Offa and the Book of Kells.

In the existing literature it is agreed that the so-called Book of Kells a came about round 800 somewhere in the British Isles. A little earlier is the government of Offa who in 785 had mastered Kent and in this way controlled all of southern England, including the Archbishop's seat in Canterbury. In 796, the power of Mercia  declined again due to the early death of his son Ecgfrith, but his successor Coenwulf still managed to remain the lord of the archbishop for some time.

In 825 Kent was annexed, but now by Wessex and in 829-830 the West Saxon King Egbert also ruled Mercia.

As far as potency is concerned, the Book of Kells can be ordered by Offa as well as by Egbert, but due to its time of creation, Offa is most likely the client.

During the government of Offa, but especially in the period 785-796, the pontificate of Hadrian I (772-795) still owed obeisance to the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. In the Eastern Roman Empire Leo IV the Khazar ruled until 780. He was succeeded by his ten-year-old son Constantijn VI. During the minority of Constantine VI, the regency was excercised by his mother Irene who plotted against  her son in 792 and then again excercised the regency (792-797). After his death in 797 she succeeded him until she herself was deposed in 802.

So in the time of creation of the Book of Kells there are several persons who are relevant to the political situation of the union of Kent and Mercia. The nominal sovereign of England was Emperor Constantine VI (780-797) and his regent Irene. In Rome Pope Hadrian I ruled and in Canterbury the archbishops Jaenberht (765-792) and Aethelheard (792-805). The Union was further ruled by Offa (757-796) and his wife Cynethryth. From 787, the son of Offa and Cynetryth, Ecgfrith, was viceroy in Mercia. He held that position because Offa wanted to be ensured of an orderly succession.

It is therefore to be expected that the book is dedicated to these important persons and that there are also images of them in the manuscript. For these images the folios 7 v °, 32 v ° and 202 v ° are eligible. These folios represent the Virgin Mary with Child, Christ and the Temptation of Christ, according to tradition.

As far as style is concerned, the pages with the Virgin Mary and Christ correspond. The page with the Temptation of Christ differs from it and is therefore made by another artist and possibly earlier or later. It is possible that the sheets ended up at their current location when the manuscript was rebounded. Of the three main figures on the pages, the Christ of the Temptation and the Virgin Mary have a halo with small Greek crosses around their heads. This means that worldly princes are depicted. The halo or nimbus is a variant of the national symbol in the form of a sun and was carried by the imperial princes but not by the Christian clergy, since the status of Christianity as a state religion was unclear for a long time. The popes were also not represented with a nimbus but in a few cases with a rectangular plaque reminiscent of the plaques of the Late Roman administrators. The depicted man on fol. 32 v ° is therefore a spiritual and not a worldly prince. For the same reason, it must be assumed that the woman with child is not meant to be Mary but a secular princess, and the person eligible for it is Empress Irene before and during her first regency. To clarify this, the so-called Lorsch diptych and the accompanying Bible of Lorsch must be quoted. On the one hand the diptych represents a woman with a child and on the other a young man with long curly hair and a book in his hand. These are identified in the current literature as Mary with Child and Christ.


Madonna: Empress or Mother of God

The Madonna is an image of mother and child being called Mary, the mother of Jesus, with her son on her lap. The theme of mother and child has been repeated endlessly in the Christian culture area and used by various princesses and empresses for propaganda purposes.

The theme is also known from the ancient world. There is a statue of mother and child from the Hittite Empire, and from Egypt from the time of Aknaten and later. The latter is a statue of Isis and Harpokrates.

The earliest known image of a Madonna, that is to say an image of a Mother and child in a Christian context, stands on a stone relief from the fourth century. On this the Empress is depicted with at her feet the three kings of Epiphany who come to offer her gifts.

The combination can also be seen on the mosaic in the S. Maria Maggiore in Rome. On this is a picture of Valentinian III (* 419- † 455) as a child, seated on his throne with on his right side his mother Placidia († 450) in imperial dress and on his left a woman dressed in a blue robe who can be the nurse of Valentinian. Successors on the throne are usually epicted together with their mother, such as Leo II and his little brother are together with Ariadne in the Basilica of St. Demetrius in Thessaloniki. In the following centuries, the child is placed on her lap. There is also an icon from the sixth century that depicts a mother and child sitting between the portraits of Tiberius II Constantine (578-582) and his wife Anastasia. The icon is kept in the monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai.

The woman herself constantly changes at the beginning. The woman in the blue garment has been chosen for the icon of the Catharine Monastery. With the icons from the end of the 8th century, the child is first put on the lap of the woman in the blue garment but later on the lap of a woman in imperial costume. It is certain that the same woman is always depicted and it can be assumed with some degree of certainty that this is Empress Irene. In fact, the situation that the Empress acted as a guardian for her son was only rarely observed. Certainly that was the case with Placidia, who was in charge of Valentianus long before, and that is also the case for Irene. The latter even conspired after his son had come to power against him and had him imprisoned and eyes sticked out and finally let him  disappear.

In the case of the icon of Tiberius II Constantine the question is whether Mary is really meant or that the wife of Mauritius, Constantina, is depicted with child, together with her parents, the imperial couple. [1]  The choice for the blue robe can be explained by the fact that Constantina was not a regent for her son and might not have been crowned Empress (like Anastasia before her). The fact that she is wearing a nimbus could indicate that she was already empress. This would date the icon at 582, the year in which Mauritius became co-emperor and emperor.

The gap that exists between the images of Constantina with child and Irene with Emperor Constantine VI should be explained by the fact that in the intervening 200 years no woman has acted as regent for her underage son.

After the rule of Irene, which ended in 800 in the West and in 802 in the East with her deposition, the combination can usually be called ‘Madonna’ or the ‘Mother of God with little Jesus’. In the West this is certainly related to the fact that from 800 this part of the Empire officially no longer belonged to Byzantium but became an independent part with the Frankish emperor and the pope at the head. In this context, the many images of the Byzantine emperors and empresses found in the churches in Rome and Italy were a thing of the past. From this time on, it was therefore attempted to erase the memory of this period in history and the portraits were given the names of saints who had a religious but no political meaning. To this renaming, the probably many portraits of Irene with Constantine must have fallen prey and for this was a renaming in an image of Mary with her child Jesus, by analogy and in addition to the images of Christ as Pantocrator, extremely suitable. Once this step was made, a huge production of images of this special Mother with Child could begin, both in the West and in the East. In most cases, the Constantina template was preferred for what I would call it. In other cases, the Irene template is used in which the Mother of God is depicted as an empress.

Nevertheless confusion persisted for a long time, but it is questionable whether this is due to the bias of modern art historians, but also to the ecclesiastical authorities who had a direct interest in erasing remembrance of the subordination of the church to imperial power. For example, images of women with nimbus, with or without a child, are usually referred to as Maria without any fuss, while with some further consideration it should be clear that they are a queen. Examples of this are the image of Empress Theophanu (the mother of Otto III) in the Sacramentary of Petershausen  [2], and the images of Queen Elizabeth Kotromanič of Hungary and her daughter(s) on icons in the Treasury of Aachen. [3]

Irene and Constantine VI

If we now assume that the images of mother and child from the end of the 8th century represent Empress Irene and her son Constantine, it also becomes clear who is depicted on the Lorsch diptych and in the bible of Lorsch. These can not be other than Empress Irene herself and in the interior Constantine at different ages, closed on the back cover with a representation of Constantine dressed as a professing Christian but not in imperial or coronation costume. This means that he has a long habit and is unshod and also has his hair loose. Briefly summarized, the Lorsch Bible is thus a report of the youth and education of the Emperor Constantine and the book was probably given to him on the occasion of the resignation of Irene as regent in 790 and his acceptance of the reign (790-792) .


This assumption also has consequences for the dating of the Book of Kells.


On page 7 v ° is a picture of a woman with a child on her knee. For these, the forgoing taken into consideration, Irene and Constantine VI. may qualify. It also helps that Constantine is clearly depicted with red hair, the same way as he is also depicted in the Evangeliary of Lorsch with red hair. In view of the size of the child, the period of creation of the page can be determined as before 780, the year that he succeeded his father at the age of nine and Irene acted as regent for him.




Page 32 v ° in any case does not represent Christ because at that time, both as head of the church and as a Pantocrator, he was represented with a cross nimbus. So here we are dealing with a high prelate, which can also be seen in the book he is bearing. This prelate is not Pope Hadrian I because he had no beard as can be seen on some of his portraits. It is also no other pope because he lacks a pallium. An Irish cleric is all the same because they put the tonsure on the forehead instead of on the crown. This image is therefore also a strong argument for the creation in England of the manuscript. It should therefore be an archbishop of Canterbury under whose spiritual authority Britain fell. With this prelate something strange is going on, because he is in the company of two peacocks with a red cross on a white field on their wrist. The red cross on white is the general symbol of the Catholic Church or the ecclesia (community of Christ). However, it is also possible that these crosses were made later when parts of the page were retouched with white paint. In general, the peacock can be regarded as the symbol of a prefect or of a high administrative official. According to Augustine, the peacock was the symbol of unrepentance because his flesh had not been spoiled even after a long time. Similarly, "the peacock drives away all vermin with his screams". For this reason, the co-emperors who considered themselves to be a prefect, for example from Rome or Gaul, are also represented with a peacock-tail as a crest. For the theory that the peacocks are the symbol of a provincial governor or exarch, specially in Ravenna argues that in this city a number of sarcophagi have been preserved on which a christogram is depicted supported by two peacocks. The Ravenna exarchate existed from the end of the 6th century to 750. In 756, Peppin the Short gave the area of ​​the former exarchate to the pope, which also became a recognized worldly monarch. In 774 this so-called “donation of Quierzy” was confirmed by Charlemagne again. [4] The symbol of the Latin cross between the peacocks after 751 can therefore be considered very well as the symbol of the pope of Rome resp. of the papal government over a part of Italy. The image of the prelate in combination with the peacocks could thus mean that he belonged to the jurisdiction of the church of Rome (which is confirmed by the red crosses) and under the authority of the pope of the pope i.c. Pope Hadrian I. fell. In that case the archbishops Jaenberht (765-792) or Aethelheard (792 / '3-805) can be depicted.

Page 32 v ° can therefore, in view of the date of creation, represent Jaenberht. A woman and a man are depicted on either side of him. The man has a scepter in his left hand and thus holds a high administrative position but is not a king because his nimbus is missing. This corresponds approximately to the position that Ecgfrith had from 787. Finally, for the woman, either Cynethryth, the wife of Offa himself, or the wife of Ecgfrith might qualify.



In the same way it can be established that the main figure on fol 202 v ° probably represents Offa himself. That he is a worldly monarch can be seen in the first place at the nimbus he carries. This is decorated with Greek (square-) crosses and can thus be considered as the precursor of the later crowns and lilies occupied crowns that were worn in gold and precious stones by princes not behind but on the head. The confusion between a nimbus and a crown, both called corona, still exists until the Renaissance. The nimbus or corona is more or less carried by two hovering angels representing the phrase Dei Gratia. These angels are from the end of the 4th century the usual  escorts of the imperial image. In contrast to the prelate on fol 32 v ° he wears a short red beard or is unshaven. Furthermore, he has a scroll in his hand that refers to the insignia of the Roman officials in the 4th and 5th century. Scrolls, together with a foliant, were part of the insignia of the drivers of the third echelon, the comes, the duces and others. According to the Notitia Dignitatum, the foliant contained the text: FL [oreas] in [all] [ectos] co [mites] ord [dinis] PR [imi] (= That you may flourish between the elected plenipotentiaries of the first rank). [5] In later times the foliant was put away in a tube that was closed with two caps. In this sense, the scroll that holds our figure in the hand is a forerunner of the marshal’s baton on the one hand, and a forerunner of a scepter on the other.

The prince on the leaf is seated at a table covered with a cloth on which the imperial image, provided with nimbus and two crossed sceptres, is arranged at the front. In the Late Roman period these tables were covered with a blue cloth on which the imperial image had been placed on the front. These tables are the forerunners of our tables of credence on which the regalia are displayed. The image on the rug can be from Leo IV who was emperor from 775-780. In that case, the image would date from his reign.

On either side of the table are the members of the entourage of the monarch, prelates or other dignitaries seated. Those on his left hand have been removed and replaced with an image of the devil so that the portrait can serve as an illustration of the story about the temptation of Christ.

Finally, an aisle has been kept free at the front of the table. On this side, other people or "representatives" stand or sit by way of parliament. The same order also occurs on the king's side of the Irish ring crosses and can still be found in the British parliament to this day.

The surprising outcome of our excercise is therefore that with magazine 202 v ° we have an old, if not the oldest, image of the British Parliament.


In summary, the order of the sheets must be: the first sheet with Emperor Leo IV the Khazar is missing but then came: Empress Irene with Constantine VI, King Offa with government and parliament, archbishop Jaenberht with Queen Cyneryth and (the later) co-king Ecgfrith. These dedication sheets must have been made in the years between 775 and 780. After these pages the gospels must have been followed.


Amsterdam 15.11.2006.Translated 2018.10.16


[1] Gibbon II, 861, 896-902. From these passages it can be concluded that Constantina was the daughter of Tiberius II Constantine and Anastasia and was married off to Mauritius. The follow-up dates in the meantime remain unclear in this connection because according to him Mauritius suceeded on 13 August and Tiberius C. died on 14 August 582. So the marriage should have taken place earlier but Gibbon says nothing about it. The five sons of Mauritius were executed in 602 together with their father in the revolt of Phocas.

[2]  Heidelberg, Universitätsbibliothel, Cod. Sal. IX b. fol 41r°.

[3]  Inv. n°s 83 & 84.

[4] The fragments of the province of Italy, as it was when reconquered for Justinian, were almost all lost, either to the Lombards, who finally conquered Ravenna itself about 750, or by the revolt of the pope, who finally separated from the Empire on the issue of the iconoclastic reforms. When in 756 the Franks drove the Lombards out, Pope Stephen II claimed the exarchate. His ally Pepin III, King of the Franks, donated the conquered lands of the former exarchate to the Papacy in 756; this donation, which was confirmed by his son Charlemagne in 774, marked the beginning of the temporal power of the popes as the Patrimony of Saint Peter. The archbishoprics within the former exarchate, however, had developed traditions of local secular power and independence, which contributed to the fragmenting localization of powers. Three centuries later, that independence would fuel the rise of the independent communes.

[5]  The roman diocese of  Brittanniae administrated by a vicar, was subdivided into the provinces Maxima, Flavia Caesariensis, Brittannia I and Brittannia II. Mercia was in former Flavia C, Wessex and Kent in the provinces Brittannia I and II. B.I was ruled by a dux, B.II by a comes.