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Gospel of Matthew folio 28v

The Gospel of Matthew is currently open at folios 28v-29r

The portrait of Matthew on the left-hand folio is one of just two surviving evangelist portraits (together with that of John on folio 291v) in the Book of Kells.  The portraits of Mark and Luke have not survived. Here Matthew, holding his Gospel, stands in front of an ornate throne. The symbols of his fellow evangelists are grouped around him: Luke (calf) and John (eagle) are placed behind the arms of the throne, and Mark (the lion) appears either side of the head of the throne.

Matthew’s tunic is patterned with repeated crosses (crucifixion motif) set in a diamond pattern. His cloak is decorated with triple dots – one dot on his left sleeve is red – representing the doctrine of the Trinity: God exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Matthew is surrounded by a frame filled with interlaced snakes, perhaps a visual symbol of Christ’s resurrection from the dead as snakes shed their old skin and are ‘reborn’.

Gospel of Matthew folio 29r

The opening words of Matthew’s Gospel on the right-hand folio are written in an elaborate display script filling the entire page: LIB/ER GENE/RATI/ONIS (‘The book of the generation’).

At the top left corner two lions face each other, their extended overlapping tongues forming an X-shaped cross. The motif of the book (LIBER) is repeated as two men on this folio are depicted holding red books: the figure (possibly the deacon who read the Gospel at the Mass) at the bottom left wearing black leather shoes and the figure with the halo (possibly Matthew) at the centre top. The final word GENE/RATI/ONIS, at the bottom right-hand corner, is written in red ink in a yellow-bordered book format.

Minor details across this opening remain unfinished: on the left-hand folio the pupil is missing in Matthew’s left eye; on the right-hand folio the angel’s face near the top left lacks any features and part of the elaborate snake interlace in the roundel containing the ER of LIBER has been outlined but left uncoloured. This pattern of unfinished decoration continues for the following five folios which suggests that there was a sustained interruption to the artist’s work in the monastic scriptorium at this time.

By Felicity O’Mahony Assistant Librarian at the Old Library