the principal detailed introductory study of the illustrated Insular gospel manuscripts. Contains a wide-ranging study of the symbolism in the abstract decoration of the Book of Durrow, with a useful summary and context for the textual and illustrative content. Discussion of the manuscript’s historical context is heavily weighted toward Northumbria.

  • Henry, Françoise. Irish Art in the Early Christian Period to 800 A.D. London: Methuen, 1965.

    Henry was a significant early scholar of medieval Irish art. This, the first of three chronologically ordered volumes, demonstrates pioneering scholarship across mediums and highlights the Irish contribution to Insular art. A case is made for the Irish provenance for the Book of Durrow, perhaps at the Columban monastery of Derry. Remains a good introductory text, though some of the content has been challenged by more recent scholarship.

  • Masai, François. Essai sur les origins de la miniature dite Irlandaise. Brussels: Éditions “Erasme,” 1947.

    Now very dated, but an influential publication during the twentieth century. Exerted disproportionate influence over the question of provenance, demonstrating heavy racial bias toward the Irish and advocating for the production of the major Insular gospel books at Lindisfarne. Provided the basis for later assertions of a Northumbrian origin for the Book of Durrow.

  • Meehan, Bernard. The Book of Durrow: A Medieval Masterpiece at Trinity College Dublin. Dublin, Ireland: Town House and Country House, 1996.

    A short, accessible introduction to the manuscript with particular emphasis on the decorated pages. Includes a section on the re-binding and re-foliation of the manuscript in the 1950s and a useful table of contents of the manuscript. Well illustrated but contains some errors in photographic orientation.

  • Micheli, Geneviève Louise. L’enluminure du haut Moyen Âge et les influences Irlandaises. Brussels: Éditions de la Connaissance, 1939.

    Set within the broader European artistic context, Micheli argued for the Irish origins of Insular manuscripts. Credited the Irish with exerting influence on later English and European artistic traditions.

  • Moss, Rachel. The Book of Durrow: Official Guide. London: Thames and Hudson, 2018.

    An affordable introductory guide to the manuscript covering its provenance, biblical text, images, and design. The final chapter deals with the different uses of the book over the centuries evident in the textual additions, doodles, etc. Very well illustrated using new photography of the manuscript.

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