In the Annals of Ulster (historical records of medieval Ireland running from 431 AD to 1540 AD), one commentator called it “the chief relic of the western world” (see page 519 of the archived version). The Book of Kells, which has been on display in the Old Library at Trinity College, Dublin since mid 19th century, attracts more than 500,000 visitors a year. This sumptuously decorated vellum manuscript of 340 folios containing the four Gospels of the New Testament is based on the Latin translation (“Vulgate”) of the Bible that was completed in 384 AD by Doctor of the Church St. Jerome (347-420 AD).
The Book is named after the Abbey of “Kells” – a town in County Meath in mid-east Ireland – which was its home for several centuries. It was created, however, scholars believe, by monks around 800 AD on the remote island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides on the western coast of Scotland. A monastery had been founded there in the 6th century by the Irish missionary St. Columba (521-597 AD) known in Irish as “Colm Cille” (church dove). The Book of Kells aka the Book of Columba is the greatest achievement of “insular” or “Hiberno-Saxon” creative style – the post-Roman art of the British Isles. The lavish script of the manuscript, called “insular majuscule”, is thought to be the work of at least three scribes/artists. The monks, it is possible, battled storm and rain and took refuge in Kells after being threatened by the Vikings.
The clergyman Gerald of Wales (c. 1146 – c. 1223) in his 1188 work Topographia Hibernica – an account of the Irish landscape, people and culture – described the Book of Kells in the following words:
This book contains the harmony of the Four Evangelists according to Jerome, where for almost every page there are different designs, distinguished by varied colours. Here you may see the face of majesty, divinely drawn, here the mystic symbols of the Evangelists, each with wings, now six, now four, now two; here the eagle, there the calf, here the man and there the lion, and other forms almost infinite. Look at them superficially with the ordinary glance, and you would think it is an erasure, and not tracery. Fine craftsmanship is all about you, but you might not notice it. Look more keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and so subtle, so full of knots and links, with colours so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this were the work of an angel, and not of a man.
A more recent reference to the Book appears in an article in an 1876 edition of Chamber’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Art (page 50) published by the influential Scottish brothers William and Robert Chambers. Here the influence and importance of Ireland in the history of Europe is particularly acknowledged:
The grandest of all these ancient manuscripts has now to be noticed. The Book of Kells, as it is styled, is considered to be ‘the chief palaeographic and artistic monument which has descended to us from the ages of in which Ireland, under the name of “Scotia”, was renowned for her schools, whence religion and letters were carried to various parts of Europe.’
“So why did the monks go to so much trouble to create these amazing pages?” – enquires the Irish-born journalist and broadcaster Martha Kearney in a recent article on BBC Culture. Seems there are two reasons. One, for didactic, instructive, educative purposes. Kearney writes: “It’s as if the book itself flaunted the spiritual qualities of the text to those who saw it. The large pages and illustrations could be seen from further back in the church to make an impact on a congregation that for the most part couldn’t read or write.” Another reason is related to belief in sacramentality – the idea that material realities are conduits of God’s grace. Kearney continues, explaining: “Recent research has shown that books were used in religious processions, enhancing the notion that they were almost objects of worship themselves or at least had talismanic properties for a medieval populace.”
The entire Book of Kells is available on the Trinity College, Dublin’s digital collection repository.
A selection of pages:
The Book of Kells: An Illustrated Introduction to the Manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin (1995) by Bernard Meehan