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Portrait of St Luke, in an Pocket Gospels

Portrait of St Luke, in an Pocket Gospels

Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum

Date: 780

Shelfmark: Additional MS 40618

Item number: f.21v

Length: 13

Width: 9.7

Scale: Centimetres

Genre: Illuminated Manuscript

This small copy of the gospels comes from Ireland and is an example of the 'pocket gospels' made there in the early Middle Ages. While their use is not fully known now, markings in them, texts added to them, and the importance of gospelbooks in the lives of saints such as Columba indicate that they had multiple uses in personal devotion as well as in pastoral care. Books of scripture, especially gospels and psalters, were considered to have powers of healing and protection. By the 10th century, this pocket gospels had ended up in southern England, possibly Canterbury, where it was 'updated' with pictures in the latest style and its decorated initial letters scraped off and painted over with ones in a new style.

The portrait of Luke is the only remaining picture from Ireland. Portraits of the evangelists were a conventional kind of picture in early gospel books in western Europe. They were meant as author portraits, a type of introductory image borrowed from Roman books. The frontal figure of the standing evangelist who holds his gospel book and is framed by panels of interlace is typical of the simple presentation seen in other Irish pocket gospels. Flat patterning and firm outlining of drapery, head and hands typifies the style of painting current in late 8th-century centres in Ireland and the foundations on the Continent.

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