Beginning of the Gospel of 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 large initial letters ('IN P[rincipio]') at the beginning of John's Gospel were scraped off and repainted in mid-10th century style, blending the earlier interlace decoration into the new initial. At its lower end, a large beast head provides a good example of animal ornament in this period, which is shaded to appear three-dimensional. The text, in the original 8th-century script, is full of the special abbreviations the Irish used. To save even more space, the capital letters beginning sections were meant to have been written in the margins (where they were updated in gold by the Anglo-Saxon scribe), even if the section began in mid-line. The reader's job is to 'place' the initial as indicated by the sign :--.