Kells is a little town in the County of 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.
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. At the time, there was a threat of Viking raids, and so some people believe that most of it was created in Iona, and then brought back to Kells for safekeeping.
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 creators of the book seem to favor the art 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 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.
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 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. After around twelve years, the book arrived in Dublin and was later moved to Trinity College where you find it today. 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.
- 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)
Irish American Mom
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