There was an article in the paper towards the end of last year which posed the question of whether people would have Christmas or Xmas. The suggestion was that Christmas would be a time of having a loving day with family and friends, caring and sharing, and Xmas would focus on the commercialisation of the season. In fact, Christmas and Xmas, as many know, are one and the same thing. X representing the Greek letter chi, which is the initial letter for Christ. In early manuscripts the names for God and Christ were thought to be so holy that they should be written not in Latin as the rest of the text but in Greek, the language of the early New Testament. These names were called the Nomina Sancta (holy names).
In Insular Gospel books, at the end of the genealogy of Christ in Matthew 1:18, the page is often marked by large decorated initials, such as the one above in the Book of Kells. The letter chi is very large, followed by a smaller rho (looks like the letter p), and this is entwined with the letter i.
Contrast this with that in the Lindisfarne Gospels on the right, where again the letter chi is enlarged, but the letters rho and iota (i) are clearly visible, albeit smaller. The letters on the following line have been outlined in red dots, but are unfinished. Then follows beautifully painted angular letters with colours that bring a subtlety to the whole page. Note, too, the unfinished letter C towards the end of the third line.
Another insular book is the St Gall Gospel shown on the right. St Gall in Switzerland has a famous library with many manuscripts online. It is certainly worth looking at for early books. This Gospel was written by Irish monks around the year 750. The manuscript has the distinctive decoration of many of the books of this time, with, in a strip at the base, interlace, and decorating the space between the chi and the rho, La Tene swirls and geometric decoration.
The Stockholm Codex Aureus has a well-known history, being written probably in Canterbury in the mid-eighth century. It was stolen by the Vikings, its elaborate, decorated cover ripped off, and then bought back ‘with much gold’ by Alderman Alfred and his wife Werburgh to present to the church. There is a note to this effect written in Old English in two lines at the top of the page and continued at the bottom.