Portrait of St John, in an Irish Pocket Gospels
Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum
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 the evangelist John, preceding his gospel, was painted by the 10th-century artist on a separate leaf and inserted into the book. Above him, his symbol, the eagle, is visible behind an open book. The style of the picture comes from Continental sources. Its illusion of three-dimensional mass and space along with its naturalism and rich palette come ultimately from Carolingian art. The energetic lines and layered painting technique are seen in later Anglo-Saxon painting. Some of the pigments were unstable and have decayed to an unflattering dark grey.