THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

03 August 2020

Treasures on Tour: an Armagh gospel-book on display in Belfast

Last year we announced the digitisation of two of the Library's most important medieval Irish manuscripts, the Harley Irish Gospels. This year we're loaning one of them, the Gospels of Máel Brigte (Harley MS 1802), to the Ulster Museum in Belfast as part of the British Library’s Treasures on Tour programme.

Medieval manuscript miniature of an ox surrounded by a patterned border
The ox symbol of the evangelist St Luke, Harley MS 1802, f. 86v

As we discussed in the previous blog post, the manuscript has a number of  fascinating features. Its detailed colophons reveal that it was made by a 28-year-old scribe named Máel Brigte, working in Armagh in 1138. Máel Brigte also mentioned contemporary events in his colophons, including a great storm that happened two years earlier and the killing of King Cormac Mac Carthaig by Toirdelbach Ua Briain in 1138, which he called 'a great crime'.

Medieval manuscript miniature of a lion surrounded by a patterned border
The lion symbol of the evangelist St Mark, Harley MS 1802, f. 60v

The main texts of the manuscript are the Gospels, which are splendidly illustrated with evangelist symbols and decorated initial letters painted in vibrant colours. Unusually, the animal symbols of the evangelists are depicted sideways, as though standing on a vertical ground. Perhaps this was designed to make the figures fill the space, or to remind the viewer to mentally reorient themselves before beginning to read the Gospel text.

Medieval manuscript page containing a poem
Irish poem on the Three Magi, Harley MS 1802, f. 5v

In addition to the Gospels, the pages of the manuscript are filled with other rare and interesting texts, including commentaries, poems and exegesis. A particularly intriguing example is an Irish poem on the names and descriptions of the Three Magi (f. 5v), which seems to be one of the earliest texts that describe one of the magi as being black. According to the poem, Melcho was the elder magus, who had grey hair, wore a yellow mantle, a green tunic and speckled sandals, and presented gold; Caspar was youthful and beardless, wore a purple mantle, yellow tunic and green sandals, and presented Frankincense; while Patifarsat was a dark-skinned man (fer odor) who wore a white-spotted mantle and yellow sandals, and presented myrrh.

On f. 9v another Irish poem describes the appearance of Christ and the Apostles, stating that Christ had brown hair and a long red beard.

Medieval manuscript page with a decorated XPI initial
Chi-rho initial, Harley MS 1802, f. 10r

The Gospels of Máel Brigte is now on display in the Saints and Scholars gallery at Ulster Museum for the next three months. The Treasures on Tour programme is generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The British Library is working with other libraries, museums and galleries across the UK to share our collections with thousands of people every day, and the Library will be announcing additional loans as part of Treasures on Tour over the coming months.

Eleanor Jackson

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