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The Book of Kells: Celtic Art's Most Magnificent Masterpiece

Way back before books were mass-produced by colossal press machines, every letter and every illustration of every book in existence was created by hand. For religious works, this process was taken to an elaborate extreme in the form of illuminated manuscripts, handcrafted embellishments of religious texts brought to life in the monasteries of medieval Europe.

The Chi-Ro page (folio 34r) pictured here is the most intricately detailed and hence one of the most famous pages in the entire manuscript.
Having planned out the elaborate illustrations beforehand, the artists—generally recruited from the ranks of the shockingly talented monks residing in the monastery—copied the religious text letter by letter, employing the most ornamental calligraphic scripts of the day. The pages themselves consisted of vellum, calfskins specially prepared and finely glazed in order to become an ideal surface to accept the application of colored inks. Then the monks painted the illustrations themselves onto each page: complex border designs, decorated initials, religious symbols, stylized animals, and portraits of saints and the religious figures discussed in the text. The illuminated manuscript was by definition one of a kind, a treasure to be preserved in perpetuity within the halls of the monastery, and thenceforth took on a life of its own.

There are dozens of world-famous, centuries-old illuminated manuscripts in the world that have survived to the present day—and then there is the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is arguably the premier example of this form of religious devotion. It stands alone as the most magnificent masterpiece of Celtic art ever created.

Almost all of the folios of the Book of Kells are lavishly decorated with colorful illuminated initial capitals, such as this fine example.Illuminated manuscripts have inspired many viewers to comment on their exquisite beauty with words of awe and amazement. The following is attributed to twelfth-century scholar Giraldus Cambrensis: "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 subtle, so exact and compact, so full of knots and links, with colors so fresh and vivid that you might say that all this was the work of an angel and not of a man." Another often-repeated quote comes from historical novelist Umberto Eco, who called the Book of Kells "the product of a cold-blooded hallucination."

Inside the Book of Kells

The manuscript contains the complete text of three of the Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—and partial text of the Gospel of John. In addition there are prefatory materials, including partial lists of Hebrew names contained in the gospels, the Breves causae (summaries of the gospels) and canon tables, prepared by Eusebius of Caesarea, which provide an index showing where in the gospels certain incidents in the life of Christ can be found.

The gospel text presented in the Book of Kells is a mix of two different translations of the Bible: the Vulgate, a Latin translation completed by St. Jerome in 384 A.D., predominates, but excerpts from the Old Latin translation are also present. Currently the book consists of 339 pages (or folios) of thick, glazed vellum; experts have estimated that over the centuries, approximately 30 pages have been lost.

But enough about the text, since it is in the illustrations that the Book of Kells truly shines. For an illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kells employs an unusually wide range of colors, including red, yellow, blue, pink, green, purple, and lilac. The pigments for the inks were culled from sources throughout Europe and around the world. The most costly ink used, said to be the blue-colored pigment, was imported from Afghanistan.

The illustrations in the manuscript can be quite small, as in the case of illuminated initial capitals (see the photograph above), or they may occupy a full page. Some of the images are humorous and playful: figures of animals, angels or men may peer out at the reader from behind letters, or dangle between margins of text.

Some of the larger images are famous all by themselves. There are full-page portraits, for example, of Matthew and John (folios 28v and 291v) directly opposite the first passages of their respective gospels. An image of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus (folio 29v) is the first representation of Mary in a western manuscript.

No page of the Book of Kells is more captivating (or more justly famous) than the Chi Ro page, folio 34r. A closeup showing some detail from the Chi Ro folio.Chi and Ro, the first two letters of the word Christ in Greek, are rendered here in excruciating detail (see photo). This page probably contributed to the medieval notion that the manuscript had to be the work of angels, because only angels could have created illustrations so precise. On this page, in a single area measuring approximately a quarter inch square, 158 interlacements have been counted—some of which are distinguishable only with the aid of a magnifying glass. Folios such as this one, covered with illuminations and containing minimal text (if any at all), are referred to as “carpet pages.”

Folio 309r is a good example of the insular majuscule style of calligraphy used throughout the manuscript.The manuscript also stands as the pinnacle of artistic achievement in another area, that of calligraphy. The style of calligraphy used in the Book of Kells is known as insular majuscule. This style evolved from the Roman Half Uncial style, the standard for Latin manuscripts at the time of St. Patrick (the fifth century A.D.). The followers of St. Patrick learned the Roman Half Uncial, which in their hands became influenced by Celtic artistic tradition. The result was Irish Uncial script. When scribes added an exaggerated serif to the style around the sixth century, the style known as insular majuscule was born.

Experts have identified the handiwork of at least three scribes who contributed their calligraphic talents to various sections of the Book of Kells. Each of the three scribes is distinctive in his use of ink colors, the number of lines of text on a page, and use of miniscule versus majuscule script. These three scribes are known as Hand A, Hand B, and Hand C.

The Origins and History of the Book of Kells

The controversy surrounding the birthplace of the Book of Kells centers on two possible areas, both former sites of monasteries: Iona, an island off Mull in western Scotland; and Kells, in Ireland’s county Meath, about forty miles northwest of Dublin. St. Columba (also known as St. Colum Cille) founded the monastery of Iona circa 561, but following an invasion by Vikings in 806, the monks fled to Kells, where the two monasteries were united. It is thought that the Book of Kells was created around the time of this unification.

The manuscript remained at Kells for the better part of 200 years, until 1006. At that time, the annals of Ulster record that the book was stolen. A cover made of gold encrusted with precious gems once adorned the Book, but the thieves tore the cover off and kept it, burying the remainder of the manuscript; this buried portion was recovered about three months later. The 30 missing folios of the manuscript may have been lost in connection with its theft. There followed an unbroken period of residence at Kells until 1541, at which time the Catholic Church seized it for protection. Finally, in 1661, Henry Jones, the Bishop of Meath, presented the manuscript to the Library of Trinity College, University of Dublin, where it is housed today.

How to See the Book of Kells

The Book of Kells is on display in the Old Library in Trinity College, located in the City Centre of Dublin. The Book of Kells is kept in its own glass case, the manuscript opened to exhibit one specific spread of folios at a time; thus, visitors can view only two pages of the manuscript on any given day. The Old Library is open Monday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday (June-September), 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; and Sunday (October-May), 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

For Further Information

The Book of Kells: An Illustrated Introduction to the Manuscript in Trinity
by Bernard Meehan
Bernard Meehan holds the position of Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College, and provides a literate and definitive discussion of this Celtic art masterpiece. This edition includes 111 color plates of the folios of the Book of Kells, including numerous detail photographs that allow you to see the exquisite designs up close.

Celtic Art: From Its Beginnings to the Book of Kells
by Ruth Megaw, Vincent Megaw
Far more than just an art book, Celtic Art also includes information on history, timelines, and Celtic discoveries. The Megaws present expert interpretations of the artwork and symbolism without getting bogged down in the New Age mysticism that is the downfall of many other books on this topic. If you already own books on Celtic art and are tired of the same old photos, you’ll be pleased to know that the Megaws have gathered photos of artifacts not featured in other books. Excellent explanations of how Celtic art styles and motifs evolved, and how they changed throughout history. Features 24 color and 448 black and white illustrations.

About the Images

The photographs of folios from the Book of Kells displayed on this website are in the public domain, and can be used without permission.

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