The Surviving Examples
Several of the earliest documented examples have now been lost: the Book of Durrow's is mentioned below, and the Book of Kells lost its cumdach when it was stolen in 1006. The Book of Armagh was covered in 937, and perhaps lost its cover when it was captured in battle and ransomed by the Norman John de Courcy in 1177. Several of the surviving examples have high-quality early 20th century reproductions in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which are not on display there, but have good illustrations available online, unlike the original pieces.
The earliest documented example was made to house and protect the Book of Durrow at the behest of King of Ireland Flann Sinna (879–916), by which point it was at Durrow, and believed to be a relic of Colum Cille. The shrine was lost in the 17th century, but its appearance, including an inscription recording the king's patronage, is recorded in a note from 1677, now bound into the book as folio IIv, although other inscriptions are not transcribed. Once in the shrine it was probably rarely if ever removed for use as a book.
The shrine known as the Domhnach Airgid ("silver church") was originally 8th century, but little is visible from before a major reworking around 1350 by the abbot of Clones. A fully three-dimensional figure of Christ crucified is at the centre of the main face, with relief plaques of saints and the Virgin and Child, and other scenes on the sides which combine principal figures in relief and others in engraving. The style is rather more sophisticated than in some 14th century reworkings, with elegant running animals on small mounts at the corners, and the goldsmith who signed it, John O Bardan, is recorded living at Drogheda; by now goldsmiths in Ireland, as elsewhere in Europe, were usually laymen (NMI, R2834, 16.7 cm high).
The oldest cumdach surviving largely in its original form is that made in the early 11th century for the gospels of Saint Molaise (NMI, R4006, 14.75 cm high, 11.70 wide) with the typical construction of a wooden core to which metal plaques are nailed. The top face is mainly silvered bronze and silver-gilt and has the four symbols of the Evangelists in the spaces between a cross, with gold filigree knotwork panels. There is a reproduction in New York.
Probably the best-known is the cumdach for the Cathach of St. Columba, an important psalter which in fact seems to date from just after the death of Columba or Colum Cille in 597, but is still probably the earliest Irish book to survive and a very prestigious relic. It belonged to the O'Donnell dynasty and was famously carried by them as a battle standard (Cathach means "Battler") in its cumdach (NMI, R2835, 25.1 cm wide), hung round the neck. The initial work on the case was done between 1072 and 1098 at Kells, but a new main face was added in the 14th century with a large seated Christ in Majesty flanked by scenes of the Crucifixion and saints in gilt repoussé (NMI R2835, 25.1 cm wide).
Another cumdach used in battle was that of the Moisach, from Clonmany, County Donegal, whose metal cord survives for carrying it, probably round the neck. Originally late 11th century, it was recovered in 1534 with repoussé silver decoration with many figures round a cross (NMI 2001:84, 25 cm wide). The manuscript inside was originally associated with St Cairneach of Dulane, County Meath, but by the Gothic period had been "absorbed into the cult of St Columba".
The cumdach of the Book of Dimma is from the 12th century, again with a reproduction in New York. On one face it has panels of openwork decoration in Viking Ringerike style. Like the manuscript, it is in Trinity College Library, Dublin.
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