Gallery of reconstructed portraits

Created: 2005
Published: 2005
Modified: 2006

The reconstructed portrait of Willibrord


After spending most of his younger years in monasteries in Northumbria and Ireland, at Ripon and Rath Melsigi to be exact, Willibrord (*658–†739 ce) decided to cross over to the European mainland as a missionary. Here most of the northern Germanic nations still held on to their indigenous religions. So for Willibrord — like for many Irish and Anglo-Saxon clergymen at that time — this was the right destination of a peregrinatio (= ‘journey’ to serve God), on a mission to convert those ‘infidels’ to Christianity. Willibrord and his companions moored at the mouth of the Rhine and ended up in Utrecht — the former Roman castellum of ‘Trajectum’. With support from the ruling Frankish mayor of the palace, Willibrord was rather successful in converting the Frisians, though only temporarily and strongly depending on the actual control of the Franks over them. His field of activity extended from Walcheren to Denmark. Two times Willibrord went to Rome, where the pope consecrated him archbishop of Utrecht. From Frankish noblemen he gained various domains in the Low Countries, where he ordered churches and monasteries to be build. In one of them, an abbey at Echternach in present-day Luxemburg, at a safe distance from Friesland, Willibrord died.

How should we picture the appearance of Willibrord? Willibrord was first and foremost a monk. Therefore, his appearance must have been very modest. Though he was consecrated archbishop, these weren't the times of exuberant dress. Except for on very special occasions, he probably never wore the pallium (a long, narrow honorary cloth that had to be worn on the shoulders) that he received from the pope. Historian, contemporary, and fellow-Northumbrian Bede says nothing about Willibrord's appearance. Alcuin, another Northumbrian and courtier of Charlemagne, reports that Willibrord was of middle height and that only his actions, his attitude, and his spirit distinguished him: a very average looking monk, so to speak. It was in fact Willibrord himself who brought a representation of such a monk with him. His own gospel book — the now so-called Echternach Gospels — contains an image of man (“imago hominis”), as a symbol of St. Matthew. It's an image of a barefooted monk with a tonsure, a stubbly beard, and blond, perhaps curly hair. This could very well represent what Willibrord looked like.

Which style was generally accepted at the time of Willibrord? The Echternach Gospels does not only offer an idea of the possible appearance of Willibrord; it also matches a whole range of ‘insular’ manuscripts —  illuminated manuscripts of both Irish and Anglo-Saxon origin. Together they constitute exceptional examples of a contemporary, highly decorative style. Very complex plaiting, spirals, ‘rubrication’ (patterns of red dots), all kinds of lines (from straight to curved, from rigid to swift, from delicate to bold), and colourfully decorated initial letters are its main features. Animals and humans were mostly depicted with stylized or even abstract shapes. Perspective and depth were completely left out. Colours were often applied transparently and always framed in black. Orange, yellow, and purple are the overall frequently reappearing ones.

The following details were included in the reconstructed portrait. Willibrord was depicted as a missionary, not so much as a bishop. Therefore, the pallium was not displayed. The image was inspired by the image of man. Its symmetrical design and most decorations were adopted from it, including the drop-like shapes that make up the body. Unlike the original, however, the reconstruction contains a closed bible, since Willibrord wasn't responsible for its content, but only for its propagation. It's a subtle difference. Some decorations were derived from illuminations in the other ‘insular’ manuscripts.

Do you have a suggestion or remark concerning this reconstruction? All comments are much appreciated.


  • Bede (‘Baeda’ in Old English, a.k.a.Beda Venerabilis’) on Willibrord in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, book V, chapters X & XI (Jarrow ca. 731 ce). When Bede wrote these passages, Willibrord was still alive.
  • Alcuin (‘Ealhwine’ in Old English), Vita Sancti Willibrordi (Tours ca. 796 ce). Alcuin wrote the biography by order of the abbot of the Echternach monastery.
  • Image of man, as a symbol of St. Matthew, in the Echternach Gospels (or ‘Willibrord Gospels’), France: Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Ms. Lat. 9389 fol. 18v (Lindisfarne ca. 690 ce). The text on either side of the human figure reads: “Imago homin[i]s”.
  • Among others, the ‘insular’ manuscripts include:
    • Durham Gospels, Great Britain: Durham: Durham Cathedral Library, Ms. A.II.17 (Lindisfarne ca. 650 ce).
    • Book of Durrow, Ireland (Éire): Dublin (Baile Átha Cliath): Trinity College Library (Leabharlann Coláiste na Tríonóide), Ms. A.IV.5 (Durrow 650–690 ce).
    • Eadfrith, Lindisfarne Gospels, Great Britain: London: The British Library, Cotton Ms. Nero D IV (Lindisfarne 710–721 ce). The Lindisfarne Gospels contains very complex illuminations and it's one of the better known ‘insular’ manuscripts.
    • Book of Kells, Ireland (Éire): Dublin (Baile Átha Cliath): Trinity College Library (Leabharlann Coláiste na Tríonóide), Ms. A.I.6 (ca. 800 ce). The Book of Kells is probably the most famous ‘insular’ manuscript. Its decorations are the most complex and refined ones.

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