Kells is a little town in County Meath, in the Republic of Ireland.
The Book of Kells or the Book of Columba is a book that contains each of the four gospels from the New Testament along with other texts.
What makes the book so special, however, is the fact that it is an illuminated manuscript, filled with complex illustrations and graphics, believed to have originated in 800 AD.
Table of Contents
The Book of Kells - A Treasured Irish Artifact
When I was studying at Trinity College many years ago, a friend of mine was stopped by a group of American tourists looking for directions to see Kelly's Book. I still laugh at this misnomer to this very day.
Anyway, let's take a look at some fascinating facts about this magnificent book.
Origin of the Book of Kells
While it is widely accepted that the Book of Kells was created by the monks of St. Columba, the place it was created is subject to much debate.
It is believed that it was created by Celtic monks in the scriptorium of the monastery in Iona, an island of Mull in western Scotland. This monastery was founded by Saint Columcille of Donegal on the island of Iona.
The design of the book is similar to the Lindisfarne Gospels which were created in Iona around 700 AD, which seems to link the creation of the Book of Kells to Iona rather than Kells.
In the early ninth century there was a threat of Viking raids to coastal monasteries. It is believed that most of this book was created in Iona, and then brought back to the Abbey of Kells for safekeeping.
In another ancient Irish text known as the Annals of Tigernach, it is reported that in the year 1090 AD, the relics of Columcille were brought to Kells from his native County Donegal.
Among these relics were two gospels, one of which was probably the Book of Kells. The other gospel is thought to have been the Book of Durrow.
Following a rebellion by the Irish in 1641, the church at Kells was destroyed. Sometime around 1653 the book was sent to Dublin by the English governor of Kells for safekeeping.
A few years later the Book of Kells is reported to have reached Trinity College, through the efforts of Henry Jones, a former member of Cromwell’s army.
Today you find this masterpiece in Dublin, Ireland, housed in the Long Room of the Old Library at Trinity College.
The book itself is around thirteen inches wide and ten inches thick holding together 340 folios or leaves, each made from calfskin vellum. While this may seem big, the original version was even larger.
However, thirty folios have been lost over the course of time, and even the folios that exist have had to be trimmed for maintenance and rebinding.
The Purpose of the Book
Despite holding together the contents of the gospels, the book had more of a ceremonial use than a practical one. It was not meant for reading during mass. One of the biggest reasons behind this belief is the production and appearance of the content within the book itself.
While the pictures and illustrations have been constructed with a lot of deliberate care and effort, the words themselves are carelessly written and sprawled across the pages.
There is the repetition of words and paragraphs, exclusion of important phrases, and an absence of effort to correct these major errors. The decorations and artistic illustrations are what this book was prized for, and not the actual text.
The creators of the book seem to favor artwork and visuals more than the readings.
In a nutshell, the appearance and aesthetics of the book took precedence over its practical utility.
Exploring the Contents
The Vulgate is a 4th century Latin translation of the Bible. The Book of Kells is said to have copied the gospels of the new testament from the Vulgate itself. However, as discussed above, the scribes were rather inconsistent and careless in their writings.
There is speculation that they did not jot down their lines directly from the Vulgate, but relied on their own memories of what they had read in the past.
There is more to the book than the latin text, and each page of writing is accompanied by an illustration. These illustrations incorporate intricate detailing and bright colors like lilac, pink, green, and yellow, to name a few.
Inspired by the 7th-century style of Hiberno-Saxon, the Book contains motifs and initials from the Irish-Celtic tradition. This is also accompanied by the Anglo-Saxon tradition of bright coloring and energetic compositions. These complex patterns and the beautiful detailing is what makes the book stand out.
The illuminations are also another stunning feature of the book, where evangelist symbols and miniature depictions across ten full pages are still preserved.
In the Book of Kells there are full decorative pages dedicated to the canon tables.
You will find the symbols of each of the evangelists, with Matthew depicted as a Man, Mark symbolized by the Lion, Luke associated with the Calf, and John assigned the symbol of the Eagle.
The opening words of the Gospels are also found. These summaries of the gospel narratives are known as Breves causae.
The text is dedicated to the four Gospels in Latin and is based on the Vulgate text, completed by Saint Jerome in 384 AD.
There are artistic representations of the Virgin and Child plus a portrait of Christ.
It is believed the book was designed for use on special occasions such as Easter, rather than for daily use.
Written on Vellum
The Book of Kells was not written on paper, but on vellum created from the skins of about 185 cattle.
Large herds of cattle were kept by monks at Ireland's monastries, not only to provide milk and food, but also as a source of vellum, the monk's primary writing material.
The pages of vellum were hand sewn together and then given a protective cover of wood or leather.
The book is written using a bold script known as "insular majuscule."
The delicate knotwork and links found in the illustrations are known for the inctricacy of their details and design.
The book was probably originally housed in a shrine, a jewel encrusted case of gold designed to hold relics. The books was stolen around the year 1000 AD. It was found buried beneath the ground, but its precious holder was never recovered.
In the 19th century the book was rebound, when the edges of the pages were unfortunately trimmed and gillded.
The book was once again rebound in 1953, creating four separate volumes. This was done to help preserve its exquisite, rare pages.
Two of the four volumes are on permanent display at Trinity College in Dublin.
One volume displays pages of text, while the second volume is dediacted to pages of illustration.
The Chi Rho
The most famous page of the book is the Chi Rho. This gets its name from ancient Greek, where Chi and Rho are the first two letters of the Greek words for Christ.
This page is covered in beautiful designs, that resemble modern-day psychedelic art. With beautiful flourishes, detailing, and weaves, it is quite a mesmerizing display. It is one of the most beautiful paintings from medieval times.
The Christ monogram is formed through the artistic depictions of the alphabets Chi and Rho. The art itself features various Celtic elements like interlace, spirals, and knots. Within these astoundingly intricate designs, you can also spot hidden symbols like two mice and a communal wafer, angels and in the corners, you'll find an otter eating a fish.
It is not the only page where you can find this kind of symbology. You can also spot animals like lions, cats, hares, goats, peacocks, and more all across the pages of the book.
Present Displays and Popular Irish Culture
The Book of Kells was inside the monastery of Kells up to 1641, until the latter got destroyed. During the invasion of Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century the book was moved.
After around twelve years, the book arrived in Dublin in 1661 and was later moved to Trinity College where you find it today.
It was donated to the university by Bishop Henry Jones, a vice chancellor of Trinity College.
Of the four volumes, only two are available on display to incoming tourists.
In 2006, the College also published a digital copy of the book which was available for sale to the public for some time.
The Book of Kells has also inspired the animated movie The Secret of Kells, which tells the story of a monk, his apprentice and their struggle to write the manuscript while overcoming the raids by the Vikings.
An Irish Treasure
The Book of Kells is a beautiful Irish treasure that draws thousands of visitors to the Trinity College Library in the hopes of getting a glimpse of the two volumes on display.
But why is the Book of Kells an important part of Irish cultural heritage?
Here's a list of why I believe it is so treasured by Irish people all over the world.
The Book of Kells may even be Medieval Europe's greatest treasure.
- It's a masterpiece of intricate and ornate calligraphy, and an example of Insular illustration.
- It provides evidence of the artistry and skills of Irish monks and scholars in centuries past.
- It's among Ireland's top ten tourist attractions.
- Many regard it as the finest national treasure of Ireland.
- It's a gift from Ireland's medieval and monastic past.
- Created by a team of master illustrators, it's a testament to cooperative planning, implementation and sheer talent.
- Lettering variations are clearly evident, revealing the subtle individual styling of each scribe.
- It combines Christian and Celtic symbolism in an iconic work of art, and is evidence of the fusion of these two traditions after Saint Patrick converted the Irish to Christianity.
And so, if you choose to visit Trinity College to see this magnificent manuscript, remember as you gaze at it's ornate and colorful pages, that this is truly an Irish and European cultural treasure.
However, if you do visit the Library, be sure to check out the other important, but lesser-known Irish treasures it holds, including the Brian Boru Harp, Ireland’s oldest surviving harp and a rare original copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
Intrigued? You should be! Learn more about these other medieval manuscripts in this article!
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Mairéad -Irish American Mom
Pronunciation - slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad - rhymes with parade
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