Monday, April 28, 2014

Worth a Thousand Words: Book of Durrow

The Book of Durrow (seventh century) is a masterpiece of calligraphy, drawn from late Roman models, and merged into Celtic passion for abstract decorative forms.
The above caption comes from Art: A New History by Paul Johnson. This book is a simply marvelous way to read about history, as focused through the lens of artistic development.

As I've been leisurely reading it I have been marking bits to share. This week we're going to see some wonderful art accompanied by Johnson's commentary. The commentary will be severely excerpted, of course, because in most cases there is no way I can include all his enlightening information.

I've always loved illuminated manuscripts and I wish that there was a version of them produced in modern times. I would snap up a Bible thusly illustrated. Think how it would enrich one's meditation to have art and words working together to raise our communication with God to a higher level.

My wishes aside, our modern age does allow us to enjoy illustrated manuscripts from ages past. I particularly love the page above with the dragon-ish capital N.
These artistic instincts and skills were in due course Christianised, and put to work in the monastic scriptoria which were springing up all over western Europe. The result was a kind of art which, in its intricacy of line and colour, has never been excelled. ...

These monasteries began, from the early seventh century, to produce illuminated manuscripts of great beauty and elaboration. It is not always possible to discover which house produced which book, and scholarly argument, reflecting modern nationalism, rages round the provenance. ... Then follow the three "luxury" manuscripts, prepared by great artists as a feast for the eyes of Dark Age kings: the Book of Durrow, from about 670 (Dublin, Trinity), the Lindisfarne Gospels, c. 700 (British Library) and the Book of Kells, c. 800 (Dublin, Trinity). These three masterpieces have never been excelled in the history of book production: the concentrated skill they display astonishes, mystifies, overwhelms and even alarms modern eyes. It is hard for us to get inside the mind of the scribe-artist who spent months, perhaps years, decorating a single page with a combination of abstract motifs, zoomorphic or terrestrial stylised figures, major initials and elaborate script, all integrated in designs which are self-perpetuating patterns of dynamic movement.

The workmanship is so close to perfection that it is almost impossible to detect signs of fatigue or flagging invention. ...


  1. I think you might enjoy the St. John's Bible. It comes in several volumes. Here's one:

  2. Hi Kathleen, I recall being very interested in these. I love the big pieces of art, but I recall that the hand lettering was hard to read and the one time I saw some of the pages up close they wound up making me just turn to my regular Bible. So I guess I love the art of the illuminated texts, but my dream would be that it would be combined with lovely typesetting. The best of both worlds perhaps? :-)