The earliest portrait of St Columba: Cod Sang 555, p 166

Jane Geddes (Author)

Portrait, Reliquary, Monastery
Abbey of Saint Gall; St. Gallen; Switzerland
Early medieval


The portrait of St Columba was made on the last page of a version of The Life of St Columba by Adomnán. The book, Cod Sang 555, was written at the monastery of St Gallen in the later 9th century and the drawing possibly added shortly afterwards. The image shows Columba both on a mountain and inside a church, both alive with hands raised in prayer and dead, represented by his adjacent reliquary. The shape of the reliquary is matched by an illustration of the Ark of the Covenant, made at St Gallen at about the same time. This reveals the meaning of the picture: as God spoke to his people from the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant, Columba speaks directly to his reader and devotees through his relics in the shrine. It is proposed that the smaller container beside the reliquary is a satchel, possibly for containing this book itself. Typological exegesis relating the Old Testament to Columba explains Columba’s mystical appearance simultaneously on the mountain and in a church; and his ability to appear in person after his death. The concept of praesentia accounts for his active role as intercessor for his followers. The picture was composed at a time when illustrated saints’ lives were beginning to develop with detailed narrative sequences. This image stands apart because it does not illustrate events from the accompanying text. The text of Cod Sang 555 had already excised details of Columba’s Irish/ Scottish background on Iona to make it more relevant to a continental audience. Likewise, this image places Columba, through the power of his relics, no longer on Iona but directly before his followers in St Gallen Abbey.


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How to Cite
Geddes, J. (2018). The earliest portrait of St Columba: Cod Sang 555, p 166. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 147, 127-145.