“Carpet page” and “Eusebian canon”: question of vocabulary

After reading the article on island illuminations, you may have wondered what a “carpet page” or “Eusebian canon” is in works of this type. These are constituent elements of the Gospels but which are not, however, part of the corpus. Both have distinct functions that we invite you to discover. Definition !

carpet page. ancient civilizations

Fig. 1 – Book of Durrow. Carpet page. Folio 192v

Carpet pages

A carpet page is one of the pages present in the manuscript but not belonging to the corpus of the text. Each carpet page is unique, attached to a particular gospel, or to another element (Jerome’s letter -Novum Opus- for example). It invites the reader to prayer through its mainly abstract decorative content.

The ornamental motif covers almost the whole of a page in a rectangular format and presents interlacing motifs, animals, sometimes the Tetramorph ( or the “four living creatures”), representing the 4 evangelists.

On this copy of a page from the book of Durrow (Ireland, late 7th century) above, we discover fantastic motifs made of phantasmagorical and symbolic creatures.

It would be one of the first representations of this type on this kind of manuscript. The tracery is geometric and serpentine. A Maltese cross is visible in the center but it does not necessarily attract the eye, which will first run and dance around the page following the lines and bright colors.

Saint Mark Lindisfarne carpet page. ancient civilizations

Fig. 2 – Lindisfarne. St Mark, carpet page. Folio 94v

The Lindisfarne Gospels (c. 700-715 AD) are extensively developed in articles which you can find on Ancient Civilizations . But you can already observe on this carpet page complex interlacings of a great research.

The patterns roll up, intertwine without giving the impression of heaviness but inviting you to immerse yourself in the universe, to immerse yourself in a spiritual world.

The colors are shimmering, the animals symbolized, stylized, merge with the patterns and repeat themselves ad infinitum. The motif of the Christian cross can be guessed but is only a decorative element, an atmosphere. To note, the presence of concentric Celtic elements, rolled up, having a solar significance, of movement, of life; and Saxon-influenced cloisonné… quite un-Christian! We will have occasion to come back to this.

The Eusebian Canons

kels. canon 5r table detail. Ancient Civilizations

Fig. 3 – Book of Kells – Table of the Eusebian Canon – Folio 5r

A complex tool…

When we refer to the tables of the canons, we first speak of the “Eusebian” canon named after Eusebius of Caesarea (265-340 AD). Eusebius was born and was bishop in Caesarea, a city located in the current territory of Israel. Eusebius of Caesarea was an author, a theologian and a historian during the reign of Emperor Constantine I, to whom he was close. This converted emperor put an end to the persecutions against Christians, which gives him a special aura in the history of the first centuries of Christianity. Although not recognized as the Father of the Church, Eusebius of Caesarea had a leading role in the knowledge, construction and development of Christianity. As an exegete – that is to say a specialist and commentator on Christian texts – he sought to analyze and compare the Gospels in order to bring out their analogies. This is how he set up this system which owes its name to him.

Canon literally means “rule”. And it has two meanings here. The illuminations produced in Kells, in Lindisfarne, allow us to read “canonical” Gospels: those which are recognized and fixed by the Councils as constituent elements of the New Testament and beyond, of the Bible. The four great Christian gospels recounting the life of Jesus and his teachings, recognized as “canonical”, are those of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Among these, three are particularly close. They are called “synoptics”: those of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Which means that they present particularly similar events. That of Jean is a little marginal in its form, it is called “johannique”.

This question of possible comparison, similarities and differences of testimonies has challenged theologians, philosophers and scholars – who seek to learn from it – including our Eusebius of Caesarea. He relied on the working method invented by Ammonios of Alexandria (around 220 AD), a Christian theologian, who wanted to create a common text for the four Gospels by placing them side by side in order to match. Using this basis of reflection, Eusebius himself created an even more astute system. A rule-based system: a Canon.

Mulling's gospel canon table. Ancient Civilizations

Fig. 4 – Mulling’s Gospels. Cannon table. Folio 5r.

…presented in columns

The division of texts into verses and chapters is recent. Initially, it is divided into sections. These sections will allow you to compare the facts. There are 1165 in total for the four gospels. In the canon of the Concordances of Ammonios, the four gospels would have been placed placed side by side. The sections are codified in letters: “Mat”, “Mar” etc. ; and in numbers (one number per section starting from Matthew). The number of a section being referred to the other gospels on the corresponding element, matching them with each other becomes easy.

Except in the case where elements do not appear or are different. Eusebius of Caesarea manages to overcome this pitfall by establishing a rule in the form of a table: … the Eusebian “canon”!

Canon 1, lists the sections common to the four gospels; canon 2 the sections common to Matthew, Mark and Luke; canon 3 the sections common to Matthew, Luke and John… and so on up to canon ten, says “Sondergut ”, which presents the sections “proper” to each evangelist.

In the margins of each gospel, numbered references to the corresponding canons allow the ad-hoc section to be found in the other gospels from the canon. The table of canons resumes in order the reference of the section and on the same line its correspondence in the other gospels.

In the case presented here, it should be understood that section VIII of the Gospel of Matthew corresponds to section II of the Gospel of Mark, as well as to section VII of that of Luke and to the Xth section of the Gospel of John. As the 4 Gospels correspond, we are in Canon 1 in quo quartet “where are the 4”.

cannon table. Ancient Civilizations

Fig. 5 – Eusebian canon table – detail. ©Marjorie Benoist

From an artistic point of view,

a table allows in principle little freedom: the canons are divided into four columns on several pages (12 traditionally). The illuminators, however, will use this base and show creativity to adorn a content, a little harsh, that constitutes a series of numbers.

The obvious parallel with the Christian architecture of the colonnades, the arcades of the churches makes it possible to use certain decorative elements: base, capital. The illuminators will take up these slender motifs which order the sections and give rhythm to the whole, to place inside them interlacing, plant, animal, geometric motifs… in a decorative desire typical of island art.

In contrast to monochrome initials, colors are used in ornamentation. In addition, the upper part of the table which crowns the columns, in the shape of a semicircle, frees up a whole usable area for placing patterns. It is at this place that we will find the characters, and the symbols of the evangelists: ox, lion, angel and eagle. For a visual understanding, the number of symbolic animals makes it possible to know in which canon we are (the 4 animals in the upper part, we are in canon 1 for example).

Enclosing the upper half-circle in a rectangular pattern, the two angles on the right and left are also freed up to accommodate patterns. The Book of Kells gives us very fine examples of this. The base of the columns are also used: their hollowed base again makes it possible to add geometric or figurative motifs.

book of kells, detail. ancient civilizations

Fig. 6 – Book of Kells. Cannon table. Retail. Folio 3r.

Gradually, the appearance of the tables will change

The patterns will become more complex. Mulling’s book -figure 4- presents, for example, a model that could be described as “simplistic”, with a red line for any separation.

Lindisfarne -figure 7- in a refined version nevertheless offers the appearance of patterns and will begin to exploit the spaces to insert decorative additions.

Lindisfarne-folio-11-table-canon. Ancient Civilizations

Fig. 7 – Gospel of Lindisfarne.Table of Canon. Folio11

The book of Kells -figure 8- meanwhile, offers a magnificent version, much sought after, elaborate, with abundant elements exploiting a maximum of space.

In addition, researchers have found numerous errors in the Canon Table of the Book of Kells resulting from the “compression” of the last two pages. Indeed, for some unknown reason, Kells’ canon table is only ten pages long. It was therefore argued that the content had been “neglected” with regard to the visual and aesthetic aspect.

Kells Cannon Table. ancient civilizations

Fig. 8 – Book of Kells. Cannon table. Folio 2r