When is a Book not a Book? The Medieval Book Shrine.

By Julie Somers

While browsing images of medieval treasure bindings, I noticed that one example I was looking at was not actually a book at all.  In fact, it was an ornamented wooden case made to closely resemble a book. Produced in Germany, it was created to hold various sacred objects, including leaves from actual books, in this case the Gospels, along with other corporeal relics.

Book Shaped Reliquary c.1000 (Germany)

Book Shaped Reliquary c.1000 (Germany) Cleveland Museum of Art

This type of reliquary is often known as a cumdach, or book shrine.  An elaborate ornamented box or case used to hold relics or, more often, manuscript fragments that were considered sacred in some manner. Usually quite small, they served as a portable vessel meant for the preservation of a sacred text that represented a direct connection or association to a saint. They were often decorated in metalwork or ivory carvings, with precious stones to symbolize the valuable nature of the object inside, imitating a treasure binding. These ornamented boxes would be used for the swearing of oaths, protection or even healing purposes. The cumdach of the Book of Durrow (c. 877) is the earliest recorded book-shrine, however it has been lost. Several examples exist from Ireland in the 11th century.

Believed to contain a copy of the Gospels that belonged to Molaise of Laserian, a contemporary of Columba, the cumdach of Molaise was produced in the early 11th century.

Book-Shrine or cumdach of Molaise, c.1001-25 (National Museum of Ireland, Dublin)

Book-Shrine or cumdach of Molaise, c.1001-25 (National Museum of Ireland, Dublin)

The cumdach of Columba’s Psalter, a copper and silver plated book-shrine was made between 1062 and 1098 to hold the Psalter of St. Columba, a manuscript produced in Ireland which dates to the late 6th or early 7th century. The manuscript it held became known as the ‘Cathach’ or ‘Battler’, and the case protected the manuscript as it became a talisman carried into battles.

http://insularbookshelf.org/cathach.html

Cumdach of Columba’s Psalter (National Museum of Ireland, Dublin) 

Another example, known as the Domnach Airgid or “Silver Church” holds a fragmentary gospel manuscript from the 8th or 9th century, and acts as a reliquary with a connection to St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Produced over several centuries, estimated from as early as the 6th century and still being reworked and ornamented in the 14th century, this reliquary was most likely intended to hold bodily relics, while the manuscript was placed inside at a later time.

 

Shrine of Saint Patrick's Gospels. early 20th century (original dated 1080–1100) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Shrine of Saint Patrick’s Gospels. early 20th century (original dated 1080–1100) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The cumdach of Dimma’s Book was produced in the twelfth century to encase the 8th century Gospel Book copied by the scribe Dimma (Dublin, Trinity College, MS.A.IV.23). A reproduction of the case was created by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and can be viewed online.

 

"Book of Dimma" Shrine early 20th century (original dated 11th century) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Book of Dimma” Shrine early 20th century (original dated 11th century) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

One last example of a book-shrine, the cumdach of the Stowe Missal, produced in the 11th century, now at the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy.

Book or Shrine, Cumdach of the Stowe Missal. early 20th century (original dated 1025–52) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Book or Shrine, Cumdach of the Stowe Missal. early 20th century (original dated 1025–52) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

It is evident from these examples that these cases were meant to directly resemble a book, symbolizing the important manuscripts found inside. Even today, we place important mementos or documents such as love letters or birth announcements within the pages of a family Bible or book of poetry, or even personal items within a faux dictionary safe placed on a bookshelf. This tradition of encasing our precious items has endured.

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