Images of the Evangelist Matthew in the Book of Durrow and the Colbertinus Codex: Faith and Devotion for the Evangelist

Introduction

Although apparently quite different in sophistication and complexity as pieces of art, the Man, Symbol of St. Matthew, from the Book of Durrow and St. Matthew from the Codex Colbertinus share a common origin in intense faith. These two images of portray the same religious figure from three hundred years apart. They reveal the same devotion to the scripture and the faith that inspired them. Both use the best techniques available to them to glorify and invest with meaning and seriousness the role and person of Matthew the Evangelist.

Identification of the work of art

Unknown artist. The Man: the symbol for St. Matthew, from the Book of Durrow, latter half of the 7th century, CE. Ink and tempura on parchment.

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Description of the work of art

The 7th century image of St. Matthew in the Book of Durrow depicts a male figure with pale hair and what appears to be a beard or sideburns. He is wrapped from neck to ankles in a heavily decorated cloak. His feet appear sideways, in the manner of ancient Egyptian representations of the legs and feet, making it very clear that these are feet, and not something else.

The figure of Matthew is surrounded by elaborate scrolls, evocative of vining plants but not specifically depicting any plant. They are familiar to anyone who has purchase a piece of jewelry labeled as Celtic, and similar designs appear in sculpted crosses from the same period and before and after in the British Isles.

The dominant colors appear to be red, black, gold, or what passes for gold and white or off-white. The condition of this page is good, but there appear to be missing areas of color in the scrolling. A reconstruction suggests that there was a lot more green in the scrolling and in the cloak decoration. The overall size of the page is roughly 9 5/8 x 6 1/8, or equivalent to a modern trade book.

The image is executed in ink and tempura on parchment, meaning that the surface could be sheep, calf, or goat skin. The tempura, a mixture of pigments and egg yolk, was typical of the period. One might infer that the outline was drawn in ink and then filled in with tempura colors.

The Book of Durrow is now housed at Trinity College, in Dublin, Ireland. However, its source may have been elsewhere, for example in the ancient Christian center on the isle of Iona. Such texts were precious, and could have been looted or given as a gift over the centuries.

Identification of the work of art

Unknown artist. St. Matthew from the Codex Colbertinus. 11th to 12th century, CE. Tempura on vellum (calf skin).

Description of the work of art

The figure of Matthew appears under an arch supported by columns. He wears a cloak, and his feet are bare, but depicted as seen from the front. He holds up a forefinger and thumb with one hand, and a book in the other. His pose, his wide open eyes, perfectly arched eyebrows, suggestion of a top-knot, and the neck folds are reminiscent of early depictions of the Gautama Buddha.

His archway, which appears to evoke Roman architecture, and is in front of what seems to be a basilica style church, stands next to the letter L. This begins the Gospel of Matthew, the first words of which are “Liberi generationis…”

This phrase refers to the genealogy that the writer of this account of the life of Jesus then proceeds to list at length. The purpose of the genealogy is to connect Jesus, the son of Joseph and Mary, to the patriarchs and founders of the Jewish people. It also foreshadows the fulfillment of scripture that Matthew emphasizes so heavily in describing the events in Jesus’ life.

The letter L contains many smaller figures, some of them fantastical, others perhaps simply ill-informed. There appear to be figures of a swan, a leopard, a dog, flowers and seed pods, a naked man, a man in parti-colored hose, raptor birds, and additional canidae.

The prominent colors are red, blue, green, olive, white, gold, black, and variants of these. The condition of the page seems very good, although there may have been some fading in some spots. It is currently housed at the National Library of France. The manuscript is in Latin, but there is another manuscript in Greek, from Cyprus, that is sometimes referred to by the same name.

Comparing and contrasting the two works

The Colbertinus image of Matthew is a much more sophisticated piece of art but not one bit more heartfelt in its evocation of a historical person who was believed to have been a witness to the life of Jesus. While the Durrow image inevitably reminds a modern viewer of the strategies for representing the human figure that are adopted by very young children, the careful decoration shows the evidence of a devoted hand. Thus, they both reflect a deep faith in the scripture underlying the image.

The composition of the Durrow image is apparently simpler, since it presents the viewer with a single figure in a border. The Colbertinus image’s composition, on the other hand, includes a complex background that hints at buildings, as well as the elaborate fanciful decorations within the Letter L.

However, the decorative curlicues surrounding the Durrow Matthew engage the eye as thoroughly as the figures twining through the Letter L. The curlicues represent a two-dimensional version of the knot-work that the Celtic peoples of this region had been perfecting for centuries in textiles and in stone, among other media. The knot-work may have had a specific symbolic message that is now lost.

The way that the figures of Matthew fill the space is quite different. The Colbertinus Matthew dominates his little archway, standing squarely on two feet on a carefully laid pavement, confidently and clearly offering his gospel from the backdrop of a large and complex structure. He is instantly recognizable as a teacher of something, even to the non-Christian.

He is rounded, and even though the drawing is very simple, there is an attempt to depict folds and shading to signal the volume of his body. The use of shading is carried out in all the other figures, but more subtly.

The Durrow Matthew, on the other hand, almost floats in the space of his vining frame. There is no background, middle ground, or foreground. There is only Matthew. He is armored by his elaborately patterned cloak. His hands are not visible. Nothing that a modern viewer can recognize specifically identifies him as the Evangelist.

Only the traditional iconography from the Book of Revelation, placing four creatures around the throne of the deity (lion, eagle, ox, face of a man) connects him to the historical and religious character of Matthew. He almost looks, to modern eyes, as though his sideways facing feet would like to carry him off somewhere. Matthew looks intensely forward, as direct in gaze as in the Colbertinus image, but inactive.

The Durrow image has no shading or indication of volume. An uncharitable assessment would term it cartoonish, but there is clearly no intention to be childish or simplistic. The eyes are intense, the mouth is determined, and the pose is upright.

The major use of light and dark is in the alternating colors in the complicated checkerboard pattern on the cloak. This gorgeously decorated cloak has the convenient of effect of signaling a special or elevated individual without requiring the artist to attempt to convey the shape of the body with the limited techniques at the artist’s command. This is a clever solution to this challenging problem.

The colors in the Durrow image are more limited than those used in the Colbertinus image, perhaps reflecting the earlier artist’s more limited access to sophisticated pigments. However, the Durrow image uses the limited palette in varied ways, generating several different patterns of checkerboards for the cloak’s decoration. The overall contrast in color values in the Durrow image is lower. However, this may reflect deterioration of the pigments.

The Colbertinus image has higher contrast, and uses a wider range of colors to depict birds, beasts, and Matthew’s clothing. There is also more sophisticated use of the background surface, which is white/off-white, to denote Matthew’s skin, the sky, and the lighter portions of the animals and flowers. There is not the variety of saturation and value within colors that one would expect in a modern painting.

This is more like a kid using colors from a kit: blue is blue, green is green and red is red. There is no light blue, light green, or pink. This distinguishes the 11th century image from what we would see today. Nonetheless, overall, the Colbertinus Matthew simply appears to have more vivid impact because there are more colors. This draws the eye and accords the appropriate weight to the great Evangelist.

However, there is no for lack of effort on the part of the 7th century monk who decorated the Durrow codex. The Durrow image carefully places light and dark colors next to one another to create contrast even with the very limited palette. This technique also accords gravity to the image of the Evangelist, clothed in the most decorated vestments possible.

There is very little texture revealed in either image. The background and the fanciful animals and flowers in the Colbertinus image do demonstrate some texture – through hatching and suggestion of spots on the leopard and feathers on the large birds. However, the Colbertinus image of Matthew is notable for smoothness of face and skin elsewhere. The Durrow image offers even less texture, except in the decoration of the cloak. The hair is almost undifferentiated, and the face has minimal modeling. There is a suggestion of beard.

The very simple nature of both images fits with the modest scale of both pieces. The artist did not choose this size – it was determined by the size of the skins for the parchment and the upper limit of weight and size for a book. The small scale makes the relative simplicity of the images tolerable. At a huge scale, these images would look to modern eyes even more cartoonish and childish. As accompaniments to the reading of the Bible, these are eye candy, reinforcing the message of the scripture.

The historical context of these two works

Both the Colbertinus and Durrow images were an outgrowth of the religious atmosphere of their time. In the 7th century, the Christian religion had expanded to most of Europe. Each region had a very distinctive and fervent ‘flavor’ of Christianity, with their own decorative approach to the iconography. Thus, the Durrow image reflects Celtic knots and Matthew is as blond as any Scotsman is.

The historical context of the 7th century must also include the founding of Islam. This spread swiftly throughout North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and moved into the southern edges of Spain, Italy, Greece, and even France.

Although there is no direct evidence of contact with Islam in the Durrow image, it is important to remember that from this point on, there were three great monotheistic religions in Europe, and two of them were willing to kill to defend their faith. The intense effort invested in Matthew’s image may somehow reflect this sense of embattledness.

By the 11th and 12th centuries, there had been contact with the Holy Land via the Crusades to retrieve control of holy sites from Muslim control. The Middle Ages were at their height. Any deviation from the Roman Catholic faith was punishable as heresy. The Roman church was declaring itself the true heir to St. Peter, and separating itself from the Byzantine church. This confidence is reflected in image from Colbertinus. The Colbertinus image looks like a Roman wall painting, an expression of a powerful religious empire.

Conclusion

In both cases, religion was at the center of life, and the gospels were the central sacred texts. Both of these beautiful images convey the importance of the Evangelist, the most Jewish of the four. Each artist or team of artist has used the best materials and techniques at their disposal to impress the reader/viewer.

The apparent simplicity of the Durrow image belies the artist’s effort and care taken to display through obsessive decorative detail the glory of one who lived with the one that they regarded as the Savior. The Colbertinus image lavishes all the joyous imagination of the artist on surrounding the serene and welcoming image of Matthew with the birds, beasts, and folk of the created world.

Bibliography

Unknown. Man, the symbol for St. Matthew: Book of Durrow. Trinity College Library, Dublin.

Unknown. St. Matthew: Codex Colbertinus. The National Library of France, Paris.