Why we love the Harley Irish Gospels
How better to celebrate St Patrick’s Day than to announce the digitisation of two important Irish manuscripts from the British Library's collections? Harley MS 1023 and Harley MS 1802 were both made in the 12th century in Armagh, St Patrick’s foundation and medieval cult centre. Here are 5 reasons why we love these manuscripts:
The lion symbol of St Mark: Harley MS 1802, f. 60v
The lion symbol of St Mark: Harley MS 1023, f. 10v
1) Because Irish Gospel-books are stunning. Irish scribes and artists played an important role in the development of Gospel-book design, and their manuscripts are renowned for their beauty and brilliance. In the Harley Gospel-books, each Gospel text originally began with a lively picture of an animal, the ‘evangelist symbol’ for that particular Gospel-writer, although only two now survive in each book. Harley 1802 contains a brightly coloured lion of St Mark and equally vivid ox of St Luke. The lion is especially endearing, with its tongue lolling and its hind legs entangled in its tail. Harley 1023 contains a particularly springy lion of St Mark and a rather plump eagle of St John, this time depicted in bold line drawing. Decorated initials open each Gospel text, made up of sinuous beasts playfully contorted into marvellous shapes. Harley 1802 also includes an equally serpentine Chi-rho initial, the Greek monogram of Christ that appears at Matthew 1:18 in Irish and Irish-influenced Gospel books.
The ox symbol of St Luke: Harley MS 1802, f. 86v
The eagle symbol of St John: Harley MS 1023, f. 64v
Chi-rho initial: Harley MS 1802, f. 10r
2) Because 12th-century Irish manuscripts are underrated. People often think of the period from the 7th to 8th centuries as the high point of Irish book art, exemplified by masterpieces such as the Book of Kells (c. 800). Far fewer people realise that the 12th century was also a period of artistic renewal and vibrancy in Ireland. Around 100 manuscripts survive from this period containing a wide variety of works. The two Harleys are among the most richly illuminated, as well as a third surviving Gospel-book (Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 122) and the stunning Psalter of Cormac (Add MS 36929). These 12th-century manuscripts are especially poignant because they represent a last flowering for the tradition of Irish illumination. Evangelist symbol pages and Chi-rho pages disappear from book art after the Anglo-Norman invasion beginning in 1167, meaning that these examples are the last of their kind.
Beatus page in the Psalter of Cormac: Add MS 36929, f. 2r
Decorated initial ‘Q’ at the opening of the Gospel of St Luke: Harley MS 1802, f. 87r
3) Because no one can resist Viking style. At the time these manuscripts were made, Ireland was home to both a native Irish and a Scandinavian-Irish population. The Vikings first settled in Ireland in the 9th century and remained a culturally distinct group, based in large trading cities such as Dublin. Art from the 12th century often reveals Viking and Irish styles fusing together. This is especially clear in the interlaced beasts that make up the decorated initials of Harley 1802 (see the Luke initial, f. 87v, and the Chi-rho initial, f. 10r). Beasts and interlace were important features of both Irish and Viking art, but the styles were noticeably different. With their large round eyes and snub-noses, the beasts of Harley 1802 resemble those that had prowled the pages of Irish manuscripts since the 7th century. But the interlace that entangles them has a distinctively Viking feel. A strand of interlace sometimes swells in width and then bursts into several new strands. At ends or sharp bends, the interlace sometimes forms a rather leafy-looking lobe shape tapering into a curl. These vegetal features don’t appear in Irish interlace from earlier periods, but they do appear in Viking artworks such as the Runestone of Harald Bluetooth.
The Runestone of Harald Bluetooth, Jelling, Denmark, 10th century
4) Because Máel Brigte úa Máel Úanaig, the scribe of Harley 1802, was such a chatterbox. We don’t know who made most medieval manuscripts. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the scribe will record their name, and occasionally other morsels of information. In contrast, Máel Brigte wrote a colophon (a closing inscription) for each of the Gospel texts, telling us not only his name but also that he was 28 years old, working in Armagh in 1138. He refers twice to the murder of King Cormac Mac Carthaig by Toirdelbach Ua Briain in 1138, describing it as a ‘great crime’. He mentions a terrible storm that happened two years earlier. He tells us that Donnchad Ua Cerbaill was High King and gives a list of the many petty kings of his time. Such an insight into the life and personality of a non-famous 12th-century individual, including even their disgruntled commentary on contemporary politics, is rare. It’s hard not to take a liking to this chatty, opinionated, scholarly scribe.
The end of the Gospel of St John and Máel Brigte's longest colophon: Harley MS 1802, f. 156v
5) Because they can teach you a thing or two. Besides the Gospels, these manuscripts are fascinating for the wide variety of other texts that share their pages. The detailed glosses that crowd the margins of Harley 1802 reveal Irish scholars’ meticulous study of the Gospels, drawing on a Hiberno-Latin commentary tradition dating back to at least the 8th century. Other texts suggest an interest in gathering obscure knowledge. For example, Harley 1023 contains a list of Pharaohs of Egypt, and a list of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (a group of Christians who slept in a cave for 300 years while hiding from persecution). Harley 1802 contains poems describing the personal appearances of the Three Magi and the Apostles, paying special attention to the colour and style of their hair and beards. These texts reveal the breadth of Irish learning and give an insight into how information was carefully collected and treasured by enquiring scholars.
The end of the Gospel of St Luke, with added biblical questions and answers and a list of Pharaohs of Egypt: Harley MS 1023, f. 63v
Irish poem on Christ and the Apostles: Harley MS 1802, f. 9v
Have we convinced you? Happy St Patrick’s Day everyone!
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