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Book of Dimma



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Insular Illuminated Manuscripts

I am a digital humanities scholar with a wide variety of interests. The main focus of my research, however, is insular illuminated manuscripts, manuscripts made in the British Isles from 600-850 C.E. The name illuminated manuscript originates from the practice of using gold to decorate the words in gospelbooks, gold representing and emulating a sense of divine light. God's divine light was believed necessary to illuminate the more difficult passages of the bible, that is, make them clear and inspire insight into their sacred truth. However, the cost of gold makes such practices difficult to sustain—not to mention that not all parts of the world, like the British Isles, have natural sources of gold. Furthermore, local artistic practices, available pigments, and possibilities for expression through the use of vibrant colors exerted their own pressures. Colors became the norm, but the name illuminated manuscript remained.

Aesthetically, I have always been drawn to balance through asymmetrical design, and the early artists of insular gospelbooks pursued the asymmetrical with a passion. In the Book of Dimma on the left, three out of the four corners have different decorative patterns, as do the longer decorative bands along the top, bottom, and two sides. Such balance through asymmetry draws me in and is, at least to me, more intriguing and moving. I am not alone in this. Recently, Fr Justin from the Holy Monastery of St Catherine's, Mount Sinai, visited the University of Kentucky. He mentioned that numerous people find the icon of Christ at St Catherine's the most moving depiction of Christ. Notice, on the right, the difference between the eyebrows and eyes, for starters. I cannot speak to the origins of this aesthetic, but for me it represents that which speaks most profoundly to the human condition.

My research on insular manuscripts focuses on understanding their practices and imagery. I am attempting to apprehend possible meanings for the imagery through its function as structuring structures (to borrow a term from Pierre Bourdeau), what I call its visual architecture. I am particularly interested in patterns of decorated initials. I approach my work not as an art historian or Anglo-Saxonist, though I draw much insight from these traditions, but as a visual rhetorician. The ancient art of rhetoric had great influence on medieval practices, with early Christians adapting rhetorical practices and theories to serve religious activity rather than the civic practices of classical Greece and Rome. St Augustine's De Christinia Doctrina offers an excellent example of this adaptive work. Images have a strong and vibrant history in classical rhetoric, used for rhetorical invention and memory. But the image also has an esteemed place in regard to thought. Aristotle believed that it was impossible to think without an image.

The St Chad Gospels

The St Chad Gospels is one of the true treasures that survives to us from the Middle Ages. It endured theft, multiple wars, and travel. Because of historic turmoil, few writings that shed light on the practices enshrined within its pages remain. The writings of the Venerable Bede, an Anglo-Saxon, and St Adomnan, the 9th abbot of the Irish monastery of St Colum Cille on Iona, offer two of our best sources. Much of what we know has been gleaned by comparing surviving manuscripts within the insular tradition. One of the joys in working with these wonderful manuscripts is the detective work and cleverness necessary to chip away at their secrets. (For my work digitizing the St Chad Gospels, see the Digital Projects section of this website.)

One tantalizing piece of information about the St Chad Gospels: three Anglo-Saxon women's names are written in dry-point in the margins. This suggests that women worked in the library and most likely the scriptorium to have access to the manuscript. At one time, a scholar felt safe in using the pronoun he for a medieval scribe. With such findings, that certainty has erroded, and we are gaining a better sense of the complexity of the role of women in the early medieval church.

New features recently added to the Manuscripts of Lichfield Cathedral website:

Multispectral Visualizations of the St Chad Gospels' Page 141: Page 141 contains an area that appears as if it might contain erased text. These multispectral visualizations offer enhanced viewing of this area.

St Chad Gospels in Interactive 3D: I am delighted to announce that I now have sixteen pages of the St Chad Gospels rendered in 3D and available online through the Manuscripts of Lichfield Cathedral website:



I am fascinated by what we know as a group that we do not know individually. The experiment by DARPA to find ten weather balloons through networking and the Internet is a good example. Another, more mundane that the DARPA experiment but as profound, is the "ask the audience" option on the show Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. I am interested in applying crowdsourcing to scholarly problems, particularly those related to insular manuscripts. Bits of knowledge needed to understand aspects of these manuscripts are known by someone, somewhere, in who knows what discipline. I am gradually putting together a model for such crowdsourcing.



Last Updated Oct. 18, 2013








Icon of Christ, St Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai

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