A Survey of Period Illuminations from Durham Cathedral

The Honorable Lord Eldred Ælfwald, Gordian Knot Herald

This course is not intended to be a "how-to" of illumination or a history course (per se). The objective is to present a survey of illuminations that span the eras (if not geography) of history that are covered by the SCA. All of the illuminations presented here come from the British Isles specifically from Durham and Northumbria. However, there is distinct overlap with continental illumination, and sources for such material will be discussed.

The word "illumination" derives from the Middle English/ecclesiastic Latin illuminatio, meaning 'spiritual enlightenment.' Indeed, that was the original purpose of period illumination--to spiritually enlighten church congregations. Since the majority of the population of the Middle Ages was illiterate, the illumination of religious texts provided a "visual aid" to the sermon or reading that was presented during a Mass. Gilding-either gold-leaf or tin-leaf) was performed to catch and reflect what little light was available, thus "illuminating" the Word of the Lord.

A page from the Lindesfarne Gospels.
The Lindesfarne Gospels are one of the earliest surviving examples of book painting. The manuscript was produced at the monastery of Lindesfarne (on the Northumbrian island of Farne) towards the end of the 7th century. The creation of this manuscript was in honor of St. Cuthbert. This page shows some of the hallmarks of Celtic illumination: the series of red dots that follow the contours of letters and then, almost playfully, form other patterns. The earliest examples of illuminated letters were simply colored, and as the art of illumination matured, the letters themselves were decorated with knotwork.

In contrast to the Lindesfarne Gospels, the Book of Durrow has completely abstract designs in which knotwork completely fills the interior of letters and spiral patterns unfurl at every terminal.

Initial from the beginning of the Gospel of St. Mark
This is from an unidentified manuscript that has been dated to the 7th century. Of interest are the zoomorphic fish. This illumination is typical of one form of Celtic knotwork.

Illumination from the Durham Gospels.
The Durham Gospels date to somewhere between the 7th and 8th century. This particular illumination display simple knotwork flourishes and only three colors of ink!

Gospel of St. John, from the Durham Gospels
This is a different example of Celtic knotwork. Note the triskele patterns. The text is definitely subordinate to the illuminations. If you look closely, you will find zoomorphs inside the knotwork of the illuminated letters! A good point to bring up is that in an age of illiteracy, the written word often had a mystical or awe-inspiriing quality. Illuminations simply enhanced that feeling.

Detail of same.
Illuminated "D" from the Durham Gospels
Presumably this is a dragon. Note the mini-zoomorphs inside the letter. Although loosely termed "Celtic," this type of decoration can be found in Saxon carvings from the period.

Single words from a text are also illuminated.

Durham Gospels
Note how the letters are interlinked. This page also demonstrates how single letters or even parts of words are accentuated.

Detail of MARCUS (Mark) from previous slide
Cassiodorus on Psalms. An 8th century manuscript
This is a relatively simple illumination of King David as a harpist. This depiction closely corresponds to Anglo-Saxon carvings from this period. Note the similarity to the carvings of Mary (Deerhurst Monastery) and the carvings preserved at Daglingworth.

Detail of face and harp
For those interested in period music or instruments, this illumination can provide the basis for a crude harp or lyre.

Illumination of Bishop William and Robert Benjamin
This illumination is from an 11th century Bible. If you are confused who these two gentlemen are, the Bishop is William de St. Calais (1081-96) who is considered the founder of Durham Cathedral. In addition, William was a "Prince Bishop", meaning he was expected to wield both religious and military power, and exercise many of the King's powers--a unique position for a baron in England at that time. In a nice piece of synchronicity that links back to the Lindesfarne Gospels, the uncorruptable body of St. Cuthbert is currently enshrined in the Cathedral (his body was taken from Farne Island in c.897 and brought to where Durham stands now in 995). Also, the Venerable Bede (d.735 at Jarrow) is also buried in the Cathedral (c.1022, after theft by sacrist Aelfred). Unfortunately, the significance of Robert Benjamin escapes me. Presumably he is the monk who created this illumination. This is a relatively plain illumination. It appears to be a simple ink drawing rather than a painted illumination. The evidence of Celtic influence has faded, and the Saxon like beastheads are more prominent.

To understand the Norman influence we see here, it is work taking a look at examples of French illumination from the 10th century (Zaczek, p.72). There is a definite Celtic influence there (Celts were not limited to the British Isles, you know!), but the treatment of terminals is extremely floral in nature rather than the more primitive-looking zoomorphs. This floral motif is much more prevalent in continental illumination than in the British Isles.

An illuminated "D" from the St. Calais Bible
Presumably this Bible was created for Bishop William de St Calais. It dates to the 11th century. The knotwork has been replaced with a combination of Norman-influenced arabesques and Saxon beastheads. The rightmost beasthead can be found in the Saxon carvings of this period, e.g. the chancel of Kilpeck.

An illuminated "B" from the St. Calais Bible
Some celtic influence remains in the knotwork, but we are still seeing the arabesques. Note the unusual beast in the upper loop of the B. Letters are emphasized by a simple change in color.

Interesting color treatments from the St. Calais Bible
The angel of St. Matthew and the dragon appear to be more of an illustration than an illumination, even thought they form the "L" from "Liber Generationis"--the 'begats' of the Bible. We still see the influences of Saxon work, but the details of the clothing are becoming more Norman in look.

An example of a rare illumination from the St. Calais Bible
Presumably this type of illumination is rare. That beast-head looks like a direct descendant of the chancel arch at Kilpeck.

Illumination of St. Nicholas rescuing sailors
This comes from an unidentified manuscript that dates from between the 11th and 12th centuries. It is a simple two-color ink drawing that uses arabesques and no knotwork. Essentially, by the end of the 11th century, much of the Celtic influence in illumination has disappeared. Occasionally, it will pop up again, but it is much more subtle-a single knot here or there instead of an entire run of interlinked knots or zoomorphs.

Illuminations of a "P" and an "E" from the Du Puiset Bible
The Du Puiset Bible dates to the 12th century. It was the Bible of Bishop Hugh du Puiset, who was made Bishop at the insistence of his aunt--Matilda. Matilda would have been the first Queen of England upon Henry I's death, however her cousin Stephen usurped the throne, thus creating a time of anarchy. Du Puiset is best remembered as "a noble builder…whose architects were better artists than engineers." Evidently they did not believe in foundations and only sank the pillars of the Galilee Chapel 2 feet into the ground! This particular illumination shows a definite shift to the Norman artistic style. There is still a bit of Saxon influence in the treatment of the clothing. Notice that the details of facial features are becoming more realistic--shading is used. No knotwork, nor arabesques.

Illumination of the letter "P" from the Du Puiset Bible
This illumination may show one of the last gasps of Celtic influence--a single knot.

Illumination of the letter "U" from Ecclesiastes in the Du Puiset Bible
This is a depiction of King David. It is a relatively simple illumination. Saxon features on people are virtually gone.

Illuminated letter "E" from the Du Puiset Bible
Fox and hounds. The intertwined tails of the hounds may be the last of the Celtic knotwork we see. There is still some of the stylized Celtic influence here, but the animals are beginning to be detailed with a bit more realism. This is a relative term, of course...

Illuminated "E" from Maccabees in the Du Puiset Bible
This is obviously a battle scene. Note how similar it is to the Bayeux Tapestry in terms of armor.

An illuminated "E" from the 13th century
We are now well into the Gothic period. This is a depiction of a bell- or carillon-player. The new artistic style we see is diapering or quilting. With the Gothic period, we begin to see an artistic shift to more decoration in both illuminations and architecture.

An Illumination from a 14th century manuscript
This is a depiction of St. Cuthbert. Whenever a saint is depicted, he or she is typically shown holding the instrument of their martyrdom or an object that is closely linked to their sainthood. In the instance of Cuthbert, the object is the head of Owswald. Note how naturistic the borders have become and how much more decorated the lettering has become. The later Gothic period is best known for it's highly decorated art and architecture.

An illumination of a wedding
Note the interesting treatment of the border around this illumination and the diapering of its background. Much to our amusement, the wedding party appears to be cross-eyed.

Once we move into the Renaissance period, illumination shifts towards realism and more secular topics. Even in the thirteenth century, literary or scholarly works (as opposed to ecclesiastic works) were illuminated. Typical examples would be found in bestiaries. These should probably be considered illustrations rather than illuminations, though the techniques were essentially the same.


Slides courtesy of the Treasury of Durham Cathedral.
Backhouse, Janet. The Lindesfarne Gospels. London: Phaidon Press Limited. 1997. ISBN: 0714824615
Sullivan, Sir Edward. The Book of Kells. London: Studio Editions. 1992. ISBN:1-85170-035-8
Barker, Nicholas. Treasures of the British Library. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated. 1989. ISBN: 0-8109-1653-3
Bologna, Giulia. Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Crescent Books. 1995. ISBN: 0-517-12083-6
Gill, D.M. Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Barnes & Noble Books. 1996. ISBN: 0-7607-0282-9
De Hamel, Christopher. Scribes and Illuminators. London: British Museum Press. 1992. ISBN: 0-7141-2049-9
Jarman, Christopher. Illuminations: A Source Book for Modern Calligraphers. London: B.T. Batsford. 1994. ISBN: 0-7134-7824-1
Beckwith, John. Early Medieval Art. New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc. 1989. ISBN: 0-500-20019-X
Zaczek, Iain. Celtic Design. New York: Crescent Books. 1995. ISBN: 0-517-12178-6

©Copyright 1998, J.T. Thorpe