A house-shaped shrine in a Carolingian setting, as depicted in the oldest portrait of St Columba in Cod Sang 555
Portrait, Reliquary, monastery
Abbey of Saint Gall; St Gallen; SwitzerlandNGR: 47.423505,9.377647(Point)
This paper will consider the oldest known image of St Columba, contained within a copy of Adomnán’s Vita sancti Columbae, created around the middle of the 9th century in the monastery at St Gallen in Switzerland. Columba established a confederation of monasteries in Britain and Ireland, centred on his great foundation at Iona, before his death in ad 597. His fame spread to the Continent, in relation to a network of Carolingian monasteries with Scotto-Irish links, resulting in a persistent devotion to certain Irish saints, the context for which is outlined here. Rather than simply being an illustration in support of the manuscript, the image affirms the significance of Columba to the culture of St Gallen more than 200 years after his death. Most remarkably, a ‘house-shaped’ shrine – of possible Insular origin – features in the church setting of this image, and this is discussed in relation to the possible origins and identification of this object, possibly as a Columban reliquary. Whereas this paper focuses on the materiality of the image and especially on the extraordinary representation of the reliquary, an art historical assessment of the image is also essential to achieving a full understanding. As this is outwith the skills of the present author, the art historical significance will be fully explored in a forthcoming, accompanying paper by Prof Jane Geddes.