Book of Durrow

Book of Durrow

Durrow Abbey (Ireland) or Iona Abbey (Scotland) — Ca. 650–700

Predating the Book of Kells by more than a century: the oldest complete specimen of an Insular Gospel Book is also one of the oldest and most important Western European Gospel Books

  1. The Book of Durrow is named after its supposed place of origin in Durrow, County Offaly, Ireland ca. 650–700

  2. 6 carpet pages, 5 full-page miniatures of the Evangelists’ symbols, and 6 pages with large, elaborate initials adorn the text

  3. There is evidence of artistic influences ranging from Celtic Iron Age art to contemporary Middle Eastern Gospel Books

Book of Durrow

  1. Description
  2. Facsimile Editions (1)
Book of Durrow

Renowned for the beauty of its illumination, the Book of Durrow is one of the oldest and most important Western European Gospel Books and represents the oldest complete specimen of an Insular Gospel Book, predating the Book of Kells by more than a century. It remains a source of controversy among scholars, who have never definitively agreed on the origins of the codex itself or of the artistic influences found among its six extant carpet pages, a full-page miniature of the four Evangelists' symbols, four full-page miniatures of the individual Evangelist symbols, and six pages with large, elaborate initials and incipits as well as numerous smaller decorative initials. However, it is generally agreed that it was created ca. 700 and perhaps as early as 650, in or near Durrow in County Offaly, Ireland. Badly damaged from centuries of use and occasional misuse, the manuscript has been repaired and rebound numerous times during its 1,300-year lifespan.

Book of Durrow

The Book of Durrow is believed to have emerged in the late-7th century, making it one of the earliest extant Insular manuscripts and a prized relic of early Christian book art. It is highly prized for both its text, which consists of an Irish adaptation of Vulgate Latin, and its art, which is both indicative of Hiberno-Saxon art as well as numerous other traditions. Analysis of the manuscript indicates that it may have served as an exemplar for the scribes who created the Book of Kells. The manuscript continued to be used regularly 500 years after its creation when a passage (Acts 2:1-4) typically read at Pentecost during that period was added to a blank page. It was badly misused in the 17th century when an ignorant farmer immersed a section of the manuscript in water in an attempt to create holy water that he could use to cure his cows. Despite 1,300+ years of wear and tear, the manuscript has managed to survive intact and is an Irish national treasure.

From Durrow Abbey to Trinity College

The Gospel Book is named after the monastery of the same name that was founded by St. Columba, also known as Colum Cille, in County Offaly, Ireland during the late 6th century. Durrow Abbey was an important center of culture and trade where local kings were buried. Although it cannot be stated with certainty whether the manuscript first originated at Durrow Abbey, historical records indicate that it was there by the year 916 and certainly by the late-11th century, when an agreement transferring land from Killeshin Monastery to Durrow was recorded on an empty page in the back of the manuscript. There it remained until the abbey’s dissolution during the 16th century, when it passed into private hands.
It is also known that during the early-10th century the High King of Ireland, Flann Sinna (847–926), commissioned a lost silver-plated cumdach, an elaborate Irish reliquary box for housing a precious book, which in this case also included a relic of St. Columba. In 1661, the Book of Durrow was later donated along with the Book of Kells to Trinity College in Dublin by Henry Jones (ca. 1605–81), the Anglican Bishop of Meath and a vice-chancellor of the College. It remains one of the most prized and prestigious specimens housed in the Trinity College Library today.

A Complex Mix of Artistic Influences

Aside from the origins of the manuscript, scholars intensely debate what artistic styles can be found in the manuscript and there is evidence of influence from various periods and regions. The interlocking spirals and swirls of many initials in the manuscript can be traced to the La Tène style of pre-Christian Celtic art from the Iron Age as well as Pictish stones while the abstract animal décor appears to be inspired by early-7th century Anglo-Saxon metalwork. Meanwhile, Norwegian influences are exhibited in the only human figure found in the manuscript, the Evangelist Symbol for Matthew. There are similarities to Coptic and Syriac manuscripts in the intertwined ribbons and mesh-like designs on some pages as well, indicating that at least one of the artists had travelled to the Eastern Mediterranean.
Unlike most early Irish manuscripts, of the Book of Durrow follows the interpretation of the Evangelist Symbols proposed by St. Ireneus: Matthew – man; Mark – eagle; Luke – ox/calf; John – lion. Their rigid geometric form reveals that rather than being drawn freehand, they were created using drafting tools such as a pair of compasses. Non-invasive testing using micro-Raman spectroscopy and x-ray fluorescence has revealed that the red pigment was created from red lead, the yellow from orpiment, green from copper acetate, and the black and brown inks from iron gall.


Alternative Titles
Evangeliorum quattuor Codex Durmachensis
Buch von Durrow
Codex Durmachensis
Leabhar Dharú
Size / Format
248 folios / 24.5 × 14.5 cm
Ca. 650–700
Insular Half Uncial
11 full-page miniatures (5 pages with the evangelist symbols, 6 carpet pages); 6 text pages with decorative elements
The four Gospels with introductory texts and canon tables
Artist / School
Previous Owners
Durrow Abbey
Henry Jones

Available facsimile editions:
Facsimile Editions

#1 Evangeliorum quattuor Codex Durmachensis

Urs Graf – Olten, 1960

Publisher: Urs Graf – Olten, 1960
Binding: Leather with blind tooling
Commentary: 1 volume by Arthur A. Luce, George O. Simms, Peter Meyer and Ludwig Bieler
Language: English
1 volume: Exact reproduction of the original document (extent, color and size) Reproduction of of the entire original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
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