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Lion, Symbol of St Mark, in a Burnt Fragment of a Gospelbook

Lion, Symbol of St Mark, in a Burnt Fragment of a Gospelbook

Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum

Date: 700

Shelfmark: Cotton MS Otho C V

Item number: f. 27r

Length: 25.2

Width: 17.2

Scale: Centimetres

Genre: Illuminated Manuscript

Badly damaged in the 1731 Cotton library fire, this gospel book, which survives only in fragments, is now divided between the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and the British Library. It was once magnificent, with close relationships in its script and decoration to the Lindisfarne Gospels, the fragments of the gospel book at Durham Cathedral, and the Book of Kells. Thought by some scholars to have been made before the Lindisfarne Gospels, no one is certain where it was made. Its similarities to the above-mentioned manuscripts suggest that its origins lie in the network of monasteries founded by St Columba and his successors at Iona, which includes Lindisfarne as well as foundations in Ireland and Scotland.

In most decorated copies of the gospels from early medieval Britain and Ireland, each gospel was prefaced by a portrait of the author (evangelist) or his symbol (Matthew = man, Mark = lion, Luke = ox / calf, John = eagle). The splendid lion with its patterns of spiraling fur and energetic leaping shape gives a hint of how spectacular this manuscript must have been. It differs from the symbols in the Lindisfarne gospels but resembles some of the animals in contemporary Irish metalwork and Pictish stone carvings as well as the lion of Mark in another manuscript of disputed origins which is now in the National Library of France, Paris ('Echternach Gospels'). Above the lion's head, the words 'imago le[o]nis' ('image of the lion') are just visible as are some interlace patterns around the lion's body.

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