Re: Re: reordering and destruction of irish cathedrals – St Colmans Cathedral, Cobh

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From 4th/5th century Rome, the artistic type of Christ seated in Majesty, holding a book, surrounded by the Four Evangelists, surmounted by the Cross, spread thoughout Europe. Examples are conserved from the 6th. century on in manuscript miniature, ivory work, and in wrouhgt gold.

The first eample here is from The Book of Kells, folio 32v. Christ, seated in glory, the Cross above his head, at either side a peacock, symbol of eternal life, at either side of his throne, the tetramorphic symbols. The illuminators of the Book of Kells, working probably in Iona, faithfully reproduce the type of Christ’s face to be seen in the moasic of Santa Pudentiana: bearded, with long loose hair (this time blond).

The Gundohinus Gospel of 754

folio 12v
Comparable with Lombard work, especially the altar of Pemmo, Cividale of 731-734

In 754, the Carolingian dynasty began. It was the third year of the reign of King Pepin III. Carolingian art was always connected to the court and the royal household. A scribe would be requested to make a copy of a book by a patron. In that same year, at the court of Pepin, a lady, Faustus and a monk, Fuculphus, ordered a scribe named Gundohinus to produce a Gospel Book and oversee its illustration. With this book, the first phase of Carolingian manuscript painting began. His work appears to have been strongly influenced by the art of Lombardy, a part of Northern Italy that had maintained contact with the Byzantine world. However, the work does not appear to reflect a thorough understanding of the classical modeling techniques. Although hatch marks were used by this early Carolingian artist in an attempt to describe the volumetric quality of the human and animal forms, they are not convincing. They indicate that the artist copied classical models, but without conviction. In his hands the repetition of curvilinear marks do little to describe the three-dimensional shape of the form and relieve the flatness of the picture plane. In Christ in Majesty, there are five figures organized in five circles. Christ seated on a throne, flanked by two angels, occupies the center while the four symbols of the Evangelists in four smaller circles surround the image of Christ. The decorative borders of each circle consist of simple schematic foliage or white dots. As we will see, Carolingian painting style develops quickly from here.

Here Christ is clean shaven, long hair, and the Cross has been absorbed into the halo:

The Gosescalc Gospel

f. 3r.

Christ in Glory influenced by the Book of Kells and by an image in Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome

In the year 781, Pepin’s son Charles (i.e. Charlemagne) met Pope Adrian I in Rome. Upon his return Charles ordered Godescalc, a friend and a Frank, to make a Gospel Book to commemorate his meeting with the Pope. This was the beginning of the true style of Carolingian art. Godescalc modeled his work after Late Antique or Classical sources, as did Gundohinus. However, the illustrations in the Godescalc Gospels are clearly the work of a painter who has mastered the techniques of naturalistic illusionism to the extent that the linear outlines of the folds of fabric convey volume. In addition, shading in light and dark and the use of highlights on the garments and flesh of the Evangelists are quite sophisticated and subtle. The colors are cool and somber. The labeling of the evangelist in the image was a common device in Hiberno-Saxon manuscripts. The rectangular frame here, with simplified vegetation flatly drawn in a rhythmic pattern, is reminiscent of the style of Late Antique manuscript illustrations. The overall effect demonstrates that a great deal has been learned since the Gundohinus illustrations of twenty seven years before. Regrettably, much of this particular style ends with Godescalc, thereby closing the first phase of Carolingian illustration.

The Ada Gospels

folio 85v, St Luke

Texts continued to be produced for some years after the Gospel Book of Godescalc, but without illustrations. However, in time, manuscript illustration reappeared. Sometime close to the year 785, a manuscript called the Ada Gospels was produced. The first part was not illustrated, but the second part, made later, was illustrated.

The Ada Gospels are a fine example of the Carolingian artist’s grasp of Classical style. The architectural elements that are included are executed in a highly confident manner. Where the environment of the evangelist in the Godescalc paintings is ambiguous, the evangelists in the Ada gospels are clearly located in a well constructed architectural setting. They are portrayed seated on a throne decorated with panels imitating architectural elevations with rows of windows, repeating the design of the walls surrounding the evangelists. The scene is framed with a traditional classical device of Corinthian columns topped by an arch. Inside the arch, filling the space above the architecture and the evangelist’s head, is a large representation of the symbol of the evangelist. In the case of St. Matthew (see Hubert, Carolingian Art, bibliography, p. 79), it is an angel whose wing span reaches to the border of the arch on either side. The angel seems to be reading from a scroll spread wide in his outstretched arms. St. Matthew’s head is tilted as if he is listening carefully to the angel’s words. His hand is held poised above the page ready to transcribe the inspired Word. These two features–the monumental architecture and powerful image of the angel–give the image a majestic quality. The feeling one gets from this well-ordered composition, beautifully rendered in peaceful pastels, is a sense of quiet grandeur.

Evangeliary of Metz

Sacramentary of Soisson 800-820

The Lorsch Gospel c. 800

folio 18v

In this example of Christ in majesty, the right hand is raised in blessing with the fingers in the Greek manner of imparting blessings.

Sacramentary of Metz 870

folio 3r
St. Gregory the Great

For an overview of the Western manuscript tradition see the following link:


1. A manuscript from c. 800
2. The Gundonius Gospel of 754
3. An early ivory (Bodlian, Oxford)

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